Later school bells in high schools deserve an A+

Less than one teenager in five gets the recommended nine hours of sleep on school nights, so why not a later start to the school day?
Less than one teenager in five gets the recommended nine hours of sleep on school nights, so why not a later start to the school day? MCT

Anyone who has ever tried to rouse a teenager on a school day knows that “walking dead” isn’t just a zombie show on cable TV.

Kids today are exhausted. Parents imagine it’s stress or rebellion. In fact, research shows, it’s a biological shift that lasts from about age 12 into a person’s mid-20s.

Waking a 16-year-old for an 8 a.m. class is the circadian equivalent of hauling an adult out of bed for a daily 5 a.m. staff meeting. How long would that sort of schedule last at a workplace before somebody filed a lawsuit?

So knowing that teenagers need eight to 10 hours of sleep a night to function, why does nearly every high school in California insist on starting before 8 a.m.?

This is the sensible question that a couple of Sacramento-area school districts are finally exploring, and not a school day too soon.

As The Bee’s Loretta Kalb reported on Monday, educators have long known that teenage students benefit from later start times, but the idea didn’t gain real traction until last summer, when the American Academy of Pediatrics cited sleep deprivation among adolescents as a public health issue.

Now officials at the Davis Joint Unified and Folsom Cordova Unified school districts are looking into delaying start times for older students until about 8:30 a.m. For this, they deserve a gold star.

A good night’s sleep isn’t some optional plus, like extra kale or more yoga. Research increasingly shows that it’s a necessity of life, like breathing. Yet a 2006 poll by the National Sleep Foundation showed that only 20 percent of teens got the recommended nine hours of sleep on school nights.

Tired adolescents have a greater risk of car accidents, obesity, depression, suicide and other ills from lower test scores to acne. Mandating earlier bedtimes isn’t the answer because changes in production of melatonin, the hormone that induces sleep, can shift a teenager’s body clock by as much as three hours, making it difficult if not impossible for an adolescent to fall asleep before 11 p.m.

The president of the Folsom Cordova district told Kalb she has tried for 18 years to start the school day later. There, as elsewhere, adults haven’t listened to reason.

Coaches argue that sports will be ruined because other schools have afternoon game times. Teachers grouse that later start times will lengthen their workdays. School bus companies say it will be expensive to redo bus schedules.

But those concerns haven’t panned out in districts that have made the shift from Connecticut to Minnesota. If anything, later start times have won rave reviews.

Davis and Folsom Cordova are gutsy to tackle this issue. But theirs is just a first step toward what’s really needed, a regional or statewide solution.

From college admissions to social and economic pressures, the demands on this generation of adolescents are enormous. It’s unfair to drive them to a state of zombie-like exhaustion and then require them to perform as we do.