Dan Walters

Kids not getting enough sleep? Start school later

You see them each morning – zombie-like creatures trudging along sidewalks, headed to their neighborhood schools.

Impeccable research has proved that because children’s circadian rhythms are much different than those of adults, having them go to school so early each morning – some as early as 7 a.m. – damages their ability to learn.

Yes, in theory, they could have gone to bed earlier and thus gotten enough sleep. But the research also shows that it’s difficult for children, especially teenagers, to fall asleep before 11 p.m.

The American Academy of Pediatrics started issuing warnings about the syndrome a few years ago, and this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention labeled adolescent sleep deprivation a public health concern.

The pediatricians and the federal agency have a no-cost solution for the problem – starting school, which averages 7:59 a.m. in the United States, at least a half-hour later.

It’s spawned a national movement to persuade local school officials to embrace the recommendation, called Start Schools Later. But it’s been a tough slog because later school starting times would inconvenience adults – parents who want to pack their kids off so they can get to their own jobs and educators who like starting the school day early so it can end by midafternoon.

What’s happening in Marin County’s two largest school districts indicates both that the movement is gaining strength and that it still faces stubborn opposition.

Novato Unified School District and San Rafael City Schools are considering later start times in response to demands of advocates.

However, some school officials are reluctant to make the change.

“If school were to start later in the morning, that would be horrible,” golf coach Steve Troya told the Marin Independent Journal, “the worst decision ever for a coach.”

“It’s tough,” Lars Christensen, assistant superintendent of Tamalpais Union High School District, told the newspaper. “If we start later, that implies we end the day later and many of our students have commitments in the early evening that they also value.”

San Juan Unified in suburban Sacramento is also in the early stages of considering a later start, as are several other California districts.

Notwithstanding after-school sports and other potential arguments against making the change, the core purpose of a public school system is to educate its young charges, preparing them to become productive citizens via higher education or employment. And if, as the research consistently shows, starting school very early in the morning substantially interferes with that mission, making the change should be a no-brainer.

Dealing with the issue district-by-district could take years, or even decades. The state already dictates school year and school day parameters, so it’s not a stretch for the Legislature to decree that the school day could not begin before 8:30 a.m., with some flexibility on a case-by-case basis.

Next week’s shift to standard time for a few months will further disrupt children’s circadian rhythms. It should be a wake-up call for action.

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