Doctors push to delay start of school day

Doctors: Sleep patterns mean school should start at 8:30 a.m. or later

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The average school start time in the United States is 8 a.m., which can often make for grumpy students and frustrated parents.

But Monday, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended middle schools and high schools delay the start of the school day to combat sleep deprivation in teenagers.

Doctors said teenagers are biologically programmed to sleep from about 11 p.m.-8 a.m., which can often be when students are well into their first-period class. Doctors recommend a school start time of 8:30 a.m. or later.

"I was just a zombie walking to my classes, because I was just so sleep-deprived that I was like falling asleep in my classes. I was just absolutely exhausted," said Madison Meyer, a junior at The Bolles School. "I would have to take huge chunks out of my day just to take a nap."

Meyer's sleep schedule was so turned around she resigned herself to naps in the nurse's office between classes, just to get through the daily grind at Bolles.

"It was hard for me to concentrate, and I felt bad because I was falling asleep in my classes," Meyer said. "I felt bad that the teachers thought I wasn't interested in their classes, which wasn't the case."

Stories like Meyer's should be a wake-up call to school districts across the country, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, which is now pushing for that first school bell to ring after 8:30 a.m.

"We know that these adolescents end up getting less sleep than is recommended for them," said Dr. Erick Viorritto, a sleep specialist at Nemours Children's Health System. "And this leads to decreased academic performance (and) increased rates of depression. We know that inadequate sleep leads to increased rates of obesity and being overweight. Increased rates of auto accidents are right at the time when they are most vulnerable to that as new drivers."

Viorritto said biological changes during puberty create a shift in circadian rhythms causing teens to get tired later at night and wake up later in the morning – by as much as two hours.

"My message to them is that this is a biologic fact. This can't be changed. But it can be accommodated," Viorritto said. "And by doing so, kids are going to perform better."

In Duval County, middle schools start at 9:30 a.m., but high schools start at 7:15 a.m.

In St. Johns County, middle schools start at 7:50 a.m., while high schools start the day at 9:15 a.m.

"We know that kids are not performing up to their potential with the way things are set up," Viorritto said.

Meyer's mother, Christine Meyer, said she wants to see the start times change at all schools

"I think it's very important. And I hope that the school districts will pay attention to it, because I've seen my own child struggle with it," Christine Meyer said. "If we want our children to be successful in school, they have to have sleep."

Madison Meyer said she finally has her sleep schedule back on track, thanks in part to Viorritto's advice. He said he has patients turn off all electronics one hour before bed and just say no when it comes to caffeine.

District spokespeople for both Duval and St. Johns counties said there's been no discussion about changing start times for their respective schools, but the districts welcome any feedback on the topic.