Editorial: Heavy hitters support later start for high schools

Last modified: Friday, August 29, 2014
The American Academy of Pediatrics this week described an epidemic of “chronically sleep deprived and pathologically sleepy” adolescents and associated health problems.

Mincing no words, the academy listed the consequences of teen sleep deprivation: higher rates of obesity, cardiovascular disease and metabolic dysfunction, increased anxiety and mood disorders, overuse of caffeine and prescription stimulants, higher risk of car crashes caused by drowsiness, lower academic achievement, higher absentee rates and “decreased readiness to learn.”

The eight-page policy paper released Monday concludes there is a “scientific rationale” for later start times at high schools across the country to combat a significant public health issue. The arguments include a recent Brookings Institution report claiming a later start at high schools would increase students’ projected future earning because of the gains that would be seen in test scores.

All Valley high schools should study the academy’s policy paper and do what is needed to make the change.

Amherst Regional High School considered the idea several years ago, but scrapped it in short order. Northampton High School came within striking distance of making such a change for when school opens Tuesday.

After voting in 2013 to change the start time at Northampton High School from 7:30 a.m. to between 8 and 8:30 a.m. this September, however, the School Committee in April reversed its decision, instead ordering up additional study of implications on bus schedules.

Had the board stuck with its decision, its members could be congratulating themselves for their wisdom in advance of the academy’s study. Instead, they may be kicking themselves for not acting on recommendations made by two separate committees in 2008 and 2013.

The reasons teenagers are so chronically sleep-deprived are complex and in part biologically-based. The report states that at the start of puberty, adolescents experience a shift in sleep patterns that make it harder for them to fall asleep even though their sleep needs remain the same. It notes research indicating the average teen can’t fall asleep before 11 and functions best when awakening no earlier than 8 a.m.

And while surveys show 87 percent of high schoolers in this country get less than the recommended 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep on school nights, 71 percent of parents believe their teens get enough sleep. The academy believes this suggests “a significant lack of awareness among adults regarding the extent of adolescent sleep loss.”

That lack of awareness no doubt is partly why school districts are so reluctant to transition to later start times.

The academy’s policy paper lends credence to arguments made by NHS parents who for five years have fought an uphill battle to delay the high school start time.

Though such delays have “a wide range of potential benefits to students with regard to physical and mental health, safety, and academic achievement,” the doctors’ group notes that they are controversial because of “perceived barriers.” Among them are cutting into sports practice time and after-school job opportunities, interference with game schedules, impact on family life, and loss of childcare for younger siblings.

The pediatricians say while no studies have closely examined those issues, anecdotal evidence suggests “many of these concerns are unfounded,” and that schools that adopted later start times found creative solutions to the problems the change provoked.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is a respected, objective party. We urge all area school districts to study its report with an eye toward joining the estimated 57 percent of U.S. high schools with start times 8 a.m. or later. We believe a clear-headed look will reach the conclusion that the short-term difficulties of making the switch are outweighed by the long-term benefits to teenagers and society at large.