Time is of the Essence: A wake up call for later school start times

Guest Column: Lynn Keefe
Lynn Keefe,MD,FAAP
Start School Later Okaloosa County Chapter

My name is Lynn Keefe and I am a local pediatrician who has been caring for the children of Okaloosa and surrounding counties for 24 years. I am married to a Choctaw grad, and have had four sons attend and graduate from Okaloosa County public schools. I care about Okaloosa County’s students’ health and their academic success. I know the importance of their involvement in school and extra curricular activities and I appreciate the responsibilities of a teen earning wages after school.

For the past 10 years, I have been working along with medical professionals in our community to inform parents and our school administrators about the necessity of adolescent sleep for healthy and academically successful teens. The 7 a.m. early high school start time for Okaloosa high schools and middle schools is harmful to our teens. It places them at risk for mental and physical health problems and leaves them at a great disadvantage academically.

Sleep is as important to a child’s healthy mental and physical development as exercise and a healthy diet. The circadian sleep patterns and sleep needs of children shift throughout their lifetimes: adolescents need just 8 to 10 hours of sleep, less than the 10 to 12 hours required by elementary school aged students. During adolescence, the sleep cycle shifts to a later onset of sleepiness, with a natural bedtime near 11 p.m., resulting in a natural wake up time near 7 a.m. In contrast, elementary school aged children are able to fall asleep near 7:30p.m. and awake naturally and well rested at 6 a.m.

Early school start times causes teen sleep deprivation and is linked to nicotine and caffeine addiction, obesity, depression, oppositional and risky behaviors, hyperactivity, immune system dysfunction, migraines, seizures, and teen car crashes. And teachers all know that tired teens miss or sleep through first and second period classes before their natural wake up hour.

It is a parent’s responsibility to teach healthy sleep hygiene; it is our school district’s responsibility to set healthy school hours. When our Okaloosa County School District set the high school and middle school start times at 7 a.m. 20 years ago, it did not have the knowledge of the current research linking adequate sleep to the success and health of its students.

The district had no idea that the 4:30 a.m. wake up call for the 5:45 a.m. bus to Crestview High School and Davidson Middle School was harmful to teens. Now, after 20 years of unequivocal and consistent research proving the harm of early school start times and sleep deprivation, the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics have recommended that all school districts have secondary school start times after 8:30 a.m.

What we parents should demand is healthy school hours for all of our children from Kindergarten to grade 12. Despite the inconveniences we adults would experience making childcare and commuter adjustments, we need to place the health and academic futures of Okaloosa County’s children highest on our priority list.

Changing bus routes starting with the elementary school pick up times between 7:15 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. when the sun is shining, would not place them in harm’s way nor be detrimental to their health or academic progress. The middle school and high school bus routes would follow, with school start times between 8:15 a.m. and 9:15a.m. All after school activities for high schools would start near 4:30 p.m., leaving over 6 hours each afternoon and evening for teen sports, jobs and homework and family time.

Twenty-three of the 67 school districts across Florida have high school start times after 8 a.m., and all have made this change with no increased cost. Our neighbor, Santa Rosa County, changed to a 9:15 a.m. high school start time in 2006 and saved millions of dollars. In school districts across the country where changes to later school start times have been made, there has been no decrease in employment of teens, no decrease in athletic competitiveness or participation, and the teens do not go to bed any later.

The harm of teen sleep deprivation associated with early school start times is now not a hypothesis; it is a fact. There is no reason that our kids should remain at such a disadvantage. Okaloosa School Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson and the School Board Members need own this problem and find a solution. We parents need to convince our school system that this has to happen for the health of kids. It’s not a negotiable school budget item – it’s an absolute requirement.

Lynn M Keefe,MD,FAAP

Start School Later Okaloosa County Chapter