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  • Matthew Tsui

Does High School Start too Early?

Over the past couple of decades, numerous people have questioned the generally early start time of high school and middle school. Numerous studies have determined that for the welfare of middle and high school students, students shouldn't begin classes earlier than 8:30 am. While both the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the American Academy of Pediatrics have determined that school start times must be postponed such that kids get adequate amounts of sleep, a survey taken by the Center of Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) determined that in 2014, 93% of high schools and 83% of middle schoolers in the United States still started before 8:30. [1] Thus, as receiving adequate sleep is so important to the adolescent's performance and health, it is baffling to see how reluctant the government is in passing legislation to enforce this CDC suggestion. Aside from North Dakota and Alaska, in which almost 80% of the secondary schools start after 8:30 am, the rest of the country has lagged, with nearly no progress being made in the past five years. One benefit of a small school is that it eliminates the need to allocate time for transportation, allowing students to gain back roughly half an hour of sleep daily. However, even in this weird limbo period in which some may say there is no longer the need to delay school openings, there is no reason to stop developing legislation that would fix this evident problem.

Getting enough sleep is crucial in the human developmental stage, and lack of sleep has been associated with numerous health conditions and decreased academic performance. Teen students do not get enough sleep, with the CDC's Youth Risk Behaviour Survey of 2015 determining that seventy-three percent of the high school students in the United States earned less than the suggested eight hours of sleep, with another forty-three percent classified as sleep-deprived, with less than six hours of sleep. There are numerous consequences of such sleep deprivation. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine determines that it may become overweight, lethargy, more significant effects of hormones on depression, and become more likely in risky behaviors, including drug activity. Furthermore, this will affect performance in school; aside from liabilities associated with depression and drug activity, students are quite literally falling asleep at the desk in school, with a poll finding that a third of teens at schools that started before 8:30 am are unable to stay awake during the school day. Thus, not getting adequate sleep is detrimental to teen health and performance, and hence reforms in these sectors should be prioritized.

While some adults may argue that students are merely choosing to sleep later and thus are really the only ones responsible for not getting adequate sleep, this is not the case; as teens go through puberty, their biorhythms shift, meaning they're more physiologically and neurologically inclined to sleep and wake up at later times than those preferred by adults. [2] Senator Anthony J. Portantino likens forcing students to get to school at 8:30 am to an adult waking up at 3:30 am, for, let's say, half of the year. Specifically, this results from a shift in juvenile circadian rhythm, resulting in a delayed phase. This delayed phase is also coupled with poor bedtime routines, which include using social media/gaming before sleeping, along with destroying set schedules on the weekends. While slide modifications can be made to improve sleep, including developing a strict program, reducing the lighting/using blue light glasses, along cutting media before bedtime, it is merely impossible for adolescent teenagers to adjust their plans to meet their sleep needs as their biological rhythms can't match the expected eight in the morning school start time. This developed rhythm explains why students in later periods generally perform better and are more attentive than earlier periods, as they typically sleepwalk through the first few periods before their brains finally wake up.

Getting adequate sleep has numerous effects on psychological and physical health, which directly impacts school performance. Several studies have recorded these details over the past few decades, which emphasize the importance of meeting sleep needs. For example, in 2016, Dr. Thacher from St. Lawrence University, a record that after delaying school start times by 45 minutes, health, mood, and behavior all improved, and these changes did persist longitudinally. Furthermore, they found dramatic reductions in tardiness and significant improvements in behavior among these students. [3] However, it is interesting to note that while the overall sleep periods did not increase, with students merely sleeping later and getting up later, the positive impacts were still noticed, suggesting that matching the biological rhythms resulted in students getting more effective sleep. Thus, this study concluded that while a delay in start time is necessary for increasing sleep time, it isn't precisely sufficient, as changes to behavior and sleep schedules are also clearly needed. Furthermore, researchers from the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion determined that across a range of thirty-eight studies, most of them did see a significant increase in sleep duration with relative small delays in school starting times, along with significant correlations with "improved attendance, less tardiness, less falling asleep in class, better grades, and fewer motor vehicle crashes." [4] Furthermore, this study determined that these positive effects on sleep schedules and daytime functioning were recorded in both longitudinal and cross-sectional tests.

Finally, Dr. Lufi from Jezreel College determined that delaying school start times by one hour for one week directly improved school performance by increasing the rate of commission, attention and reducing mistakes and impulsivity. [5] Specifically, they used the "Mathematics Continuous Performance Test" and the "d2 Test of Attention" tests to record data, finding that after the students returned to the regular start times, the positive benefits disappeared, indicating that middle and high schoolers should consider delaying school start times by one hour or more. Thus, while sleep may not directly improve sleep grades, due to a wide array of outside variables that also affect rates, sleep certainly plays a role in student health, both mentally and physically, along with student performance. Furthermore, sleep and mental health have deep associations, specifically anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders. Specifically, disruptions in the REM/quiet sleep cycle results in changes in the levels of acetylcholine, norepinephrine, and stress hormones, resulting in impaired thinking and significant emotional distress. [6] Furthermore, research has found that youth with insomnia have a two-fold chance of developing depression over those getting the recommended amount of sleep. Thus, getting adequate sleep may be crucial in alleviating the effects of said mental disorders and preventing such a condition. If postponing school start times is genuinely impossible, providing youth with cognitive behavior therapy will produce significant mental health improvements and improve school efficiency. [7]

With all of the studies returning such precise data, I'm sure you're wondering why no legislation has been passed yet. Opposition to such a move comes from several sources. Some politicians argue that students, especially those in high school, need to prepare for the jump to adult schedules, such that they're ready for the job market/college endeavors. Specifically, they argue that shifting times would be too soft and leave them unready for the real world. Furthermore, the opposition often brings in all of the small details and modifications that would need to be made to accommodate this switch, including increases in transportation, shifts in athletic programs, and overall conflicts between staff schedules with those of the students. However, with all of the expenses accompanying new technology, curriculum, libraries, renovations, I wonder if our funds are genuinely being allocated in a manner that would have the most significant impact on student learning. In 2018, politicians in California had the opportunity to pass a law that would mandate the school start time. Still, unfortunately, it was vetoed, and no further progress has been made. Back in New York, roughly 59% of the New York State Boards Association favored pushing back the school start time, but they have yet to put in the work to accomplish this overwhelming opinion. Thus, school boards continue postponing this decision, stating that they have other more immediate priorities, thus preventing students from modifying the schedule that they so desperately need.

Sleep deprivation is detrimental to health and academic performance and is an issue that should be dealt with immediately. While shifting the school schedule alone won't solve this issue, it is necessary to improve student health. While we wait for such legislation to pass, small modifications in sleep schedules can help us get a slight boost in our productivity. Specifically, this can include a technology-free unwind hour, along with the gradual shift in the bedtime schedule. Thus, schools should delay their start times to adapt to middle and high schoolers' needs appropriately.



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