Guest opinion: Many benefits to delaying school start times
As the school year is starting up, I would like to raise an issue that is important to junior high and high school-age kids across the state: school start times. Over 73% of students are sleep deprived and can not get the sleep they need to function.
Studies show that students can perform better academically if they get at least eight hours of sleep. However, the average teenager naturally releases melatonin around 11 p.m. This means that for the best night’s sleep, they should go to bed at 11 p.m. and wake up at 7 or 8 a.m. Because of current school schedules, most teenagers get up at about 6 a.m.
School schedules need to match teenagers’ circadian rhythms. I propose that start times for secondary schools be adjusted to start at 9 a.m. I chose this start time because the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that secondary schools start at 8:30 a.m. or later. Benefits of this change include more sleep, less caffeine use, better health, better grades and better choices. These outweigh the slight drawbacks of needed logistical changes for the schools to start later.
By changing the school start times to 9 a.m., teenagers would be able to match their sleep schedule to their natural sleep schedule. Most teens have delayed sleep onset and wake times. This is called phase delay. Average teens cannot fall asleep until 11 p.m. Teens need eight to nine hours of sleep. By starting school at 9 a.m., teens would be able to sleep until 8 a.m. and get a full night’s sleep.
If teens are able to get a full night’s sleep, they would be less dependent on caffeine. Currently, many teens make up for lack of sleep by drinking caffeine. Caffeine is an addictive stimulant. It also requires a stronger and stronger dose as the body becomes accustomed to it. Teens could avoid this addictive cycle simply by getting enough sleep — by starting school later.
Teens could avoid many health-related issues by getting enough sleep. Studies show that chronic sleep deprivation is linked to obesity, depression, reduced immune system function and high blood pressure. If sleep deprivation continues into adulthood, it can lead to diabetes, heart attack, heart failure or stroke. Sleep-deprived teens are more likely to get colds and need to take sick days. This can be avoided by simply getting enough sleep — by starting school later.
When teens get adequate sleep, they are more alert and attentive in class. There is a direct correlation between how alert a student is in class and how much they learn and retain. In a study done in Seattle in 2016 and 2017, it showed that student scores increased by an average of 4.5% by moving school an hour later. Later start times in this study also showed drops in absence and tardy rates, which also likely helped improve academic performance. Since the purpose of schools is to provide an environment where students can learn, it would make sense that they would also take into account the time of day students are most likely to be able to learn. This would be accomplished by starting school later.
Besides having biological clocks that keep them up, teens have cultural expectations that keep them up at night, too. Teens have sports, clubs, jobs and homework that are usually done in the afternoon or evening. These activities keep them up. This is another reason why it is not feasible to ask teens to go to bed early to get sufficient sleep. In order for teens to get enough sleep, they need to sleep later. The only way for this to happen is by starting school later.
Later school start times could also help teens make better decisions. A later school time would decrease the amount of time some teens are home alone. This could decrease the likelihood that these teens would engage in unhealthy activities.
As you can see, there are many, many benefits to starting schools later. Then why haven’t secondary schools across the country already changed? Most school districts claim that logistics is the primary reason. A later start time for secondary schools could cause problems with bus schedules. Buses often take secondary students to school and then do a second run to take elementary students to school. A possible solution to this logistical problem would be to take secondary students to school after the elementary students. Sports could also be impacted by later school start times. Practices and games would also go later if school starts later. However, some studies have shown that athletic performance improves with better sleep. Some parents also need older teens to watch younger siblings after school until parents get home. This is probably a problem that could be solved at the family level.
After my proposal is implemented and secondary schools start at 9 a.m., students will experience tremendous benefits, including more sleep, less caffeine use, better health, better grades and better choices. Secondary schools will be more successful in their mission in educating the youth and will have higher graduation rates.
So, today I ask the school board and communities to make the change. As you are creating schedules and calendars for the 2022-2023 school year, make the change to start secondary schools at 9 a.m.
Jorgen Nay, 14, lives in Syracuse.