National health organizations suggest schools shouldn't start before 8:30 a.m.

Some teenagers struggle to wake up for school, stay awake during the day and be productive in the evenings, but it might not be their fault.

The Appoquinimink School District formed a committee to investigate later morning start times for middle and high school students after studies show beginning school too early has an adverse effect on students.

Superintendent Matt Burrows created the committee after reading research from national health organizations that suggested earlier start times could hurt academic performance, mental health and physical health.

Burrows said he has seen a lot of research over the past few years that shows the importance of adequate sleep.

“As a district we are always looking to promote and support academic achievement, mental health and physical health of our students,” Burrows said. “[The research] shows the positive results of students getting enough sleep. Not just looking at increased GPA, but also at discipline records.”

To help the community better understand chronic sleep loss among students and its consequences, there was a public presentation at Middletown High School Feb. 27 led by Indira Gurubhagavatula, University of Pennsylvania associate professor of Clinical Medicine Division of Sleep Medicine.

Biological clock

She said numerous studies have shown early school start times are the cause of chronic sleep deprivation for adolescents, and starting later brings class times in line with their biological sleep times.

“They go to bed late, they are forced to get up early,” she said. “They end up having a biological rhythm that is misaligned with what society expects.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends beginning no earlier than 8:30 a.m., more than an hour later than Appo’s current middle and high school 7:25 a.m. bell.

Gurubhagavatula said parents often tell her schools do not have to push back start times, but children should just go to bed earlier. Based on their biological clocks, she said this is not always possible.

She said adolescents are biologically more alert from 8:30 a.m. to about 11 p.m., which is why they struggle to fall asleep early. Research has shown adolescents should get eight to 10 hours of sleep every night, Gurubhagavatula said.

There is not enough science to suggest elementary schools should begin later, she said, but that younger age group does not have the same biological schedule for falling asleep.

Consequences

Chronic insufficient sleep — because of start times that are too early — can negatively affect academic performance, physical health, mental health and injuries, Gurubhagavatula said.

“We need sleep like we need food, water and oxygen,” she said.

She said studies show that schools that began before 8:30 a.m. made complex tasks and homework harder for students, increased tardiness and absenteeism and decreased academic achievement and performance.

Research has shown chronic sleep deprivation for adults and adolescents increased the risk of heart disease, obesity, headaches and stomach ailments. It increases the risk of poor impulse control, anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. 

Suicide and car crashes are the top two causes of death among teenagers, she said, and sleep deprivation can contribute to both. Research has shown drowsy driving and texting while driving was more likely among teens who were sleep deprived, Gurubhagavatula said. 

“Teens are looking for reasons to keep themselves awake,” she said.

Task force

Tom Poehlmann, Appoquinimink director of safety, security and operations, is overseeing the study. The committee will recommend whether the district should change start times and to what time. Poehlmann said the goal is for the committee to present a final report and recommendation to the school board by the end of the academic year. 

The district selected 40 parents, students, staff and board members representing different grade levels, geographic locations, and areas of concern. Its first meeting was Feb. 18. They will meet again March 3.

Sports, bus transportation and daycare are among the factors they plan to consider.

“Sports won’t drive the conversation, but transportation likely will,” Poehlmann said.

Gurubhagavatula’s presentation slides will be posted on the school district’s website at apposchooldistrict.com.