High Schoolers And Snooze Buttons: A Public Health Crisis? : NPR Ed Pre-dawn school start times are unhealthy and must change, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

High Schoolers And Snooze Buttons: A Public Health Crisis?

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Health experts who have studied sleep deprived children and teenagers have found they are at risk of being overweight and depressed, more likely to take up smoking, drinking, more likely to do poorly in school. Now, researchers with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are recommending that school districts help deal with the problem by starting classes no earlier than 8:30 a.m. NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: CDC researchers looked at schools' start time schedules in 8,000 schools.

ANNE WHEATON: Only 1 in 6 started at 8:30 or later, so that means that 5 out of 6 were starting too early.

SANCHEZ: Anne Wheaton, an epidemiologist, was the lead author of the study published in the CDC's "Morbidity And Mortality Weekly Report."

WHEATON: If a kid is in first period when they should still be asleep, how much are they really learning?

SANCHEZ: The CDC's findings are a follow-up to recommendations in 2014 by the American Academy of Pediatrics. The Academy recommended the 8:30 a.m. start time. That recommendation was based on natural sleep rhythms of school age children, especially teenagers. Researchers say teens should be getting eight and a half to nine and a half hours of sleep every night, but two-thirds of teenagers don't get nearly that much sleep, says Wheaton, and that doesn't just pose a health problem. It can be a public safety problem, too - teenagers who drive to school, for example.

WHEATON: If they're driving to school and they're falling asleep (laughter) on the way, that's a definite problem.

SANCHEZ: Across the country, the CDC found that schools' response to these findings has been, at best, dismissive. In 42 states, 2 out of 3 schools start classes well before 8:30 a.m., in Louisiana, as early as 7:40 a.m. Only schools in North Dakota, Mississippi and Wyoming start at 8:30 or later. In Montgomery County, Md., the school board has been debating this issue for years. It recently voted to start classes 20 minutes later in middle and high schools, 10 minutes later in elementary schools, even though many parents wanted an even later start time.

DANA TOFIG: Ultimate decision that was made by the board was a compromise.

SANCHEZ: Montgomery school spokesman Dana Tofig says the cost of starting school later was a huge consideration. Changing bus schedules for 90,000 students this fall is going to be a huge task, he says, but it's not going to cost that much more money. As for the overall benefits of starting school later...

TOFIG: I think a lot of it will have to do with what our students tell us - the health benefits, right? Are our students happier? Are they more engaged in school? Are we seeing fewer incidences of negative behavior or depression?

SANCHEZ: And most important, says Tofig...

TOFIG: (Laughter) Are they not falling asleep in first period?

SANCHEZ: Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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