Districts should consider school starting times

Penn State researchers are far from the only ones who have found that later high school start times would better serve the adolescent internal clock.

This isn’t a matter of “babying the future generations,” as one commenter on LancasterOnline put it.

It’s a matter of biology.

We know what many of you are thinking, because we’ve had the same thoughts ourselves: “Our kids learned to go to bed earlier, other kids can, too — parents just need to set household rules.” ”Farm kids get up before dawn and somehow, they survive.” And so on.

But we believe in research rather than anecdote. Individual stories are interesting but not conclusive. And the research is clear on this.

At about the time of the onset of puberty, most adolescents experience a shift of up to two hours in their sleep-wake patterns, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Kyla Wahlstrom, a senior research fellow at the University of Minnesota, offered the clearest explanation of this phenomenon in an article on the website The Conversation.

“At the onset of puberty, nearly all humans (and most mammals) experience a delay of sleep timing in the brain. As a result, the adolescent body does not begin to feel sleepy until about 10:45 p.m.,” she wrote.

In teens, Wahlstrom noted, “the secretion of the sleep hormone melatonin begins at about 10:45 p.m. and continues until about 8 a.m.”

Teens can’t easily fall asleep until melatonin secretion begins — and can’t fully wake until it stops.

So we can tell them to go to sleep before 11 p.m., but their brains won’t cooperate. If they fall asleep at midnight, they will get six or so hours of sleep before their smartphone alarm sounds.

The upshot: We’re forcing kids who get far less than the recommended minimum of eight and a half hours of sleep to wake before dawn and get on the bus — or, more alarmingly, to get behind the wheel and drive groggily to school before the morning bell chimes.

As Geli noted, a six-year study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that a scant 6.7 to 7.7 percent of female high school students and 8 to 9.4 percent of male high school students get at least the recommended nine hours of sleep per night.

Even if you don’t have a kid in high school, it should alarm you to know that you’re sharing the road with a great many sleep-deprived teens. Drowsy driving can be just as lethal as driving under the influence. And, we should note, motor vehicle fatalities are the leading cause of death in teens, according to the CDC.

So yes, we think Lancaster County school districts ought to consider starting high school later in the morning. We’ve heard from school administrators all the reasons — bus routes may need to be added, athletic schedules would have to change, etc. — why such a change would be difficult. But it wouldn’t be impossible.

As the Carlisle Sentinel reported earlier this month, parents also had concerns about Mechanicsburg Area School District’s plan to shift school start times. Those concerns ranged from “before- and after-school care coordination and what impact the changes would have on children who walk to school.”

Mechanicsburg Superintendent Mark Leidy had what seemed to us was the perfect response: “We want to prove to you that the option we’re putting on the table has many solutions. We’re going to open it up to those (parents) who think they have unique circumstances (with this plan). We’re saying, ‘Let’s talk about it and see what options are open.’ “

Now, with about 4,000 students, Mechanicsburg is a much smaller school district than, say, Penn Manor, which has about 5,300 students, and Hempfield, which has more than 6,800. But it has nearly as many students as Conestoga Valley. And its student population outnumbers that of Lampeter-Strasburg School District by nearly a thousand.

As Geli reported, Avonworth School District in Allegheny County moved its high school start time this year from 7:15 a.m. to 8 a.m. The schedule change has led to 500 fewer absences from August to November, Avonworth Superintendent Tom Ralston said.

That Pittsburgh-area school district had to add two school buses for about $40,000 to accommodate the new schedule. The cost of adding buses is no small consideration for school officials. We get this.

But there are bigger concerns at stake here. The American Academy of Pediatrics wants school districts to consider later high school start times because it says chronic sleep loss in teens can lead to a raft of problems, including increased risks for depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation, as well as obesity and other health issues, impaired academic performance, poor school attendance and higher dropout rates.

Our high school students aren’t snowflakes in need of coddling. They’re exhausted. And getting wearier by the day.