Pediatricians call for teenagers to get more sleep

The influential medical journal Pediatrics is calling the chronic lack of sleep among teenagers to be a health emergency, which experts say is contributing to mental health problems, obesity and car accidents due to drowsy driving.

The solution? According to the new policy issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics and published in Pediatrics, high schools should begin classes after 8:30 a.m. to allow students to get more rest.

The debate comes as school districts in the Washington reason are grappling with the issue.

In Fairfax County, many teens will board buses this fall as early as 5:45 a.m. to arrive at school before the first class begins at 7:20. But a change could occur soon: the school board is set to vote on plans that could move back the first bell until after 8 a.m. Last fall, hundreds of Fairfax students opted to drop their first class of the day to sleep in.

Start Later for Excellence in Education Proposal, a local teen health advocacy group, said that more than 70 counties in Virginia begin high school classes at or after 8 a.m.

In Maryland, the Montgomery County Board of Education has urged Superintendent Joshua P. Starr to present affordable options for pushing back start times.

On Monday, Pediatrics published research by sleep scientists on how additional rest can be beneficial for teens. Judith Owens, a sleep expert with Children’s National Medical Center, helped write the new policy, also published in the journal.

She is also among a group of scientists contracted by Fairfax to help create a “blueprint for change” to push back high school start times. In meetings with Fairfax officials, Owens has described the school system’s current class schedule as detrimental to teenagers’ well-being.

Owens has said that more than half of Fairfax high school seniors sleep less than six hours each night, far less than the nine hours recommended by the Virginia Academy of Sleep Medicine.

According to Pediatrics, more than 40 percent of the public high schools in the country begin classes before 8 a.m. Kristen Amundson, a former Fairfax school board member who now serves as executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education, told the Associated Press that transportation costs are a significant barrier to broader implementation.

In Fairfax, previous efforts to push back start times have failed due to high cost estimates for changes to bus service. The newest plans under consideration by the school board call for $5,580,000 in new buses to implement the change by the fall of 2015.

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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