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Report: Students start school day too early

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By Mackenzie Mays  
The Charleston Gazette  

Middle school and high school students should not be expected in class any earlier than 8:30 a.m. in order to avoid mental and physical health problems, according to a national report released Monday.

About 43 percent of public high schools across the country, however, start class before 8 a.m., according to the U.S. Department of Education — including most schools in West Virginia.

Most high schools in Kanawha County — the state’s largest district — start first period around 7:30 a.m., with South Charleston High School starting the earliest at 7:11 a.m. and St. Albans High starting the latest at 7:50 a.m.

Most middle schools in Kanawha County start class around 8:30 a.m.

The American Academy of Pediatrics report says teens who don’t get an appropriate amount of sleep are at higher risk of obesity, diabetes, depression and anxiety.

Without getting between 8.5 and 9.5 hours of sleep each night, adolescents are also more likely to do poorly in academics and become dependent on substances like caffeine, tobacco and alcohol, according to the report.

The report also finds connections between lack of sleep and higher rates of car accidents, as well as a student’s impaired interpretation of social and emotional cues and decreased motivation.

The AAP says pushing back school start times is the key to avoiding major problems associated with sleep deprivation, because biological changes associated with puberty cause teens to stay up longer — making it harder for parents to get them in bed sooner.

Other factors such as academic demands, excessive screen time and lifestyle choices also affect chronic sleep loss in teens, according to the report.

Only one in five adolescents gets nine hours of sleep on school nights, and 45 percent get less than eight hours of sleep, according to the latest poll conducted by the National Sleep Foundation.

Even a half-hour delay in the mornings could cause significant changes in student development, according to the AAP, and districts that have implemented later start times across the country have seen across-the-board improvement.

School officials say it would not be an easy change for districts to make.

Tom Williams, an associate superintendent with Kanawha County Schools, said the AAP’s findings aren’t news to him — education officials have known for years that a later start to the day for students could help them academically.

While there’s no county policy mandating when school starts or ends, to change it now could be problematic, Williams said. In Williams’ 30 years with the Kanawha County schools system, the class schedule has stayed mostly the same.

“It has a lot to do with when buses start running. … It would be very difficult to get a time change,” Williams said. “Let’s say high school wanted to start later, then you’re going to have to change the middle school and elementary school time too and get everyone in agreement because they have to share buses. I guess that’s probably why it hasn’t changed over the years.”

There is no statewide policy in West Virginia governing when school starts and ends, according to a spokesperson with the state Department of Education.

A national nonprofit organization was launched in 2011 to promote later school days. Start School Later Inc. includes educators, parents, sleep scientists and health professionals and focuses on pushing “healthy school hours.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has also urged districts to consider later starting times for high school students.