JCPS should push start times back in order to help students avoid sleep deprivation, argues Neha Angal in this editorial.
“Driving to school in the morning, my eyes start watering, and I have to sometimes roll the window down for air to stay awake,” said junior Sally George. “The roads are so congested, you feel like you’re always five minutes behind.” Her story is a common one.
At around 6 a.m., Monday through Friday, teenage zombies begin to board the yellow buses bound for their respective destinations. By 6:45 a.m., the expressways congest; even more masses of the undead make a valiant effort to fight sleep and maintain the wheel, simply trying to make it to school. Early rush hour has begun, and teens pray that their will is strong enough to keep their tired eyelids open.
This is just one of the many issues that arise from a lack of sleep among teens. What is to blame? Most adults have said tough luck, teens spend too much time texting or chatting to friends on sites such as Facebook. Although these late night behaviors are undeniably prevalent, research from experts in fields ranging from sleep to psychology have said differently. The most obvious solution, and the solution which would benefit health and education, would be to push back the starting time of high schools to 8:30 a.m.
Why not just suck it up, or go to sleep earlier? Going to bed earlier now is an inadequate solution. A habitual lack of sleep has been proven to cause major health problems and inhibit the immune system, and has been general knowledge for years. Russel Foster, Oxford University Professor and neuroscientist, said that this sleep sacrifice could even be a contributing factor to depression among teens. Many teens have part-time jobs on school nights, working as late as 10 p.m. This plus a couple hours of homework would leave teens with no logical option than to stay up late, if they wish to keep up their grades.
The issue presented is the commonly held belief that teens don’t stay up late to complete homework or as a result of part-time jobs; they spend it chatting or texting their friends. Although it is undeniably true that teens socialize during these late hours, there are actual biological reasons for their late nights which have nothing to do with Facebook feeds. According to a study done by Richard Schwab, M.D., teens are biologically programmed to stay up to 12-2 a.m., yet their bodies need eight to nine hours of sleep to function with their full capacity. In fact, Professor Mary Carskadon, of Brown University, led a research team which found that this isn’t just fluff or whining teenage angst; the sleep inducing hormone melatonin (which regulates the circadian cycle, the biological time-clock) starts and ends at a much later time for teens than for adults.
This brings into question the value of sleep. Throughout the day brain cells are used up and by the end of the day the brain is, quite literally, out of steam. Add into this equation that the starting time in Jefferson County high schools and middle schools is 7:40 a.m., and the result is teens that are sleeping about seven hours or less per night. By the end of the school week, this totals out to over a full night’s sleep missed, which then leads to several problems, all of which could be resolved if teens were not forced to fight their physical biology every night.
The benefits of this change, if made, would far outweigh the negatives. To begin with, the zombies in cars would be replaced with safer drivers. Dr. Fred Danner, chair of educational psychology in the Education Department at the University of Kentucky, and Dr. Barbara Phillips, professor in the UK College of Medicine, conducted a 2008 study that showed a correlation between automobile accident rates and school starting times. The later school starting times led to fewer motor vehicle crashes in Fayette County, where the new policy was implemented. Statewide, where school start times did not change, teen accident rates actually rose during the same time period.
If this isn’t evidence enough, Stephen Sheldon, the chief of sleep medicine at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago, said in a 2006 Washington post article that, “Sleep deprivation can affect mood, performance, attention, learning, behavior, and biological functions”.
The main challenges to a change in the start and end time are after school jobs, sports, and transportation. These fears can be proven to be of little consequence though; for example, in the previously discussed Washington Post article, the cities of Edina and Minneapolis, Minnesota, moved back their starting times. A study was then conducted which showed that many employers were not angered by the change. The study also showed that the sports teams of both schools were not adversely affected. But what about the problem of transportation? Once again this is easily disproved; for example, National Public Radio, NPR, posted an article in which it said that the West Des Moines School District (Iowa) lowered their transportation costs when they changed the starting times. And this is not just a trend in Minnesota and Iowa; districts in Florida, Colorado, and Pennsylvania are just some of the other states changing their timetables.
Education is undeniably important. These days, one isn’t going anywhere if one doesn’t get through college. At the same time, is it right to ask students to perform below their true capabilities? Is it fair to ask students to choose between a well-rounded solid education and their health? Education is meant to benefit life and health; it should never be a detractor from either. By simply starting the high school day at 8:30 a.m. instead of 7:40, we can solve several issues at once. We will improve grade point averages, test scores, and participation. Our students will be happier, healthier, more attentive, and safer. This isn’t simply another option or another choice; it is the only option, the only choice.
Sleep deprivation. It’s a condition more and more Americans face as part of daily life. As the problem continues and little is done to address it, it can be reasonably assumed that most Americans are unaware of some startling statistics. According to a recent U.S. Army study, a significant lack of sleep “reduces emotional intelligence and constructive thinking skills”. If that doesn’t sound unpleasant, observe the short-term and long-term affects, according to the same study:
- impaired immune system
- over 50% more risk of occupational injury
- impaired memory and thought process
- 32% loss in alertness during the day after 1 1/2 hours of lost sleep
LONG TERM EFFECTS OF SLEEP DEPRIVATION
- higher risk of death
- mental impairment
- depression and other psychiatric disorders
- high blood pressure
- heart attack or failure and strokes
As you can obviously see, these are dangerous, and possibly deadly health concerns, and the worst part is that a mere one to two hours would drastically reduce these risks. Yet still, it is easy to ignore the facts of sleep deprivation if you don’t know them, or if you cannot personally connect to the tragic health issues they can cause. These last few tidbits may hit home for a culture that loves fast cars but hate the wreckage:
DRIVING STATISTICS ACCORDING TO THE NATIONAL HIGHWAY TRAFFIC SAFETY ADMINISTRATION AND THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORT (The following statistics are per year.)
- 100,000 wrecks
- 71,000 injuries
- 1,550 fatalities
- 20% drivers fall asleep at the wheel at least one time
It is impossible to actually recover sleep (though you may feel like you have). Several reputable sources have now given testimony as to the dangers of sleep deprivation, to both yourself and others. So what are we to do, in this society where everything runs on that 7:40 am – 2:20pm or 9 – 5 time schedule, where tiredness is never an excuse, where the push to succeed and produce at mechanized efficiency? Certainly the answer is a difficult one, and it will mean new forms of time management. But as of now, one thing is perfectly clear and simple: sleep deprivation must be addressed.