Thousands of wake-up alarms go off every morning before dawn to get Pinellas County teens to high school by 7:05 a.m.
Those students may get a slight reprieve this August as the school district considers pushing high school start times to as late as 7:30 a.m. It’s not the ideal 8:30 a.m. start that thousands have petitioned for, arguing that when teens sleep in, they’re healthier, smarter and less at risk for car crashes. But it’s the most the district says it can do without affecting elementary and middle school schedules.
Many will welcome having roughly 20 minutes more in the morning, but is that enough to have any health or academic benefit? Some experts say no.
"I don’t want to discourage any school district from delaying start times, but honestly, that little of a shift is not likely to make much of any difference, at all," said Dr. Judith Owens, the director of sleep medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital.
In a policy statement she authored for the American Academy of Pediatrics, Owens wrote that an 8:30 a.m. school start time could counter sleep loss due to extracurricular activities, academic demands and a natural biological shift in sleep cycles so teens can get a recommended 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep.
"Their brains are still going to be asleep at 7:20 in the morning," Owens said. "If you’re going to go through the trouble of making this change, do it in a way that’s going to be impactful. This is a little bit of window dressing, honestly."
Early start times that lead to lack of sleep are a dire public health issue, said Wendy Troxel, a senior behavioral and social scientist at the RAND corporation. She worked with economists on a report that found that if every U.S. high school began at 8:30 a.m., the U.S. economy could gain $8.6 billion in two years, outweighing the immediate costs of making start times later.
Because less sleep is correlated with lower academic performance, graduation rates, and fatal teen car crashes, which lead to a reduction in the workforce, Troxel found that the economic benefit could grow to $83 billion in a decade and $140 billion after 15 years.
"If it’s a step in the right direction, by all means," said Troxel, who is also a licensed clinical psychologist and certified behavioral sleep medicine specialist. "But the science suggests that the later start times, the better."
She added that "a 20-minute change is fairly minimal and hardly an impact."
How early could the district start high school and still see a benefit? Experts said about an hour later than the current time would help.
Dr. Matthew Milewski, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Boston Children’s Hospital, studied the impact of sleep deprivation on injury rates in young athletes. His analysis, which was published by the National Institutes of Health, found that high school athletes who slept fewer than 8 hours per night were 1.7 times more likely to have had an injury compared with athletes who got more sleep. The older the students got, the athletes were 1.4 times more likely to have had an injury.
"I’m sort of a man of compromise, so I think if you can get people to 45 minutes to an hour (later), the data does show that that can make a difference."
At the School Board’s meeting Tuesday, superintendent Mike Grego argued that, after 30 years of a 7:05 a.m. start time in Pinellas, making it 25 minutes later would be a "monumental" move.
"I think this is a pretty aggressive first step," he said, "and it’s not our last step."
A Northeast High student told board members that the "overall consensus" at the school would not be in favor of an 8:30 a.m. start time, and that an opening bell of around 7:30 was preferred.
Melissa Gallivan, the Pinellas parent who created the petition for a later start, touted the research showing an 8:30 start would be better, and said it should have been done years ago.
"Where would the children of Pinellas County be if we had already educated the stakeholders and made the change earlier?" she asked the board.
Contact Colleen Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.