The conversation begun more than a decade ago — when it was proposed to move the middle school start time to the earlier one endured by high school students — on how to bring natural sleep needs of young people in line with the demands of school and society, has been reawakened. The September 28 community forum hosted by Superintendent of Schools Joseph V. Erardi, Jr, and the Board of Education solicited input on exploring options for school start times that can contribute to students’ continued successes.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 20 percent of Americans get less than six hours of sleep a night, which is one to two hours less than the average adult needs. Fifty to 70 million adults suffer from some kind of sleep disorder, all of which adds up to a sleep debt resulting in impaired thinking and memory, depression, car crashes, relationship difficulties, and health risks.
Young people are at even greater risk for these sleep-related hazards when normal sleep patterns are disrupted. Our youngest students function best on ten hours of sleep a night, while teenagers perform at peak, according to the National Institute for Health, when they catch nine to ten hours of ZZZs each night. Elementary students in Newtown have the best chance of restful slumber, with a start time of 9:05 am, and Reed Intermediate students, with some bedtime adjustments, can do so as well, starting school at 8:05 am.
But teenagers begin school at 7:20 am, a time that is earlier than many working adults start the day, especially considering that some are at the bus stop approximately one hour before that. A heavy homework load during the teenage years, an active sports schedule, and for some, an after school job, means late night studying; being that teens’ circadian rhythms invite wakefulness into later hours, that end of the day is not so problematic. To rise and shine the next morning, though, in order to meet the early middle and high school start times, means cutting short hours of needed sleep every night. It can be a stressful start of the day as exhausted teens rebel against early awakenings, and parents struggle to get them out the door and on their ways.
Tweaking the school day schedules could allow teenage students — and educators — to improve on the accomplishments already apparent in our school system. It will require a creative approach, and adaptability on the parts of students, community, other school systems, and families for a later start time for middle and high schools (and/or an earlier morning elementary schedule) to be successful.
This renewed conversation on changing school start times is one to be pursued. Until a change in school start times is adapted to accommodate the sleep patterns of students in the upper grades, Newtown scholars can only dream of achieving the recommended levels of rest that lead to optimum performance. Otherwise, we will continue to sleepwalk from young adulthood into the legions of sleep-deprived adults in this country.