Wrong time to slumber


The following editorial appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer on January 20:

Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agree that starting school a little later would reduce teenage sleep deprivation, which can lead to depression, tardiness, poor grades, obesity, and even suicide. So why aren’t more school districts changing when classes begin?

One problem is the complex school bus schedules that districts say would cost a fortune to change. In the West Chester Area School District, Superintendent James Scanlon said, it could cost $36 million to reroute transportation for public, parochial, and charter schools. Other districts say it’s better to have older students wait in the dark at bus stops.

Many adults argue that later start times would interfere with extracurricular activities, including sports. But none of the objections to starting classes later comes close to being more important than protecting a teenager’s physical and mental health.

Issued in August, the CDC’s call for starting school later is based on more than two decades of medical research in academics, which concluded that because teenagers’ bodies are undergoing rapid changes, they need at least 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep each night. But only 15 percent get that much shut-eye, reports the National Sleep Foundation.

Unlike younger children and adults, teens tend to have trouble falling asleep early in the evening, which would give them a full night’s rest. A University of Minnesota study demonstrated that later school start times resulted in students having better attendance, higher grades, and fewer substance abuse incidents, depression symptoms, and car accidents.

Some districts are paying attention to the CDC, including Lower Merion, which is holding a Feb. 21 conference in Radnor on adolescent sleep. A new state law requires the New Jersey Department of Education to study implementing later start times at middle and high schools. The department will then recommend whether to start a pilot program.

Ultimately, it’s parents’ responsibility to ensure that their children get enough sleep. It’s their job to persuade their adolescents to put away the mobile devices and turn off the television after a certain hour. But starting high school later is still a good idea.

An advocacy group called Start School Later can offer some assistance with several case studies of districts that have successfully made the transition. One key is getting broad community involvement, but being smart about scheduling is also critical. The Arlington, Va., school district, for example, hired a transportation consultant to develop new bus schedule options.

The health benefits for better-rested teenagers are clear. There’s also anecdotal evidence that more sleep makes teenagers easier to live with. Who doesn’t want that?

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