EDITORIAL: This we can do

CONSIDER A PROBLEM we could fix. It would cost less than doing nothing, and doing nothing would only make things worse. Fixing this problem could help kids and they’d like it too. Most of them, anyway. That would be a change, wouldn’t it?

Let your teenagers sleep later. That’s right. This doesn’t require washing your hands more frequently. You don’t have to choose a candidate, either. Just sleep.

Research published in ScienceAdvances, a journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, estimates that teenagers are sleeping an hour less than they were a century ago. That may not sound like much when you account for the glowing, blinking, buzzing red, green and yellow haze that now surrounds most of us every night. But kids need sleep to grow and learn, and what the science tells us is that the sleep patterns of teenagers are different from adults.

Parents know you can tell your teenage kids that it’s bedtime and you… are… Serious! about it. But if the teen’s hormones don’t click in, that screen game or digital post is gonna get finished despite your threats to disconnect every pixel in the house. And the opposite behavior kicks in the following morning, when sleep-deprived teens drag themselves out of bed like zombie apocalypse wannabes.

Research confirms that this is not a sign of rebellion. It is normal human development to crave adequate sleep when your body tells you it’s tired. For teens that often means the morning.

What if teens could sleep a little later? In most cases, that’s not a family decision. The school district determines when the bus arrives and when classes begin. And that was the subject of the ScienceAdvances report. Researchers at the University of Washington looked at two schools in Seattle, one that served a low-income population and one in a higher-income part of the city. Classes that had started at 7:50 a.m. began instead at 8:45 in the morning. The students gained 34 minutes a night of additional sleep in the year that study ran. The Seattle study found that the extra sleep time correlated with a “4.5% increase in the median grades of the students and an improvement in attendance.”

The Ichabod Crane Central School District has mentioned a later start time but hasn’t yet adopted one. Other districts around the region have taken it further, with the Bethlehem Central School District in Albany County considering a later start time as soon as September.

This is not a plan to coddle children. The data show that early in the morning they are sleep deprived in our culture. Science tells us that sleep-deprived people don’t learn well. If we must pay an ever larger amount to educate our community’s children, it only makes sense that we teach them when they are most likely to learn.

Adopting a later start time in the six public school districts in Columbia County will cause disruptions–a later start for after-school sports and other extracurricular activities and challenges for families where care-givers must leave for work before their young children leave for school. But in the last few years districts including Ichabod Crane and Chatham, have successfully adjusted their bus schedules to increase efficiency in a manner very similar to what’s needed to adopt a later start time.

There’s another factor worth mentioning: the multi-billion-dollar hole in the state budget for 2020-21. That may cause cuts in school funding in the final state spending plan due at the end of March. School officials will then be scrambling to do more with less. But it will take more than frugal budgeting to improve public education in lean times. That makes the prospect of something like a 4.5% increase in grades sound pretty good. All it takes is the willingness to ring the first bell an hour later each morning.

Public schools are the foundation of our democracy. But for too long we have insisted on an outmoded approach to education designed to produce workers for an industrial economy that has already downsized, moved offshore, diversified and replaced workers with robots.

We need to revise that model starting with the knowledge that we should allow our students to get the sleep their bodies and minds must have. Science shows us how. But it’s up to adults to deliver the best education practices in our local schools. Being too tired to adapt our schedules is no excuse.

All districts should begin planning now for a later start time.

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