Do early school start times put students’ health at risk? One study says yes

From The Orange County Register

By Caitlyn Yoshiko Kandil / Contributing Writer

Most mornings, Albert Durazo notices that his 15-year-old son, Caleb, is tired.

The sophomore at Segerstrom High School in Santa Ana wakes up at 6 a.m. – then hits the snooze button for an extra half-hour – to get to school by 7:55, when the first bell rings.

“He’s pretty lethargic in the morning,” Durazo said of his son. “It takes him a while to get into gear.”

But once a week, the father of three sees something different. On Mondays, Segerstrom High doesn’t start classes until 9:30 a.m. This means an extra hour of sleep for Caleb and a more relaxed beginning to his day.

“He’s a lot more chipper and refreshed with the delayed starts,” said Durazo. “I would welcome a delayed start – maybe not at 9:30, but 8:30 – on a daily basis.”

The Durazos’ experience isn’t surprising. A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says most public schools start too early for teenagers, leaving them sleep-deprived and at greater risk for a host of physical and mental health problems.

The average start time for public middle and high schools across the country is 8:03 a.m. Only 18 percent of schools are in line with the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommended start time of 8:30 a.m. or later.

These early class times are out of sync with the adolescent biological clock. Judith Owens, director of the center for pediatric sleep disorders at Boston Children’s Hospital, said that while teenagers are often seen as lazy, it’s biology that explains their sleep patterns.

“As kids go into adolescence, they have a normal, natural shift in their sleep-wake schedule, so they’re not able to fall asleep as early as they did in elementary school,” she said.

Teens typically can’t fall asleep until 11 p.m. and require 81/2 to 91/2 hours of rest, she said, so “they’re biologically programmed to wake up at about 8 in the morning, the time at which many of them are already in school.”

Disrupting these circadian rhythms with early school start times can cause chronic sleep deprivation, which leads to increased risk for obesity, depression, poor academic performance, substance abuse and driving accidents.

A 2014 study by the University of Minnesota showed that car crashes for drivers ages 16 to 18 dropped by 70 percent after a Wyoming high school pushed back its start time from 7:35 a.m. to 8:55 a.m.

But changing school schedules isn’t so simple, said David Haglund, deputy superintendent for Santa Ana Unified School District. Starting later also means ending later, which conflicts with students’ after-school responsibilities, such as jobs, athletics and caring for younger siblings at home.

So instead of delaying start times across the board, Santa Ana Unified is incorporating flexible schedules that give students the option of when to come in each morning. Students can start late and end late or start early and end early.

“We’re trying to promote flexibility on the campuses so the students, if they want to start during second period and go through seventh, those kinds of opportunities are available to them,” said Haglund. “But there aren’t a ton of kids who would select that, generally, because at the high school level, especially, they have other things they want to do, whether it’s a part-time job or athletics.”

While Haglund acknowledged the science of adolescent sleep, he said his students must prepare for adulthood.

“We’re trying to get them ready for college,” he said. “And at college they could have a 7 a.m. class, and if we trained them to not start thinking until 10 in the morning, I don’t think we’re doing a good job of preparing them.”

But it’s not just school start times that contribute to adolescent sleep deprivation – it’s also the late nights of studying and extracurricular activities.

Scott Bowman, principal of Jeffrey Trail Middle School in Irvine, said even his 13- and 14-year-old students are involved in up to five after-school activities.

“They’re coming home from 61/2 hours of school, right to sports lessons and a violin lesson, a math tutor, then they do their homework,” he said. “They don’t stop until 9:30 or 10 at night.”

Neal Nakra, medical director of the pediatric sleep program at Children’s Hospital of Orange County, said families should try to be “a little more judicious” with extracurricular activities.

“If you’re crunched for time, what gets taken away is the number of hours of sleep, and that has a negative impact over time,” he said.

Staying up late to study also can be counter-productive.

“If you deprive yourself of sleep, particularly stage 3 (deep) sleep, you’re not going to retain as much,” said Nakra. “You do yourself no benefit by trying to pull an all-nighter and staying up really late to cram for your test. You’re better off getting eight hours of sleep the night before.”

Added Owens of Boston Children’s Hospital: “When kids talk about having five hours of homework, if they were well rested, it might only take them three hours.”

Regardless of school start times, parents should encourage good sleep habits in their children, experts say.

Don’t try to make up sleep on the weekends, said Owens – it doesn’t work and can throw off sleep cycles for the coming week.

Nakra suggested getting electronics out of the bedroom. Staring at screens right before bed makes it harder to fall asleep at night, and computers, tablets and smartphones offer plenty of distractions that keep adolescents from going to sleep when they should.

“Parents need to take responsibility, and kids need to take personal responsibility,” said Owens. “Even if they can’t fall asleep before 11, they shouldn’t stay up until 1 studying, texting or falling asleep with their cellphone on their pillow.”

There are ways to mitigate the impact of chronic sleep loss, Owens said. “But you can’t really fix the problem if school starts at 7 in the morning.”