Seminole County superintendent, Walt Griffin, and Orange County superintendent, Barbara Jenkins, have been fighting to push high school start times farther back. Most high schools in these counties are set to commence at 7:20 a.m., a start time that many researchers advice against. The superintendents are working with their respective school boards to implement a plan that would allow for an 8:30 start.
One may remember the 2008-2009 school year when the high school start times were pushed back to 9:00 AM. The switch was unpopular, and the school board reversed the action the following year. However, many studies have came out since which reveal that a later start time reduces the likelihood that students will be sleep deprived and result in better grades, attendance, and behavior. Many counties in the US have already made the switch, including Florida’s Volusia, Pinellas, and Hillsborough among many more.
The effects of sleep deprivation have been well documented throughout the science literature. It will result in cognitive impairments that include information retention, decision making, minor amnesia, and emotion control. The state of these factors are all critical when it comes to succeeding in school, especially during the years of adolescence when the brain is undergoing development and needs the benefits of sleep for synaptic pruning. It is not uncommon for a person who is sleep deprived to suffer from symptoms that resemble those of mental illnesses. Anxiety, depression, and thoughts of suicide are all common when the human body is deprived of REM sleep (which is most prevalent towards the end of the night, just when the teenager is being forced to wake up to get ready for school). Also, it has been recorded that a lack of sleep will weaken one’s immune system, making them more susceptible to infectious diseases.
One of the issues that the superintendents face with this proposal is the transportation budget. Elementary, middle, and high school students currently have separate start times that do not overlap with each other. This allows for the bus drivers to make 3 trips to commute the students to their schools. However, by switching high schools to a later start time, more busses would need to be bought and new drivers would need to be hired, thus increasing school spending and making it costly for the state. While this may be true at face value, the results could be different when taken into a larger context.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, motor vehicle accidents are the number one cause of death in teenagers. In 2016, 15 - 19-year-olds accounted for an estimated total of 13.6 billion dollars in car accident injuries. Matthew Walker, Neuroscientist at UC Berkley and author of Why We Sleep, believes that a later start time would not only benefit the teenagers, but society as whole. He writes that a later start time consequently means a later finish time, which “… protects many teens from the well-researched ‘danger window’ between three and six p.m.”. As Walker explains in his book, this danger window is a time of unsupervised activity where teens are more likely to get involved in delinquent behavior and substance abuse. With a later finish time this window is reduced because teens would be finishing schools at a time that is closer to their parents work schedule, keeping them out of trouble and saving society millions in the process.
Switching to a later start time might increase the costs of the school districts, but as shown, will save the state money in other important areas. A study conducted by RAND Corporation believes that Florida would receive a 9 billion dollar boost within the next 15 years if they switched to a later start time. It’s as the famous saying goes, “you have to spend money to make money”. In his book, Matthew Walker has stated that many of the schools that made the switch have already reaped the financial benefits. He uses the examples of the Mahtomedi School District, which yielded a 60% decrease in teenage car accidents after pushing start times 30 minutes back to 8 a.m., and Teton County in Wyoming, which saw a 70% decrease after switching start times from 7:35 a.m. to 8:55 a.m.
With all the known issues associated with sleep deprivation, it is only logical that school boards attempt to work out a solution to give teenagers the appropriate amount of sleep that their developing bodies need. Simply telling teenagers to go to bed earlier is not a viable fix because their circadian rhythm shifts later back into the night once they enter adolescence. In order to give our youth the best quality education, the schools must be willing to work with their innate biological wiring, an action that many counties are starting to consider nationwide.
The superintendents have alternatives in case the board denies the proposal. According to Barbara Jenkins, any decisions made would not take effect in time for the 2019-2020 school year. In regard to the previous counties in Florida that have made the switch, each side has their respective proponents and antagonists. Jenkins believes that the best way to deal with the issue is to make sure that the communities are actively engaged. Much more evidence is readily available than there was in 2008 to support the proposal, and it would be in the benefit of the children to educate the communities on the matter.