Seattle teens are making history when they start school this September.
The Seattle Public Schools board of directors decided last November to delay bell times for teen students in response to local concerns from medical professionals, parents, educators, and students regarding the rising epidemic of sleep deprivation nationwide.
This fall, all of the district's high schools and most of its middle schools will start school 8:45am, with many elementary schools flipping to a 7:45am start time. A few elementary and K-8 schools will also start later, at 9:35am.
Last year, dozens of medical professionals, including our very own sleep specialist, Dr. Gandis Mazeika, contributed to a 37-page recommendation report researched by the Seattle Public School (SPS) district's Bell Times Analysis Task Force.
Published in July 2015, it was instrumental in inspiring the change toward later school start times for teens in Seattle schools, a decision that is still controversial for many.
Why later bell times for teens?
More than 90 percent of high schoolers are chronically sleep deprived, according to a 2014 report published in the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) magazine, Preventing Chronic Disease.
As with people of every other age group, adolescents' lack of sleep can wreak havoc on their physical and emotional health. For teens, these problems center around obesity, anxiety, poor performance in school, and higher risks for developing chronic disease, driving while drowsy, and enacting risky behaviors.
Sleep deprivation among teens is a serious public health issue, not only in Seattle, but across the country. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, middle and high schools should start at 8:30am or later to allow more time for adolescents to sleep.
By their very nature, teens are biologically different from other age groups because their sleep cycles are phase delayed, meaning they tend to go to bed later (typically, after midnight) due to normal shifts in their circadian rhythms.
Meanwhile, schools that start earlier than 8:30am require these same kids to rise well before they've had adequate amounts of sleep.
How much sleep do teens need? If a teen routinely goes to bed at 1am, and then has to rise at 6am in order to shower, eat, and transport themselves to school at times earlier than 8:30am, they are getting only 5 hours of sleep, far less than the 8 to 10 hours recommended by the National Sleep Foundation.
This is how sleep debt starts. Sleep-deprived teens can lose 2 to 3 less hours of sleep per night during the week, then follow this up with their legendary "Saturday sleep ins," which only partially recover their sleep debt and disrupt circadian rhythm shifts. Once Monday morning arrives, they are back to both an untenable sleep-wake schedule and the accrual of further sleep loss.
This unsustainable schedule forces teens into patterns of sleep deprivation that can stay with them well into adulthood.
Studies show that as few as 15 percent of all teens are achieving 8 or more hours a night. Yet, despite the research showing correlations between school bell times, teens and sleep deprivation, the CDC has analyzed current student populations across the US and found that less than 1 in 5 start their school days at 8:30am or later.
Seattle's path to later bell times
The effort to delay school start times in Seattle started several years ago.
District biology and biotech teacher, Cindy Jatul, began to notice how many more students fall asleep in school than in previous years, including her own teenaged daughter. From this observation, she launched a campaign; coalitions and task forces were formed and experts from across the country were consulted.
Though the school board made the decision last November, resistance to the change is still being felt locally.
The challenges of a later bell time for Seattle public schools and their families
Child care for younger children who get out of school earlier now is high in demand, and providers may not be able to handle the new influx of kids.
Some sports coaches in Seattle school districts are concerned that high schoolers who play field sports will not be able to practice because they don't have lighting on their fields.
Teens who work after-school jobs may have fewer opportunities to do so because they are getting out of school later.
Busing in the school system follows a complicated 3-tier system already.
Managing both public school bus schedules and the impacts on Metro buses (which often serve public school students when SPS bus schedules run too early) will be eye opening in this first year.
In fact, the decision for the SPS to adopt early bell times for teens has been labeled "historic" because the district has one of the most complex urban busing situations in the US; many other cities eagerly anticipate the outcome of early hours this year in Seattle so they can develop models for their own transportation challenges.
Community support for later bell times in Seattle public schools
SPS has its work cut out for itself, but former board director Sharon Peaslee recently had this to say in the Huffington Post about making the change:
"We did so because the research strongly shows that adequate sleep improves cognitive and athletic performance while also boosting mental and physical health. With inadequate funding we need to ensure that we get the biggest bang for our education bucks."
She further said, "The entire city of Seattle is in on this. Community non-profits, the Parks Department, Seattle Housing Authority, the Department of Transportation and others have helped to address the logistical needs to make this possible for our students."
Peaslee points to major efforts by Seattle Children's Hospital and a recent story in the Seattle Times,suggesting that teen males stand to be the biggest beneficiaries of later school bell times, as further evidence that the Seattle community cares about sleep and teens.
For information on bell times for your Seattle public school student, check out this link through the district. The West Seattle Herald thoughtfully offers nonEnglish versions of this schedule here to serve families whose native languages may include Chinese, Somali, Spanish, Tagalog, or Vietnamese.
American Academy of Pediatrics
American Academy of Sleep Medicine
Centers for Disease Control
National Sleep Foundation
Start School Later
West Seattle Herald