Students Need Later Start Times For Health

Kate Morey, Opinion Managing Editor

School start times have always been controversial, perhaps most memorably for current students when MCPS adopted former Superintendent Joshua Starr’s plan to push back the start time 20 minutes from 7:25 to 7:45 in the 2015-2016 school year.

For the average high schooler, 20 minutes makes a small difference, if any at all, in their morning routine and sleep cycle.

Former Board President Patricia Oa��Neill said in a Feb. 12. 2015 article from The Montgomery County Sentinel that this would likely not be the last time that the board acted on the issue of school start times.

“We’ve debated this quite a bit,” Oa��Neill said. “Issues continue to recycle. The issue of bell times has come before the board several times before. This is just hitting the snooze button maybe two cycles.”
After three years of “snoozing,” the MCPS Board of Education needs to wake up to the alarming reality that high school students need more sleep. The board said they would follow up on this pressing issue and it has not come up again since.

MCPS should reconvene a specialized panel to once again study the harmful effects of current start times with the goal of finding a balanced solution that helps teens without breaking the budget.

Teens are not biologically wired to wake up before 8 a.m., according to a study by the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota.

Beginning class at 7:45 a.m. ignores the most recent scientific data and puts students at an academic disadvantage, while also harming their health.

Teenagers secrete the sleep hormone melatonin from about 10:45 p.m. until about 8 a.m. This means that adolescents should typically be unable to fall asleep until melatonin secretion begins, and are also typically unable to naturally awaken until melatonin secretion stops, according to Brown University School of Medicine professor of psychiatry and human behavior Mary A. Carskadon.

These dramatic changes in the sleep-wake cycle of teens are beyond their control. Simply expecting teens to go to bed earlier is not a solution based upon their chemical makeup.

Teens need on average around nine hours of sleep per night for optimal academic performance, health and brain development, according to the Sleep Foundation.

However, teens average fewer than seven hours of sleep per school night by the end of high school, and most report feeling tired every day. Students should not have to sacrifice their sleep in order to get the most out of their education, as this will not benefit them in the long run.

The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement Aug. 25, 2014 recommending that middle and high schools start class no earlier than 8:30 a.m. because adolescents have unique sleep rhythms that make it more difficult for them to go to sleep and wake up much earlier.

Three years ago, the county struggled to implement a significant change because of the high costs. “There is no perfect solution other than to buy more buses and hire more drivers,” Oa��Neill told the Washington Post in 2017.

These budget concerns are serious and important. However, since similar-sized school systems have successfully delayed start times, MCPS should again revisit the issue with renewed enthusiasm.

In Virginia, 72 out of the state’s 95 counties start school at or after 8 a.m. The Fairfax County School Board approved a recommendation to start high schools later, between 8 and 8:10 a.m. and end between 2:45 and 2:55 p.m.

Board members said the last change in 2015 was just the first step. For the sake of teens’ health, it is time to take the next step.