By Zoe Wynn
It’s six in the morning and a loud sound erupts in junior Madeline Murr’s bedroom. Outside, it is still completely dark, and in that moment all she wants to do is crawl under the covers and fall blissfully back to sleep. But for Murr and many students like her, the day has already begun. She pulls on her clothes, makes her breakfast, and walks out the door, all half asleep. She braves the frosty morning and a freezing cold car. Murr pulls into a prime parking spot at 7:00 a.m. and makes her way to leadership class. Around her, other students do the same.
We all know that forcing ourselves to wake up early is miserable. What many may not be aware of, however, is just how harmful sleep deprivation can be. Not only should teenagers be getting between 8 and 10 hours of sleep every night, but they should be sleeping in accordance with their circadian rhythm, or body clock. Teenagers’ circadian rhythms make them stay up late at night and sleep later in the morning. Even if students get the recommended amount of sleep, that sleep might be of poor quality if they are doing it at the wrong time. Unfortunately, the default school schedule is primed to contradict teenagers circadian rhythms.
“Your biological clocks are different. You wake up later; you go to sleep later. The school system is currently built for the adults and not for the students,” assistant principal David Rice.
Overwhelmed with school, sports, and extracurriculars, students often let sleep slip down their list of priorities, ultimately putting their bodies at risk. For students like junior Eddie Schultz, getting the recommended number of hours of sleep, let alone high quality sleep, seems impossible. “I get six hours, maybe six and a half if I’m lucky,” Schultz said. Schultz has practice everyday before and after school for his club team and finds it hard to balance it with sleep and schoolwork. “On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I have four AP’s straight and so that really sucks [because] I have three hours of homework right before [practice],” he said.
In an attempt to remedy the cycles of sleep deprivation students get stuck in and better match school schedules to circadian rhythms, many schools are proposing later school start times. In the 2016-2017 school year, Seattle public schools enacted a later start times for all students. The change in school times only pushes back the end of the school day between 15 and 50 minutes. Every Seattle high school, with only one exception, begins at 8:45 AM and ends at 3:15 PM.
“The changes are a culmination of a years long campaign by parents, teachers and sleep scientists, who advocated for changing school start times to better match teens’ biological clocks,” wrote the Seattle Times. Maida Chen, a doctor at the Seattle Children’s Hospital, stated in a video on the Seattle Public Schools website, “It makes sense that we are changing our high school times to match it with their biology so that they are awake during school and that we give them the opportunity to sleep a little longer in the morning, which is really when their bodies are craving more sleep.”
Marin schools are considering similar measures. Mill Valley Middle School (MVMS) changed the start time from 8:15 to 8:40 this year. MVMS student Emma Bowser can tell the difference from the start time last year.
“I’m getting more work done this year [in class and at home] than I did last year,” Bowser said. “Last year, I used to be really tired when walking into class and I couldn’t stay focused. This year I feel much more rested and I can stay focused easier.” However, Bowser says she isn’t a fan of the schedule change as a whole. “On Fridays and Mondays, we get out 25 minutes later than we did last year. Wednesdays used to be our early day, but now we get out one hour and six minutes later this year, which is upsetting because it doesn’t give me much time to relax or do homework before my after school sports,” Bowser said.
Drake High School is also considering a later start time. Community members there have formed a bell schedule committee to advocate for such a change. Drake Counselor Sheila Souder is on the committee, which hopes to push school start time to 8:30 a.m.
“Several of the teachers and counselors started talking [about a later start time] and we went to [Principal] Liz Seabury to get approval to begin a committee and research options,” said Sounder.
The role of the Bell Schedule Committee is to evaluate research of student sleep schedules and patterns to make a schedule that better matches teens health and performance in school, according to Souder. Regardless of changes to start time, ending time at Drake will stay the same.
“[School] would end at approximately the same time. Some days earlier and some later, with no day ending later than 3:35,” Souder said. “The schedule is working to accommodate students who have to get dropped off earlier and who have sports after school. Athletics would not be impacted by end times of the proposed schedules. Parents could still have the same drop off, as the cafeteria and library will be open,” Souder said.
In addition to classes starting early, many Tam students are either arriving before classes start due to leadership, sports, or simply to find a parking spot. If Drake’s schedule was implemented at Tam, students would be able to sleep 45 minutes later and would be more awake and alert both at school and driving to school.
Schultz has morning practice for his swim team twice a week. “Morning practice starts at 5:30 and it’s in Kentfield,” Schultz said. “[I wake up at] 4:45 a.m.” Schultz said he would love for school to start later, giving him the extra sleep and relaxation needed to finish homework. “I would be able to go to practice and then I would be able to go to sleep earlier the night before and I would have time to do homework before class….if [morning practice] was pushed back it would be so much better,” Schultz said.
Many students get to school early regardless of whether they need to be at school before start time, so as to find prime parking. “It was painful the past two years, I won’t lie,” Murr said of her zero period. “But it’s not that big of a deal, especially because I have to wake up [early] to park anyways.”
Most Tam upperclassmen and some sophomores drive to school, contributing to a much maligned parking problem. As a result of the lack of spaces many students get to school at 7:15 a.m. or even earlier, sacrificing their sleep in order to get a parking spot close to the school.
Souder has seen the negative effects of sleep deprivation on students in her job as Drake counselor. “All of the research supports and strongly encourages later start times. As a counselor, I have seen a drastic increase in student anxiety in the past five years. Students tell me they are exhausted. The Healthy Kids Survey rates “not getting enough sleep” as a top reason to miss school. I could list twenty more things,” Souder said. She notices how tired students are at the beginning of the day and how their energy often changes even a half an hour into the school day. “Often times, when I do classroom presentations through a whole day, I notice a marked difference in the engagement at 8:00 a.m. versus 8:30 or later,” she said.
Tam High social studies teacher Sharilyn Scharf has the same experience in her classroom. “Whenever I teach a first or a fifth [period class], kids aren’t as awake as they are second period or later,” she said. “They normally start perking up and becoming more engaged around 9 a.m.…. that first half hour to an hour can almost be wasted because kids aren’t yet ready to engage in the way you want them to engage. It’s not their fault.”
Both academic performance and standardized test scores are correlated closely with the amount of sleep that students get. Sleep deprivation leads to cognitive deficits, including worsened memory and the loss of up to two years of cognitive development, according to a study by Tel Aviv University. In a famous example of the impact a schedule change can have on performance, Minnesota’s Edina High School changed the start times from 7:15 a.m. to 8:30. The SAT scores of the top 10 percent of scorers rose by over 200 points, to an average score of 1500 out of 1600.
Sleep deprivation also presents dangers when combined with early morning driving. Compared to drivers who have slept eight hours a night, those operating on six to seven hours are twice as likely to be involved in a crash. When hours of sleep drops to five, the risk is increased by four to five times, according to a study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. Upwards of 100,000 crashes are the direct result of driver fatigue each year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. These crashes cause an estimated 1,500 casualties annually.
Agreeing with Scharf, Souder, Rice believes that Tam students would do better with a later start time. “There is a lot of research to back a later start day for students,” he said.
Most parents need to be able to drop their kids off at school before heading to work, and the current start time is designed with that in mind. Critics argue that delaying the school day could disrupt parents’ mornings. If changes to the morning schedule led to later school days as a whole, they could also affect sports practices and other after school extracurriculars. As much as it would be great to sleep in, many students expect that the compromises would be too great.
“I think it would be nice [for school to start later] but I think we also have to consider how it affects when school ends,” Schultz said. “Especially for me, when we get out late at 3:25 on two days of the week and I’m ten minutes late to practice which is not good but it’s not the end of the world. If it was later than that then it really wouldn’t be great.”
Murr also believes that the later start time might result in students going to sleep later as well, mitigating the benefits of such a change. “Because of the time our school gets out, I know if we pushed it back then we would get out of school late, and we would be staying out later at night instead of waking up in the morning,” she said.
Aware of these concerns, Scharf has created a schedule where school starts at nine each morning and ends only five minutes later each day except for Monday, when it would end 50 minutes later. The schedule is built to not affect sports practices and other after school extracurriculars. She began drafting a plan a few years ago, as she got inspired from a unit she was teaching, “In my psychology class we do a unit on consciousness and sleep and I just started finding all of this research on how the sleep patterns for teenagers are all very different and if you stick to the current schedule we have it is actually very detrimental to their physical health but also their performance in school,” Scharf’s schedule contains an 8 a.m. start for teachers to give them an hour to work and collaborate. “It could be used for staff meetings it could be used for teachers to individually to work with other teachers to plan and collaborate. We would have more [time to plan]. Currently we have one meeting a week after school and any other time you may meet with teachers is during your prep period,” she said.
Scharf said her schedule saves time by shortening each class period by ten minutes. She is confident that this wouldn’t affect her classes but wonders if other teachers might be opposed, “As a social studies teacher, I feel like I can teach anything I teach in 90 minutes, in 80 minutes. But in math and foreign language it might be a different story,” she said. “There might be some teachers who are like ‘you know I need those ten minutes.’ It is 20 minutes per week in a class so I could see some teachers saying, ‘I can barely teach what I’m teaching now in a class, I can’t give up those 20 minutes.’”
However, Scharf sees the goal to improve the health of all Tam students as the top priority. She knows that teens need more sleep than they are getting, “[Waking up early] is not in the rhythm of a teen circadian rhythm. [Improvement of schoolwork] is the goal but it is also about mental health and stress. I’d like to see my students feel better,” she said. “…. I hope it would reduce all sorts of problem in terms of stress.”
So far Scharf’s plan has only been shown to a select few. “I have sent this to the principal and I have sent this to the teacher leaders,” Scharf said. “…If I see some momentum I would be happy to sit down with the principal, our admin, the board. It ultimately has to be approved by the school board.” Although Scharf is hopeful that the plan can gain traction, she doesn’t think it will go into effect next year. “The wheels of bureaucracy move extremely slowly,” she said.
At this point Rice is supportive of Scharf’s plan but acknowledges that there would be details to be worked out. “My initial reaction is yes, based on what I have seen, but there are a lot of logistics to figure out,” he said. According to Rice, he and the rest of the admin cannot change the schedule. “The schedule comes from the union….they are the ones that will approve the schedule or not. We just adhere to it. It’s not my decision if we would implement it or not,” he said.
Scharf’s schedule and the overarching concept of pushing back school start times would benefit students and their sleep schedules. As of now, there is no plan to implement this schedule nor any other. Ultimately, the interest of students and other community members are necessary for the schedule changes to gain traction. Consider the benefits, but also the disadvantages. Does one outweigh the other?