Later school start times healthier, hard to do

Posted at 7:00 AM, Mar 28, 2016
and last updated 2016-03-28 07:00:39-04

CINCINNATI -- Teenagers’ health – and their school performance – is better off with later school start times, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Centers for Disease Control and other sources. But making the change to a later start time can be a challenge at the local school district level.

Both the CDC and the AAP cited risks that come with less than the needed 8.5-9.5 hours of sleep, including physical and mental health problems, an increased risk of automobile accidents and a decline in academic performance. A National Sleep Foundation poll found 59 percent of sixth- through eighth-graders and 87 percent of high school students in the United States get less than the recommended hours of sleep on school nights.

“Adolescents have a tendency to have their biological clock shift to later hours, which makes it difficult for them to go to bed early and wake up early in the morning,” said Dr. Narong Simakajornboon, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and UC professor of pediatrics.

The natural sleep cycle of teens makes it more difficult for them to fall asleep before 11 p.m., which makes it unlikely for them to have adequate sleep if their alarm clocks blare before the sun rises.

While some local districts have considered the idea of starting middle schools and high schools later in the morning, only a few have implemented a change. Most local high schools start prior to 8 a.m., with many of them beginning between 7 and 7:30 a.m. The AAP recommends that middle and high schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m., but four out of every five U.S. high schools start earlier.

In response to this research, Indian Hill Exempted Village School District will shift school start times for the 2016-2017 school year. But, that decision was a decade in the making.

The idea was explored in depth approximately 10 years ago by a task force of district administrators and community members. The decision at that time was to leave school start times unchanged, said Mark Miles, Indian Hill superintendent.

The topic came up again in subsequent years as new research came out and parents raised the question to administrators. This month, the board of education approved a change in start times for all four of the district’s schools – a shift was necessary for all age groups to accommodate busing changes.

The high school and middle school will move from a schedule of 7:35 a.m. to 2:35 p.m. to the new time of 8 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. The elementary and primary schools will start 10 minutes later than in previous years.

“Unique factors impact each school district’s ability to be able to make this happen,” Miles said. “We considered transportation costs and schedules, athletics, extracurricular and club schedules – particularly after-school, child care schedules and parental work schedules. Overall, this is a better balance for our students. It would be wonderful if all schools started at 8:30, but that would require a single-tier bus system, which is cost-prohibitive.”

Hamilton City Schools in Butler County shifted the start times of all schools for the current school year. While the impetus for the change was to increase instructional time in the elementary schools, research related to the benefits of a later start time for teens played into the decision to adjust all schools, said Joni Copas, district spokeswoman. The high school now starts the day at 7:55 a.m., freshmen start at 7:40 a.m. and middle school begins at 8:20 a.m.

Another Butler County district, Talawanda, determined that a change wasn’t feasible.

Talawanda considered shifting start times for next school year for its older students, but ultimately the change couldn’t be made without adversely impacting the elementary school students and after-school programming, district officials said.

“The difficulty, I think, is to convince a lot of people about this, because to shift school time to a later hour affects parents and can disrupt their schedule, and also the buses. It’s one of those things that is going to take a lot of time to do, but studies show it is really beneficial for the kids,” Dr. Simakajornboon said.