Can you remember a time when you were sleep deprived? Maybe you couldn’t figure out why your house key wouldn’t start the car, or you misspelled your boss’s name?
“Any adult can remember a time when we were sleep deprived,” Mark Donovan said. “ We know how it affected us. Why do we not think that it affects our kids the same way?”
In fact, said Donovan, a clinical therapist based in Columbia, it does. Donovan has joined a growing movement to push back the start times of high school in an attempt to fix the “chronic sleep deprivation” that many say is evident in teenagers.
He has started the Howard County chapter of StartSchoolLater, a national coalition “concerned that children and teenagers required to start the school [day] too early in the morning face unnecessary challenges.”
The group is advocating for high schools to start, at the earliest, at 8 a.m. and has a petition circulating online.
Donovan has met with members of the Howard County Board of Education and the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS) as they begin a study into “the opening time of schools and the impact that an early opening has on the health and well-being of school students.”
HCPSS is in the earliest stages of a study to determine whether it will change start times; specifically, according to spokesperson Rebecca Amani-Dove, whether elementary schools should start first and high schools last.
The first part of the study is the cost feasibility and impact analysis, which will address the questions posed by those skeptical of changing school start times, including: child care, athletics programs, and, what Amani-Dove called one of the biggest issues: transportation.
As for the cost analysis, she said, “If we find it’s too costly or not feasible, we won’t move on to the second phase.”
If changing start times is financially viable, however, HCPSS will go on to the second step, which will include surveys of stakeholders, including students, parents, teachers and local businesses.
The study, Amani-Dove said, will likely take about a year and any approved changes would not go into effect until, at the earliest, the 2014/2015 school year.
'Part of being an adult'
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, citing the National Sleep Foundation, says teenagers need 8.5 – 9.25 hours of sleep.
In Howard County, high schools begin at 7:25 a.m.; if a student needed one hour to get ready before school, that student would need to be in bed by 10 p.m.
Some people who are not in favor of changing start times say parents should be able to get their kids in bed by then. “They have to learn that’s what after high school is,” Verna Schlein wrote on Ellicott City Patch’s Facebook page. “Getting up early and going to work … budgeting sleep, school homework and playtime is part of being an adult.
“We know they are adults because they keep telling us they are.”
Just being in bed by 10 p.m. isn’t enough, Donovan said.
“You can send your teen to bed at 10, but they won’t sleep,” he said, citing research that concludes teenagers are on different sleep cycles.
According to Contemporary Pediatrics (citing the journal Neuroscience Letters), a change in circadian rhythms of teenagers – the biological clock that dictates when animals sleep and wake – means teenagers fall asleep later than their younger siblings or parents.
Teenagers, according to the article, have a biologically-rooted “‘Night owl’ tendency to stay up late.”
'Where there's a will, there's a way'
Another argument against pushing back the start times for high school deals with child-care.
“Many high schoolers watch their younger siblings,” Jane Nicholson Holcomb wrote. If the teenagers got out of school later, “Parents would then have the cost of daycare, which they may not be able to afford.”
Others express concern that extra curricular activities would suffer. “What would happen to high school sports and teens that have jobs?” Lisa Barnard Brown wrote. “Early start is fine in my house!”
Of course, money is always a concern. Pushing back the high school start times could mean more buses are necessary as high schoolers could now be on the road the same time as middle school and even elementary school students.
To this, says Maribel Ibrahim, a Patch blogger and the Anne Arundel County-based founder of the national StartSchoolLater organization, there is no single answer, but, she said, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way. The community can adjust.”
People in communities across the country have made these changes, she said, noting a page on the SchoolStartLater website with examples of different approaches to pushing back school times - some at-cost, some for free.
'Everything's not OK'
In many cases, Ibrahim said, students don’t even know they’re sleep deprived and giving them a little more productive sleep can lead to a big difference. “Students will actually be more alert and awake,” she said, “They’ll spend less time working on their homework. They’re more efficient -- not forgetting, not drowsy, not going home and taking a nap.”
Although they will get out of school later, she said, they may be done with the day’s work earlier.
“What bothers me most as a father,” said Donovan, who has a 6th and 8th grader at home, “Is that the majority of kids get out at 2:10. They are raising themselves until both parents get home.”
It would be nice to think they’re going home to do their homework, he said, but that’s not the case with all teens. “They’re smoking pot, having sex … doing things they shouldn’t be doing.”
“Were limping along saying everything’s OK,” Ibrahim said, “But everything’s not OK.”
- School Start Times Under Review for Howard County Schools
- How Early is Too Early to Head to Class?
- POLL: Should Howard County Schools Start Later?
This article has been updated to include more recent guidelines from the CDC.