Dan Walters

Opinion: Early class times hurt California children

Adults who engage in California’s educational politics claim that they’re doing what they do “for the kids,” but the policies that they adopt only occasionally and tangentially reflect it.
Adults who engage in California’s educational politics claim that they’re doing what they do “for the kids,” but the policies that they adopt only occasionally and tangentially reflect it. Sacramento Bee file

If one watches California’s educational politics – those practiced in the Legislature, in local school boards and in bureaucracies – long enough, an inescapable conclusion is that students’ welfare is often a secondary consideration.

Of course the adults who engage in those politics claim that they’re doing what they do “for the kids,” but the policies that they adopt only occasionally and tangentially reflect it.

Many examples could be cited, such as the erosion of vocational education or teacher work rules that hurt kids in poor neighborhoods.

However, none is more obvious, or more corrosive, than beginning school days very early in the morning, often well before 8 a.m., and ending them in the early afternoon.

Some parents, particularly those with two working parents, like to get their kids out of the house early so they can get to their jobs, even if it means that some students may be standing on cold and dark streets at 7 a.m. waiting for buses.

Some teachers, one assumes, also like an early start because they can have afternoons to grade papers, prepare lesson plans or get home to their own families.

However, in starting school so early, we defy a growing body of research that we’re depriving kids of badly needed sleep by ignoring their natural circadian rhythms.

“Sleepless in America,” a recent documentary on National Geographic’s cable television channel, drove that point home, reflecting a declaration last August by the American Academy of Pediatrics that school really should not begin before 9 a.m., giving kids enough time to get the full eight-plus hours of sleep they need.

Couldn’t they just go to bed earlier to fill their sleep quotas?

The academy says the natural rhythms of children make it difficult for them to fall sleep before 11 p.m.

Chronic undersleeping inhibits learning and also manifests itself in stress, overeating and other maladies. There is vast concern these days about obesity, diabetes and other ailments among the young, but a major contributing factor is sleep deprivation from adults’ brain-dead decrees.

Many parents are awakening, as it were, to this serious health problem and confronting school boards about pushing start times up and hour or two. And while some activists have gained traction, many have encountered resistance from adults in the education system to whom early start times are more convenient.

State law governs the length of the school year, and perhaps it’s time for the Legislature to get involved in the sleep crisis as well.

The evidence of that crisis is mounting.

“Chronic sleep loss in children and adolescents is one of the most common – and easily fixable – public health issues in the U.S. today,” pediatrician Judith Owens, lead author of the new policy paper, says.

Yes it is, we adults should be ashamed that it is, and we should fix it – pronto.

Call The Bee’s Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, sacbee.com/dan-walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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