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RUSSO: Late to bed, early to rise

Local school boards should prioritize healthy sleep habits for adolescents

Most American teens would agree that high school is a stressful time. Students are expected to juggle academic challenges and extracurricular involvements while simultaneously planning for their future. All of this occurs in the midst of significant social, emotional, psychological and physical changes.

The last thing that high school students need is the stress of exhaustion. Sleep deprivation in American adolescents — which can cause depression, obesity, car accidents and poor academic performance — is a national health and safety issue and should be addressed as such with the implementation of legislation that will delay school start times until at least 8:00 a.m.

During adolescence, our internal clocks shift so that it becomes difficult to fall asleep before 11 p.m. According to the Mayo Clinic, most teens need nine hours of sleep to remain alert during the day. With some schools starting at 7:30 a.m., students would need to go to sleep between 9:00 and 10:00 p.m. to get a full nine hours. With homework and other obligations, this time is simply not realistic.

While in high school, my biggest challenge was exhaustion. Senior year, my school changed our start time from 8:45 a.m. to 8 a.m., which decreased the average amount of sleep I could get by about half an hour a night. Not only was I more tired during the day, but I also had difficulty recalling the lesson from my first class later on. I did not want to give up any extracurricular involvements or lighten my workload, especially during the challenging college admissions process, when adolescents are urged to present their best selves. Many students fall prey to this mindset, in which mental and physical health drop to the bottom of a long laundry list of commitments and aspirations. State and national legislators should ensure that school start times make it easier for students to keep up with their responsibilities while avoiding sleep deprivation.

According to a survey sponsored by NPR and performed by the Harvard School of Public Health, 50 percent of parents polled reported school start times before 8 a.m., with 18 percent reporting a start before 7:30 a.m.

It would be naïve to argue that implementing a federal change in start times for high schools will be easy to execute. However, evidence proves obstacles in the way of this change are surmountable. Schools in Arlington , VA faced the challenge of competition for sports facilities, but were able to collaborate to devise a plan that allowed them to delay school start times. The National Sleep Foundation Adolescent Sleep Initiative details the success of Jessamine County, Kentucky in changing their start times. To tackle the issue of rearranging their transportation schedule, the county shifted elementary school times up and pushed back middle school and high school times. Elementary school students do not demonstrate the same aversion to waking up early that is biologically specific to teenagers. In the West Des Moines school district, swapping start times allowed the district to save $700,000. Another creative solution, successfully implemented in Mahtomedi, Minnesota, was to decrease the amount of time students had between classes, allowing the school day to end at around the same time and avoiding interruption of afterschool obligations.

I did not anticipate the difference that coming to college would have on the amount of sleep I would be able to get, nor the improvement in my efficiency and alertness that would result. Students should not have to wait until college to be able to wake up at an hour that is in accordance with their biological wiring.

With more research on this topic being released in recent months, the movement to push back school start times is gaining momentum. The organization “Start School Later” has started a national online petition to bolster legislation to prevent schools from starting before 8 a.m.

Despite these successful examples, it is fairly obvious that creative solutions must be found and concessions must be made for this movement to be successful. Implementing later start times in larger urban areas will prove significantly more challenging than in Jessamine County, with its small population of 5000, in which policymakers, parents, and students were able to collaborate on an intimate scale. Despite any challenges that may occur, health and safety of students should be prioritized, especially since high school is such a formative time in our lives.

Mary Russo is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at