A few extra minutes of sleep at night could go a long way for students in Lancaster County, research from Penn State suggests.
In a national study published last month, Penn State researchers found that high school start times after 8:30 a.m. not only increased the likelihood of teens getting the recommended amount of sleep, but also improved their overall health and well-being.
The study adds to a wealth of research in the past several decades pointing to the potential benefits of starting school later.
Despite mounting evidence, an LNP analysis found Lancaster County school districts still start school as early as 7:22 a.m., and most local school officials haven’t engaged in serious discussions surrounding school start times.
Logistics, local and state education leaders say, get in the way.
Do Lancaster County high schools start too early?
“Backing up school times may only lead to backing up all those other things that are occurring in the evening and may result in a net gain of zero,” Eastern Lancaster County School District Superintendent Bob Hollister said.
“Due to complexities” — such as adding bus routes and rearranging athletic schedules — “we are not considering changing starting times,” Columbia Borough Superintendent Tom Strickler said.
The vast majority of American high school students get inadequate amounts of sleep, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In a six-year study ending in 2013, CDC researchers found that 6.7 to 7.7 percent of female high school students and 8 to 9.4 percent of male high school students obtain at least nine hours of sleep per night.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 8½ to nine hours of sleep a night for teenagers, and has urged school districts to consider realigning the school day with students’ healthy sleeping schedules. If they don’t, the academy says, students are potentially more at risk of obesity, depression, decreased academic performance and poorer quality of life.
For the Penn State study, researchers studied the daily routines of 413 teenagers for an entire year.
Teenagers who started school after 8:30 a.m., researchers found, had 27 to 57 minutes of more sleep than those who started school earlier.
“Teenagers need more sleep,” said Christina Abbott, visiting assistant professor of psychology at Franklin & Marshall College. “Either schools (should) adjust the clock or you have to adjust the clock at home.”
Lack of sleep, Abbott said, can throw off a teenager’s circadian rhythm – a 24-hour internal clock that controls feelings of sleepiness and alertness. Disruptions can make it harder to fall asleep at night – or stay awake in the morning – and focus during the school day.
Artificial light – from cellphones or televisions, for example – can also disrupt someone’s circadian rhythm.
Laura Shelton, a mother of two teenage boys, has adopted a general rule in her household banning screens after 9 p.m. However, her oldest, a senior at J.P. McCaskey High School, doesn’t have much of a choice, as he usually is doing homework until 11 p.m.
“I do worry about these sleep-deprived teenage brains,” Shelton said. “I think it’s problematic.”
Both she and her sons, Shelton said, would like schools to at least discuss moving up the school day.
“They would love it,” she said. “I’ve never talked to a kid who wished school started at 7 or 7:30 (a.m.)”
Trying it out
Hundreds of schools in at least 45 states have made the move, according to the nonprofit Start School Later.
The Mechanicsburg Area school board this week approved a plan to move its high school start time 25 minutes later to 8:20 a.m. Students will be dismissed 23 minutes later at 2:57 p.m. The school district is located about 47 miles northwest of Lancaster.
A switch made at Avonworth School District in Allegheny County this year has led to 500 fewer absences from August to November, Avonworth Superintendent Tom Ralston said.
“It passes the eye test,” he said. “The kids coming in, they’re more awake, they’re more pleasant, they’re more engaged in the morning.”
High school start times went from 7:15 a.m. to 8 a.m.; dismissal times changed from 2:15 p.m. to 3 p.m.
The Pittsburgh-area school district added two school buses for about $40,000 to accommodate the new schedule. Ralston said the school board is considering a new, rotating schedule so student-athletes don’t always miss the same class due to sporting events at the end of the day.
Those tough budgetary decisions often prove too problematic for school boards across the state, according to Mark DiRocco, president of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.
“A vast majority of superintendents and school boards would do that if there weren’t so many obstacles,” he said.
“I certainly think the research and literature … is valuable and is worth studying and reviewing,” DiRocco added. “Whether or not an adjustment can be made is really up to those districts.”