School Start Times as a Public Health Issue

Guest post by Terra Ziporyn Snider:

Since the late 1990s, school boards across the United States have been asked repeatedly to delay predawn school start times. While some have returned to later, more traditional hours, most efforts fail, primarily for systemic reasons. The problem isn’t the science. It’s lack of community will.

Today many high schools start in the 7 a.m. hour and end in the early afternoon. Ironically, the widespread push several decades ago toward what sleep scientists have called deleterious, cruel, and even abusive start times coincided with growing understanding of the nature and importance of adolescent sleep. In many communities the change was implemented gradually and without public input, primarily to save money by reusing buses for different opening times. Our increasingly 24/7 view of life may have played a role, too, with 9-to-5 as “normal” work hours going the way of family dinners and nonworking vacations.

Whatever the explanation, returning to more traditional 9 a.m. school bells is now virtually impossible in many districts. Even the best-organized reform efforts fall to entrenched interests that have adapted to early hours, as well as the human tendency to make a virtue of (perceived) necessity. Because communities revolve around school schedules, there is inevitably outcry that later start times will wreak havoc on life as we know it.

This outcry typically includes kneejerk and misinformed reactions, some reflecting our society’s disregard for sleep itself. Tellingly, identical objections arise no matter what the existing or proposed school hours, and recur even when superintendents propose making changes to save transportation costs. It’s not so much the new start time that people fear, but change itself.

Communities with the will to change have found ways to do so. Concerns about the impact on sports, jobs, day care, and so forth turn out to be groundless; everything in the community adjusts to the new school times, just as when schools or families change start times for other reasons.

Red herrings or not, community concerns remain a powerful roadblock. Superintendents who suggest, or even support, later start times have to be almost suicidal because merely raising the issue mobilizes opposition. By the time communities have been familiarized with the ever-growing literature on the topic, the cohort of kids in question has graduated.

We need a sea change in our approach if we genuinely believe the research about the impact of extremely early school hours and associated sleep deprivation. Continuing to throw this issue back to lay school boards as a negotiable budget item is, frankly, negligent. Instead, we must start regarding 7 a.m. start times as unacceptable as would be not heating schools when the temperature drops.

Educational leaders can help turn the tide by advocating reasonable school hours as a non-negotiable matter of public health and safety. By doing so, they can help lay the groundwork necessary to ensure that the health and well-being of students and communities are top priorities when schedules are set.

Terra Ziporyn Snider (@terraziporyn), Mandi Mader (@mandi.mader) and Phyllis Payne will be presenting at Ignite 2013 in the Connected Learning Center on Friday, March 1.

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