Let Us Sleep!

By: Hadi Rahim and Jessica Hudnut

Every morning, Rose Andrews wakes up at 5:00 a.m. to get ready for school. She feels exhausted throughout the school day and struggles to focus in class. At Apex High School, where classes start at 7:25 a.m., many students report similar problems, all connected by a common problem: not enough sleep. 

Early start times are a standard for high schools across the country, but this has not always been the case. Prior to the 1970s, most schools started at around 9 in the morning. In 1973, the energy crisis forced suburban schools to cut down on transportation costs. This led to the emergence of staggered bus routes for elementary, middle, and high schools. 

High schools were selected to start the earliest due to concerns about younger students leaving for school in the dark; however, examining the sleep cycles of teenagers reveals that this is the worst possible policy. During puberty, a hormonal shift occurs, impacting the circadian rhythm so teenagers are wired to fall asleep (and wake up) later. In fact, most teens won’t feel sleepy until 11:00 p.m. This means that students who wake up at 6:00 a.m. get about seven hours of sleep, as opposed to the 8-10 hours recommended by the CDC

For many students, such as sophomore Vivian Mai, seven hours of sleep is still unrealistic. She goes to bed around 11 p.m. and has to wake up at 5:45 a.m to catch her bus. “I wake up too early and I go to be too late so I am tired a lot of the time and I can’t focus in school because I’m tired, especially in civics [her first period].”

Other students shared similar experiences, with some waking up as early as 5:00 a.m., totaling only six hours of sleep per night. 

According to the CDC, “Not getting enough sleep is common among high school students and is associated with several health risks including being overweight, drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco, and using drugs, as well as poor academic performance.” The American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends that High Schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. 

There are many movements across the country dedicated to pushing back school start times. One such movement, Start School Later, calls later school start times a “practical and necessary solution with broad and immediate benefits for children of all ages.” 

Some, however, feel that the status quo should be maintained. Armen Sunukjian, a sophomore, argued that a schedule change would be unnecessary: ¨People who have to do stuff after school would then just have to stay up a lot longer. It would just push everything back. It wouldn’t really solve anything.¨ 

Opponents of a schedule change also argue that students would simply go to bed later, so no meaningful change would occur. Others support keeping the current schedule purely because they like waking up early.

Some students offered a different solution entirely. Andrew Lynch, a sophomore, suggested broader reform to the education system as a whole. He proposed allowing high school students to schedule their own classes to fit their personal preferences: “Obviously that’s not something that Wake County can just be like ‘oh yeah that’s done’ but, over the long run, on a wide scale that would be a good direction to move forward.”

While a more flexible school schedule may seem like the best of both worlds, it does not address the original problem that the current start time aims to solve. Wake County simply does not have enough buses to make multiple trips to and from school. Given the district’s limited resources, high schools need to decide on a standardized schedule.

Ms. Fackler-Bretz, an English teacher at Apex High, argues in favor of a later start time. She sees students every day who come to class tired, which she believes is a result of poor sleep patterns caused by the early start time. She also challenged the assumption that students would just go to bed later if the start time was pushed back: “We have never tried it, so how do we know? What we’re doing now is not working, so let’s try something else.”

Pushing back the school start time is hardly a radical idea. In 2016, Seattle Public Schools flipped the schedules of elementary and high schools and found that high school students got a median of 34 extra minutes of sleep each night. 

Additionally, a study from the RAND Corporation revealed another long-term benefit: pushing school start times to 8:30 am would contribute $83 billion to the US economy.

While there are numerous arguments both for and against a schedule change, it ultimately comes down to a question of priorities. What does the school system value more: maintaining the status quo, or the well being of students?

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