At the start of the school day, Rory Feinberg says "all anyone talks about is how tired they are."
Rory just finished 11th grade at Miami Beach High School, and as the year progresses, he says his sleep debt tends to accumulate. By the spring, he often falls asleep as soon as he gets home at mid-afternoon and sleeps right through dinner.
Close to 90 percent of U.S. high schools start before 8:30 am, and only a fraction of students get the 8 1/2 to nine hours of sleep doctors say they need.
WLRN spoke with Rachel Widome, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota who studies the relationship between sleep, school start times and long-term health risks related to obesity.
WIDOME: People think of not getting enough sleep as being sort of an annoyance, or uncomfortable, or an inconvenience, but we know that there’s some severe and long-term consequences. Teens that aren’t getting enough sleep don’t do as well in school, struggle more with attendance and some behavioral issues, increased risk for injury and depression. There’s some long-term health consequences that are associated with short sleep duration such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
WLRN: You’ve just outlined a bunch of different things. Can you tell me about how school start times kind of fit into the picture?
Sure. We know that when children begin puberty, circadian rhythms shift such that the melatonin is secreted later in the evening. And this makes it very difficult during the teenage years to fall asleep before 11 p.m.. And a lot of times, people will say, well, if you shift start times later, teens are just going to go to bed even later. But what we’ve found in the research is that the bedtimes of adolescents are pretty stable, so it’s not just a matter of peer pressure to stay up late, or social reasons that are keeping adolescents up late. It’s really something biological that’s going on. You know, even those that really strive for an early bedtime are going to struggle to get sufficient sleep because they aren’t feeling naturally sleepy until around 11 p.m..
Have you been a part of any conversations with school administrators contemplating changes like these?
Most people that I’ve talked to in leadership positions in school districts are aware of this research and do believe it. But there’s often perceived and real barriers to making a change. So I’ve talked to several superintendents of school districts in Minnesota that tell me they know this research, they believe it, they wish that there was a way that they could change their school district start time, but here are all the reasons why they can’t—things like transportation, busing schedules, after-school jobs, sports and extra-curriculars students are involved with.
So I think that’s why it’s important to think about examples of success in other school districts, and sort of think of it: If it’s something that can’t happen immediately, as a longer-term goal.
Some schools in Minnesota, where you are, have taken a look at their schedules and tried to make some adjustments for these very reasons. What has that experience been like?
Well, some school districts, they shift the start time until 8:30 or 9. But then, other things start getting slotted in and scheduled before school, like activities, sports, sometimes a zero hour for an optional class that students can take. So that’s something we see…<
If logistics were not an issue, what do you think the right school start time would be?
You know, what is the optimal time? How late would be ideal? I don’t think that’s known at this point. The research hasn’t sort of tested 8:30 versus 9:30 versus 10:30 yet, but certainly not before 8:30 in the morning.
What time did you start high school and do you remember what it was like?
Oh, yes. My high school started at 7:25 in the morning and I was involved in nerdy things like student council and clubs, and they often met before school, so it was awful. You know, you look back and you wonder what life would have been like if you had spent your teenage years feeling well-rested.
Yeah, unknowable. Truly, unknowable.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.