By Isaac Mervis
Do you dread the shriek of your alarm clock in the morning? Have you ever tried to wake up before the sun rises, only to fall right back into the warm embrace of your covers? Do you ever close your eyes in class “just for a second” and open them as the bell rings? If you answered yes to any of these questions, doctors say it may not be your fault.
A recent push this year by the American Academy of Pediatrics is trying to move the time of first school bells back to no earlier than 8:30 a.m. While that statement sounds like a desperate plea from a tired high-school student trying to get thirty more minutes of sleep, there is actual scientific evidence behind it.
Studies show that most students in middle school and high school don’t get the 8 ½ to 9 ½ hours of sleep recommended by the AAP. Furthermore, most high school seniors get less than 7 hours of sleep. While it may sound like there is an easy solution, going to sleep earlier, it’s not that simple. Doctors associated with the AAP state that puberty shifts teens’ optimal sleep time back several hours, making it difficult to go to bed early. Most teenagers can’t fall asleep before 11 p.m., even after laying in bed for several hours. Some students simply don’t have enough time to get all of their work done before 11 p.m. After school activities such as sports or a job can make it difficult to finish all homework before the designated time to sleep. With more than 40% of the nation’s public high schools starting before 8 a.m., how is it fair to expect students to be well rested and prepared for a long day of learning?
Exhaustion and poor school performance aren’t the only side effects to poor sleep habits. Lack of sleep has been linked to poor health and obesity, car crashes, depression, suicidal thoughts, and substance abuse. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 1,000,000 police-reported crashes are the direct result of driver fatigue each year, resulting in 1,550 deaths, 71,000 injures, and $12.5 billion in monetary losses. These statistics show just how important it is to be well-rested and alert in front of the wheel while driving to school.
I asked five students at University High School about their sleeping habits on school nights. Of the five students I asked, only one of them got more than 7 hours of sleep on average, and the other four were around 6 ½ hours (2 hours less than the minimum amount of sleep recommended). None of the five students were in the optimal 8 ½ to 9 ½ hours sleep range. At University High School, the students are paired with teachers in a one-on-one mentoring system in which the pair would engage in bi-weekly meetings. In an interview with Assistant Head of School Dr. David Vesper, he explained how initially all of the meetings would be at 7:30 a.m. (before school). When he moved many of the meetings to lunch time, Vesper noted that “the students became much more talkative.” This exemplifies that teenagers are not designed to function at these hours, especially after getting an insufficient amount of sleep. These students go to a private school, with a later start time already and no bus system.
My brother Joseph Mervis, a sophomore at North Central High School, has his first period Spanish class at 7:25 a.m. Even though we live fairly close, he has to be outside waiting for the bus at 6:42 a.m., and his morning routine requires him to be up and moving by 6 a.m. Joseph tells me he usually gets his homework done just before midnight, leaving him with an average of 6 hours a night. Joseph claims that his friends have even more trouble with sleep deprivation. After asking five of his friends, he reported to me their average sleep amounts of 7, 6, 5, 4 ½, and 4 hours. For high school students, whose brains and bodies are still growing, 4 and 5 hours of sleep each night is simply not enough. It is unfair to expect these students to go to class and focus for 7 hours on end. The fatigue of the students often leads to a negative attitude towards school. When asked to comment on his physical and emotional states during school after a typical night’s sleep, North Central senior James Oakland voiced that, “It gets very hard towards the end of the day. I have a headache all the time.” He stated, “I’ve been to school a couple of times when I have gotten 8 or 9 hours of sleep and I feel like a superhuman, probably because I’m never well rested.” Oakland explained that a normal night’s sleep for him is around 5 to 6 hours.
Better-rested students typically have more motivation in class and better temperaments, consequently improving their lives. If students are clearly sleep deprived and the benefits of sleep are vast, what is stopping these schools from delaying the bell?
“The issue is really cost”, said Kristen Amundson, executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education. School buses make multiple runs each morning for older and younger students. Adding bus drivers and rerouting busses is one of the biggest financial obstacles to later start times. School buses operate on very specific schedules and routes to minimize traffic, commute time, and cost. Even the slightest change could drive up the price and throw off the organization. For this reason, schools are hesitant to change start times.
Other obstacles are after-school activities, such as sports. Vesper stated, “A later dismissal means later sports practices. During basketball season, five teams need to practice in the gym. This means we need to either have more morning practices or practices that run too late.” Daylight plays a big factor in this debate, and is essential for many outside sports. If teams do not have lights that permit them to play at night, games need to be played as early as possible to conserve daylight. Another concern is that parents will not be able to drop their kids of at school on their way to work. While all of these are things that need to be considered when talking about school start times, CNN writer Terra Ziporyn Snider believes they are not what is truly holding back progress. As Snider stated in her CNN opinion piece, “The true obstacles aren’t sports or bus costs, but the fear of change and failure of imagination.”
While pushing back school start times could shake up society, it is necessary. However, like any other great change in our lives, people adapt. “Community life adjusts to school schedules, not vice versa,” explained Snider. Vesper vocalized his openness to change, however, the logistics would not work if only University drastically pushed back its start time. In order to be successful, the schools of this nation need to put forth a collective effort to find a reasonable solution. Vesper has noticed students’ exhaustion during the day, but states that it is “just part of our society.” While Vesper is correct that society functions accordingly, the AAP says it doesn’t have to be that way. The American Academy of Pediatrics calls this “one of the most common – and easily fixable – public health issues in the US.” A simple shift in start times of schools would increase students’ attitude towards school, increasing the motivation and success of the students. Several schools and districts in Indiana have already taken small steps toward the ultimate goal, including Avon, Noblesville, Zionsville, Cathedral, Lawrence Township, Valparaiso, and Wabash. I hope that this argument marks the end of an era. I wish that schools take this initiative seriously and make the necessary changes, once and for all, so students can successfully learn without having to sacrifice their well-being. Education should not come with a price, especially one as costly as our health.
Special Thanks To:
James Oakland – https://soundcloud.com/jamesoakland
Jacob “Regime” Daniels
Dr. David Vesper