Should Schools Start Later?

Ask a teenager whether or not they want to sleep a little bit longer, and they’ll happily turn around without a sound and crawl back into their cave of 500-threadcount sheets.

As emerging research suggests that today’s teenagers need more sleep, advocacy groups and local school districts are leading the charge to give teens a bit more shut eye.

When children reach puberty, there is a shift in their circadian rhythm, the so-called biological clock. Their bodies naturally want to go to bed later and sleep later. Because many schools start before 8 a.m., students often go to class sleep-deprived, not fully awake and not ready to learn.

“International research suggests that as puberty progresses, there develops a greater delay in the spike of the ‘sleep hormone’ melatonin and the onset of sleep,” explained Dr. Laura Finkelstein, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “Adolescents in early stages of puberty have a shorter lag, and older adolescents have an increasingly longer lag.”

Meaning, it takes longer for the release of melatonin to happen in teens. In addition to early-morning alarms and biological factors, other reasons why many teenagers aren’t getting enough sleep include lack of structured bedtime, electronic use and social factors like after-school activities or jobs, said Finkelstein.

Because many students are not getting enough sleep, they’re in a state of “social jet lag,” said Maribel Ibrahim, co-founder and operations director for Start School Later, based in Annapolis, MD. The organization advocates for an 8 a.m. or later start time for schools.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and America Academy of Sleep Medicine both recommend that high school and middle school should not start before 8:30 a.m.

“A student is in a chronically sleep-deprived state and because they’re fighting against their biology, they’re going to school at a time where their brains are not prepared to learn,” said Ibrahim.

Their brains are still in a mode of deep sleep, so memory retention, judgment and cognitive abilities have all been impaired, Ibrahim explained.

But the issue of later start times goes beyond simply a few more hours of sleep. It’s also a socioeconomic issue, too.

Research suggests that a change to a later start time benefits low-income and disadvantaged students the most.

Students who may have access to a car, or have parents who are able to drive them to school are able to grab a few more minutes of sleep: They do not need to wake up early to wait for a bus.

“Kids who live in underprivileged areas that don’t have access to a parent or extra vehicles don’t have that choice. They have to take the buses,” said Ibrahim.

If a disadvantaged student misses the bus, they often have no other way of getting to school, which can lead to truancy.

These same students often work and work late into the night to help support their families, said Ibrahim. With a later start time, they’ll be able to catch up both in sleep and academics, “putting them on equal footing.”

There is also a community benefit. As start times get pushed later, so do school end times. Many students end their school day before 3 p.m., well before parents are home. This creates a few-hours gap in which many students do not have access to quality after-school programming and care.

While some students may be working, participating in after-school activities and sports, or going to a local teen center or club, many students are unsupervised. This could lead to an increase in risky behaviors.

By shortening the gap in which school is released and parents get home, the community sees a benefit in fewer teens partaking in these behaviors.  

“Here’s where the equity issue plays into it again,” said Ibrahim. “For the privileged students who have access to sports, after school activities or a ride home, there is not as much of an impact for them. Underprivileged students may not have access to those activities.”

This is seen especially during the summer months, and is reflected by the summer achievement gap.

As school shifts to a later start time, the end time gets pushed back as well. This creates a shorter gap from when students leave school and when parents arrive home. There is also community benefit, said Ibrahim, because students will be less likely to be unsupervised or take part in risky behaviors.

But with later start times, comes the feasibility: How possible is it? Logistics and cost becomes a growing concern for parents and taxpayers.

Parents worry over how to get their children, who may be in different school buildings, to and from school. Taxpayers worry how this will affect transportation costs.

Look to our very own Montgomery County. After years of debate, the Montgomery County Public School system instituted delayed start times in the 2015-2016 school year, continuing it into the 2017-2018 school year. Through planning, they were able to stay budget neutral with the shift. Both the middle and high schools shifted their start and end times by 20 minutes.

Right now, explained MCPS public information and web services director, Derek Turner, the results are merely anecdotal.

“We’ve had lots of feedback from high school students and their families that this has been a huge benefit for them, but I don’t know we’ve matched that up to performance data. We’re not at that point yet,” said Turner, who is the director of public information for MCPS.

An unintended consequence was a longer school day for elementary school students. Their start and end times were also shifted, giving them a slightly longer school day.

The elementary schools’ times were adjusted because of bussing logistics.

“It’s creating a little bit of stress on those schools and on those families,” Turner said. “In some cases with long bus rides, they’re not getting home until 5 p.m. or after.”

It was the Montgomery County parents who initially advocated to adjust school start times a couple years ago. Working as a community with the school board and the then superintendent, the 20-minute shift was created.

“The hope was that it would benefit those parents and the high school community who felt that it would improve student outcomes,” said Turner.

While some parents believe the time change is beneficial, other parents believe it negatively impacts their daily commutes and schedules.

“There are hundreds of factors,” said Tuner. “And I don’t think we’re ready to say that anything is directly related to bell times. I think we’re going to continue to look at this issue, but it will be hard to pinpoint specific things when some many things change.” New principles and staff, a new superintendent and other factors can all impact performance data.

But for now, there is no movement to switch the school times in either direction, said Turner.

“There is no simple solution. There is no one answer that solves everyone’s concerns without setting up a big financial burden on the school system and directly to the tax payers,” Turner said.

Arlington Public Schools began pursuing later start times in 1999, and later times were enacted in 2001. While all schools received a shift in start times, the high schoolers had an extra 45 minutes of sleep in the mornings. Similarly to MCPS, anecdotally, students, families and community members were all happy with the change. Attendance also rose. Alexandria City Public Schools first made the shift two years ago and now their high school students currently start at 8:35 a.m.

But couldn’t an afternoon nap just settle this issue once and for all? Not so, said Dr. Laura Finkelstein.

“Napping may have the effect of delaying onset of nighttime sleep and thus canceling the benefits of the nap. An afternoon nap will take time away from other activities, like homework, and encourage staying up late to complete those tasks.”

So what can parents do to ensure their teen is getting enough sleep? Finkelstein recommends setting a structured bedtime, limit evening use of electronics and discourage the use of caffeine.

Finkelstein also recommends that parents advocate for later start times for middle schools and high schools.

“Sleep is undervalued,” said Ibrahim. “You’ll be hard pressed to find many adults who sleep for eight hours a day. … A person who gets eight hours of sleep is typically viewed as a weakling. It’s a negative connotation to be healthy when it comes to sleep.”

Beth Roessner is a D.C.-based writer and health coach.

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