Science says teens need more sleep. So why is it so hard to start school later?

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Around this town, high school classes start so early that some kids get on the bus at 5:30 in the morning.

According to federal statistics, only 10% of public schools nationwide start before 7:30 a.m. But in Nashville, classes start at 7:05 — a fact that the new mayor, Freddie O’Connell, has been criticizing for years.

“It’s not a badge of honor,” he said when he was still a member of the City Council.

Since his election in September, O’Connell has declared that pushing back school start times is a cornerstone of the education policy he is promoting. He and others around the country are trying to emphasize that teenagers are not lazy or to blame for too little sleep. It’s science.

“All teenagers go through this change in the brain that causes them not to fall asleep until about 10:45 or 11 p.m.,” said Kyla Wahlstrom, a senior research fellow in the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development. He studies how education policy affects learning, and has been a teacher. “It’s a change that’s biologically determined.”

Lack of sleep in teens is linked to mental health struggles, poor grades, traffic accidents and more. That’s why states including California and Florida have mandated later start times. Individual districts across the country — including some in Tennessee — have made similar changes

But subsequent initiation prevention is less about logistical and financial difficulties than science, especially with basics like busing.

State Representative John Ray Clemons, a Nashville Democrat, tried to pass a bill mandating a start time in 2022.

“I’m starting to feel it with one of my own children,” he said during a committee hearing on the bill. He dug into biology, including the famous sleep hormone melatonin.

Melatonin makes people feel drowsy. The brain starts making it when it gets dark outside, and its production peaks at midnight. According to the American Chemical Society, the adolescent brain starts releasing melatonin about three hours later than the brains of adults and young children. When teenagers wake up early, their brains still produce melatonin.

“The way teenagers’ bodies produce melatonin, waking a teenager at 7 a.m. is the same as waking one of us at 4 a.m.,” Clemons said.

She brought in local parent Anna Thorsen, who tested whether later start-time laws could protect vulnerable children like her.

“My youngest daughter is a freshman who suffers from a rare genetic epilepsy disease that killed her older sister last year,” she said. “In fact, last March, my youngest daughter had a life-threatening seizure that was partially induced by sleep deprivation.”

Reputation. John Ragan, a Knoxville-area Republican, said most of the backlash he’s heard about the bill has come from Nashville.

“Go to your school board and ask them to change the rules, change the laws, change their start times,” he said. “But to order [the rest of the state] Because of a school board that doesn’t want to listen to their parents?

Legislative leaders gave the bill a hearing. It did not pass into state law.

That leaves Nashville, a city that often calls itself the Silicon Valley of healthcare, to find its own way. O’Connell is now on the case. The mayor has some power over school budgets, which gives him influence over education policy. However, it is up to the school board to determine the start time.

“Early start times, especially for teenagers, are problematic,” the mayor said. “We also know that making a change — even a 30-minute change — has a lot of logistics.”

A major concern has been living. Even in normal times, districts use the same buses and drivers for students of all ages. High school students arrive and leave school early in the day. The idea is that they can handle being alone in the dark at a bus stop more easily than younger children, and this allows them to go home first to care for younger siblings after school.

If high schools start as late as middle and elementary schools, this will likely mean a strain on transportation resources. O’Connell said Nashville’s limited mass transit compounds the problem.

“It’s one of the biggest problems to solve,” he said.

Several years ago, Collierville, a district in suburban Memphis, began a study of school start times. The district serves far fewer students – 9,000 – compared to Nashville’s roughly 86,000.

Collierville officials estimated in the study that busing costs associated with delayed start times could be $1.4 million annually. That estimate assumed the district would need more drivers, more fuel and maintenance, more storage facilities and additional support staff — for example, an additional dispatcher and mechanic.

Nevertheless, the district pushed back high school start times in 2018.

O’Connell said one of the concerns he hears from parents is financial, such as whether they need help with family-run businesses or their students to help them generate household income in other jobs after school.

The National Sleep Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for later start times, conducted a survey of parents, teachers and other adults in 2022 that found only one-third of parents who want a later start time. Adults and teachers responded slightly more favorably overall, but less than 40% of each group supported delaying the day.

A 2022 National Education Association article found that many parents who oppose later start times don’t necessarily doubt the science; They are concerned about the schedule.

Wahlstrom, an education researcher, said she fears parents underestimate how important sleep is to brain development and academic performance, especially on weeknights.

“Sometimes both parents and teenagers think they can sleep in on the weekends. That’s a completely false assumption,” says Wallstrom, who equates sleep to food for the brain. “It’s like, ‘OK, we’re going to deprive ourselves of enough food for three days of the week, but then we’re going to eat on the weekends.’ It’s not healthy.”

He explained how a lack of sleep can hinder academic success: During deep sleep, the brain shifts memories to long-term storage, so missing that rest means retaining less material.

But — perhaps more importantly — sleep helps teens improve their mental health. US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has sounded the alarm about youth mental health, noting that a third of teenage girls overall and half of teenage girls report feelings of persistent depression.

And sleep deprivation in teens leads to poor mental and behavioral health, which can affect the entire family, Wallstrom said. He and his team conducted a study funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the effects of later start times on students in ninth through 12th grades, surveying 9,000 students at eight high schools in Minnesota, Colorado and Wyoming from 2010 to 2013. They found that students who slept at least eight hours were less likely to report symptoms of depression.

“We know that drug, cigarette and alcohol use is higher when a teenager has less than eight hours,” he said. “We also know that there is a significant link between adolescent depression and less than eight hours of sleep.”

More than 92% of parents surveyed in a Minnesota school district as part of a previous study responded that it was easier to live with their teens after the later start times went into effect.

“Many parents have told me offhand that their child is a different child. They’re able to talk to them at breakfast. They hang out in the car. They don’t have temper tantrums and fly off the handle,” she said. “Parents just say it’s amazing that it’s made such a difference in their child’s life and their family dynamic.”

This article comes from a reporting partnership that includes WPLN and KFF Health News.

Kaiser Health NewsReprinted from this article khn.orgA national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of KFF’s core operating programs – the independent source for health policy research, polling and journalism.

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