Last week, the Davis school board, led by President Alan Fernandes, took action to move the district in the direction of implementing a policy that would adjust the start times for middle and high schools in the district to 8:30 a.m. beginning the next school year.
Mr. Fernandes told the Vanguard, “The Board voted 5-0 to request an implementation plan for a later start for our secondary students, as we believe the positive benefits of adequate sleep align with, and are central to, our mission which focuses on the well-being of our students and goals of creating optimal conditions for learning.”
In his motion, he stated, “’School Start Times for Adolescents’ is a policy statement published in the September 2014 issue of Pediatrics.” According to this article, Mr. Fernandes continued, “the research clearly demonstrates that sleep deprivation is linked to increased rates of obesity and depression among youth. The article goes on to argue that a school start time of 8:30am or later is an easy fix that will mitigate problems caused by sleep deprivation among American adolescents and is an important step schools can do to improve the health and well-being of children.”
The motion specifically instructed “the Superintendent to appoint a committee formed for the purposes of recommending an implementation plan that would adjust the start times for all DJUSD middle and high schools to at or about 8:30am beginning at the next school year.”
It also requested the Superintendent direct the committee to “conclude the development of this implementation plan within 60 days so that the plan could be reported back to the Board in 60 days or at the next regularly scheduled board meeting immediately thereafter.”
While the Vanguard last weekend questioned whether adjusting the start time alone would be sufficient, the research seems to suggest that, in fact, adjusting start time alone would make a huge difference.
Board Vice President Madhavi Sunder told the Vanguard, “There are, of course, many causes for teens’ not getting the sleep they need — including electronics in the bedroom. But the nation’s leading children’s health and mental health professionals also lay the blame directly at the school house door.”
An August 2014 release from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which “recommends middle and high schools delay the start of class to 8:30 a.m. or later. Doing so will align school schedules to the biological sleep rhythms of adolescents, whose sleep-wake cycles begin to shift up to two hours later at the start of puberty.”
Ms. Sunder noted, “The American Academy of Pediatrics says ‘a too early start to the school day is a critical contributor to chronic sleep deprivation among American adolescents.’”
“The scientific evidence is clear: the time the first bell rings in the morning is a critical contributor to teens’ sleep deprivation. Schools are a crucial part of the problem, but we can also be a critical part of the solution,” she continued.
“Changing our bell schedule is a critical step. And we can do more,” she stated.
“Chronic sleep loss in children and adolescents is one of the most common – and easily fixable – public health issues in the U.S. today,” said pediatrician Judith Owens, MD, FAAP, lead author of the policy statement, “School Start Times for Adolescents,” published in the September 2014 issue of Pediatrics.
“The research is clear that adolescents who get enough sleep have a reduced risk of being overweight or suffering depression, are less likely to be involved in automobile accidents, and have better grades, higher standardized test scores and an overall better quality of life,” Dr. Owens said. “Studies have shown that delaying early school start times is one key factor that can help adolescents get the sleep they need to grow and learn.”
Sleep deprivation, according to these studies, has reached epidemic proportion, as a “National Sleep Foundation poll found 59 percent of 6th through 8th graders and 87 percent of high school students in the U.S. were getting less than the recommended 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep on school nights.”
The report cites a number of reasons for teens’ lack of sleep, including “homework, extracurricular activities, after-school jobs and use of technology that can keep them up late on week nights.”
While these are important factors and the AAP recommends pediatricians work with parents and teens about healthy sleep habits, they primarily argue that “the evidence strongly suggests that a too-early start to the school day is a critical contributor to chronic sleep deprivation among American adolescents.”
The report estimates that 40 percent of high schools in the U.S. currently have a start time before 8 a.m.; only 15 percent start at 8:30 a.m. or later. The median middle school start time is 8 a.m., and more than 20 percent of middle schools start at 7:45 a.m. or earlier.
“Napping, extending sleep on weekends, and caffeine consumption can temporarily counteract sleepiness, but they do not restore optimal alertness and are not a substitute for regular, sufficient sleep,” according to the AAP.
“The AAP urges middle and high schools to aim for start times that allow students to receive 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep a night. In most cases, this will mean a school start time of 8:30 a.m. or later, though schools should also consider average commuting times and other local factors,” the report continues.
“The AAP is making a definitive and powerful statement about the importance of sleep to the health, safety, performance and well-being of our nation’s youth,” Dr. Owens said. “By advocating for later school start times for middle and high school students, the AAP is both promoting the compelling scientific evidence that supports school start time delay as an important public health measure, and providing support and encouragement to those school districts around the country contemplating that change.”
In the February 2011 edition of Psychology Today, Dr. John Cline argues that later school start times alone really help high school students.
“So, do later school times really help high school students?” Dr. Cline asks. “Based on accumulating evidence, the answer is unequivocally yes. Increasing numbers of studies conducted in various parts of the country show that a change in the start time of the school day can make a significant positive change in the lives of students.”
Dr. Cline notes that “many high school students live in what Dr. Mary Carskadon calls a continuous state of jet lag” and the key research suggests that “starting school later could help students get more sleep. Starting classes later, closer to when their biological clocks are most ready for learning, could make a real difference in how much knowledge a teen acquires at school.”
In a follow up article in May, Dr. Cline cited two key studies. The first by “Lufi, Tzischinsky & Hadar in a public school in Israel, showed that delaying the school start time resulted in students sleeping about 55 minutes longer per night than a control group kept on the usual early schedule.”
The second, “by Vorona and colleagues, compared two cities in Virginia with different school start times on motor vehicle accident rates between their respective students.”
The natural experiment tracks two communities close to each other in geography and with similar demographic profiles. However there is one difference – one of the school systems starts 75 to 80 minutes earlier than the other.
The authors reviewed DMV records for drivers between 16 and 18 years of age for 2007 and 2008. The accident rates for the community with the earlier start time “were 65.8/1000 in 2008 and 71.2/1000 in 2007 while the community with later start times had teen crash rates of 46.6/1000 in 2008 and 55.6/1000 in 2007. Differing degrees of traffic congestion were considered and did not account for the difference in crash rates.”
Dr. Cline argues, “There are several possible explanations for these findings. They include the possibility that less sleep for the students with an earlier start time results in poorer cognitive functioning due to problems such as slower reaction time.”
Starting time, of course, isn’t the only factor. Among the other factors were the use of electronic devices, which Madhavi Sunder told the Vanguard the district will seek to address as well.
“Our curriculum should make sure to educate children about good sleep habits and sleep science,” she said. “We need to educate parents on what they can do to help children fall asleep at a decent time. One very helpful recommendation shared at a recent DJUSD Parent Engagement Night was to turn electronics off an hour before bedtime — and to even ban electronics from the bedroom during sleep hours. We will need to take a holistic approach to this critical public health issue facing our teens and our society at large.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting