DESPITE THE harmful effects of sleep loss on adolescents, many school districts maintain cock-crow start times for high school students. Reasons for the status quo run the gamut from “it’s always been this way” to “it’s too hard to change.” But a national organization of doctors who treat children is weighing in on what it calls a public health issue. We can only hope its definitive call for more sensible schedules will spur school officials — yes, those in Montgomery and Fairfax counties come to mind — to stop making excuses.
In a statement Monday that coincided with the first day of classes in many districts, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that middle and high schools delay their first bell to 8:30 a.m. or later. The policy statement, four years in the making, cited studies showing that adolescents who don’t get enough sleep often have physical and mental health problems, are at increased risk of automobile accidents and may be unable to perform at their academic potential. An estimated 40 percent of high schools in the country have bell times before 8 a.m. while more than 20 percent of middle schools start at 7:45 a.m. or earlier.
There are many reasons for sleep deprivation in teens, including homework and late-night use of technology. But, as the policy statement makes clear, biological changes associated with puberty also affect the sleep-wake cycles of adolescents. “Circadian rhythms dictate that most teenagers can’t fall asleep much before 11 p.m.,” said Judith Owens, lead author of the guidelines and director of sleep medicine at Washington’s Children’s National Health System.
A number of school districts across the country have successfully moved to later start times. That demonstrates that logistical and financial obstacles can be overcome if there is political will. Whether it exists in the area’s two largest school districts remains to be seen. The Fairfax and Montgomery school boards are awaiting recommendations from their superintendents on how to make the switch. No doubt costs will be a factor, but the real question, made clear by the pediatricians, is whether schools can afford not to make a change that is in the best interests of student health and learning.