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Earlier school bells deserve big fat F

Last week,  new school superintendent Carlton Wilson asked for public input into possible new start times for the county’s schools. The proposed plan could roll the school bell back to 7:30 a.m. for middle and high school students, a full hour earlier than the CDC and many pediatricians and sleep experts recommend.

According to sleep scientist Wendy Troxel’s recent TED talk, sleep deprivation among American teenagers is an epidemic. She, the American Academy of Pediatricians, the CDC, sleep experts, and countless others recommend not starting school before 8:30 a.m.

Only about one in 10 teens gets the eight to 10 hours of sleep per night recommended by sleep scientists and pediatricians. And for those who say we’re doing good because our kid gets eight hours, Troxel reminds us that that’s the minimum. “Eight hours is kind of like getting a C on your report card.”

Troxel says public policy and early start times is a major factor preventing teens from getting the sleep they need. 

And, according to these researchers, there is a reason teens like to stay up late and it’s not Snapchat.

“As children approach and go through puberty, their brains begin producing the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin on a delayed schedule, making it difficult for them to feel tired before 11 p.m. This means that waking a teenager up at 6 a.m. is the biological equivalent of waking an adult up at 4 a.m.,” she said.

It turns out, those teen brains really are different than adults.

When adults have to get up at 4 a.m., it leaves us looking like cast members from The Walking Dead for the entire day. This is what our teens would experience every school day if school times are dramatically changed to 7:30 a.m. from the current 8:10 a.m. 

Many students face long bus rides, meaning they must arise considerably earlier than the start times; moving it up another 40 minutes will see more kids arrive looking exhausted before the learning ever begins.

Chronic sleep loss among teenagers has been associated with poor school performance and a higher risk for depressive symptoms, obesity, cardiovascular problems, risk-taking behaviors and athletic injuries. According to a recent Time magazine article, research suggests that delaying the start of the school day can reduce automobile accidents caused by sleepy teen drivers. In one 2008 study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, crash rates fell by 16.5% in the two years after a school district shifted its start times an hours later, compared to the two years before. 

Teens attending schools with later start times are more likely to show up for school; school absences dropped by 25 percent in one surveyed district. And they’re less likely to drop out. Not surprisingly, they do better academically.

Standardized test scores in math and reading go up by 2-3 percentage points, according to the Time article. 

The reasons for possible earlier starts cited by the local school administration  - students leaving class early for extra-curricular activities or needing to get to work - stack up poorly when looking at the prevailing trends in education and the research involving student health and grades.

“Getting enough sleep is important for students’ health, safety, and academic performance,” says Anne Wheaton, Ph.D., lead author and epidemiologist in CDC’s Division of Population Health. “Early school start times, however, are preventing many adolescents from getting the sleep they need.”

If middle- and high-school students are allowed to wake up later in the morning, they’ll be more focused during the day, more alert behind the wheel and less likely to miss school.

To comment on the school’s survey, see