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Kids Are Better Off With More Sleep

Kids are better off with more sleep….OPEN FORUM On Late School Start Times

by Nate Watson (SF Chronicle, October 5, 2021)

Last Friday, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced that his will become the first state to require all schoolchildren be vaccinated for COVID-19 once the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approves shots for children under 12. No doubt, doing everything it can to protect the state’s youth from further spread of COVID-19 should be the first priority of this administration.

And yet there’s another far less visible, but similarly critical, public health measure the Newsom administration undertook two years ago that school officials across the country should also consider taking to improve the health of young people: delaying school start times. In 2019, Newsom signed a bill that pushed high school start times no earlier than 8:30 a.m. and middle school start times no earlier than 8 a.m.

While the case for pushing back the beginning of the school day is nothing new, implementing it continues to challenge in many districts across the country. Statewide policy change has proven difficult to enact and there are legitimate concerns some parents have about misaligned schedules between work and childcare. Therefore, the responsibility has landed in the laps of local school districts.

And yet, across the nation there are already several progressive and responsible school districts that are making these changes on behalf of their students - and why wouldn’t they? A focus on sleep in the middle of a pandemic might sound trite to the uninformed, but, outside of mass vaccination there are few, if any, policy changes with such tremendous benefits to students than delaying school start times.

Delaying middle and high school start times to 8:30 a.m. or later reduces tardiness and absences, improves adolescent h

ealth and psychological well-being, improves adolescent driving safety, reduces risky behaviors and increases graduation rates, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. This policy measure would also increase job satisfaction for all faculty and staff, thereby uplifting the educational experience for their students. Sounds too good to be true, but it isn’t.

As documented by Start Schools Later - an organization advocating for legislation to ensure evidence-based school hours at the national, state and local levels - teachers have seen a notable difference when this kind of policy was implemented in their classroom setting, noting “academic improvements have been shown, and overall school climate has been measurably improved when high schools have restored later start times. Teachers have commented extensively about the improvement in the classroom environment when students are more alert, less moody, and less likely to sleep in class.”

Apart from anecdotal findings, the statistics don’t lie. When Jackson Hole High School in Wyoming shifted its start time to 8:55 a.m., the number of car crashes involving teenage drivers dropped by 70%, according to Start Schools Later. Similarly, switching middle school start times by 30 minutes or more to after 8 a.m. in Wake County, N.C., was associated with increased math and reading test scores, with

disadvantaged students benefiting most.

Teenagers experience delayed patterns of melatonin secretion and a slower buildup of sleep need as they progress through the day, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. These changes reflect a delayed circadian rhythm that contributes to later sleep onset and later morning awakening with teenagers typically struggling to fall asleep before 11 p.m. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends teenagers 13 to 18 years of age should sleep eight to 10 hours per night for optimal health. But to get to school, many teens wake up before getting eight hours of sleep, contributing to chronic sleep loss.

Nearly 70% of U.S. high school students sleep seven hours or less on school nights, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. This sleep gap is associated with poor school performance, obesity, metabolic dysfunction and cardiovascular morbidity, increased depressive symptoms, suicidal ideation, risk-taking behaviors, athletic injuries and increased motor vehicle accident risk (motor vehicle crashes account for 35% of all deaths and 73% of deaths from unintentional injury in teenagers).

Delaying adolescent school start times would alleviate many of these health problems and risks. Based on data from the National Center fo rHealth Statistics, a 60-minute delay in school start times also reduces crash rates by 16.5%.

“There’s still a struggle to get where we need to be,” the governor said when discussing how to conta

in the pandemic. “That means we need to do more, and we need to do better.” Newsom’s bold action on a school vaccine mandate has the potential to reap significant health benefits for our youth in the years to come. We should all be similarly bold in advocating for and implementing a delay in school start times.

Our kids need rest. At long last, as we emerge from a COVID pandemic that has disrupted learning for far too long, let’s give them what they need.

(Nate Wilson is chair of the SleepScore Labs scientific advisory board, director of the Harborview Medical Center Sleep Clinic and co-director of the University of Washington Medicine Sleep Center).

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