Sleep-deprived teens spend school in a daze dreaming of their beds
They trudge through Blair's glass double doors dragging their feet and with their backpacks slumped over a shoulder. Outside it's dark and the sky is just beginning to show signs of day. Their eyes are heavy and their movements slow as they walk to first period. They are Blazers¯exhausted and sleep-deprived.
On most school days, students stumble out of bed at the call of their alarms after a mere seven hours of sleep instead of the optimal 9 hours and 15 minutes, according to the National Sleep Foundation. They are boarding buses by 7:00 a.m. and in class by 7:30 a.m., drowsily dreaming of crawling back into their warm beds.
Sleep deprivation has become an overlooked and chronic problem that, according to Pat Britz, Program Director for the National Sleep Foundation, "affects every aspect of life," from sports to schoolwork. For this reason, Britz says, Montgomery County school starting times including Blair's starting time are just "too early" and too damaging to the health of teens.
Most Blazers view sleep as a luxury instead of a necessity. According to an informal Silver Chips survey conducted on Oct. 24, 70 percent of Blazers say they receive seven hours or less of sleep on an average school night. Homework and sports are prioritized over sleep, and with whatever free time is available, high-schoolers like senior Lindsey Fowler-Marques perk up to catch their friends online rather than retire to catch Z's in the sack.
Staying up late on school nights leads to a lack of concentration, increased vulnerability to illness, mood swings and even depression, according to Brisk. The effects of sleep deprivation are clear to math teacher Paul Grossman, who says that there are always a few people that fall asleep every day in his class. "I see a lot of students come into first period and just put their heads down," he says.
Taking a nap during class sometimes seems unavoidable, says senior Samia Said. She admits that she occasionally sleeps through her entire English period.
Despite her drowsiness, Said believes that her late nights of homework are worth the grades on her report card.
Struggling to stay awake
However, the price for maintaining an impressive GPA isn't cutting down on sports or schoolwork for senior Zack Koerper. It's going to bed past midnight after his daily two-hour soccer practices and the completion of his physics, AP Chemistry and AP Calculus homework.
To keep himself from dozing off in class, Koerper chews between two and four Jolt "caffeine energy gum" pieces throughout the day. He keeps the stash of green packets of gum, which are each equivalent to drinking a half cup of coffee, in the first compartment of his backpack so that he can access them early in the morning and throughout the school day whenever he feels like he's going to fall asleep. The most he's ever taken is eight in a day.
However, the temporary relief of caffeine, as well as naps after school, is not a substitute for a good night's sleep, says Britz.
"The driving force"
In 1998, the MCPS Board of Education examined the problem of sleep deprivation in high schools and considered a pilot program to test the delay of the 7:25 a.m. starting time. The school board voted in favor of a resolution to investigate the possibility of a "split schedule" high school that would give students the option of going to school at either 9:00 a.m. or 7:45 a.m. This program was expected to cost $140,000 for every 7,000 students wishing to choose a late schedule. The pilot program never started because no high school volunteered to do so, according to MCPS spokesperson Kate Harrison.
Harrison says that "transportation is the driving force" behind the maintenance of the 7:25 a.m. school starting time. According to Harrison, MCPS circulates 12,000 buses per day to elementary, middle and high schools, making the county's transportation system the seventh largest in the country. In order to move back the starting time, MCPS would need to buy more buses, fuel and hire more drivers, she says. In addition, a later schedule would interfere with extra-curriculars and family responsibilities such as taking care of siblings.
The benefits of pushing back the start times may, however, be worth the hassles. The National Sleep Foundation reports that drowsiness and fatigue contribute to the 100,000 traffic deaths in the U.S. per year, half of which are caused by drivers ages 25 or under. The foundation recommends that schools start no earlier than 9:00 a.m., a stark contrast to MCPS' 7:25 a.m.
The argument still exists that students should simply go to bed earlier. But most teenagers are not lying when they say they aren't tired as they watch a reasonable bed time slip away. Britz cites the circadian shift in the body that occurs during adolescent years as the reason teens don't feel the need to go to bed until later at night.
Other schools around the country have found that benefits of delaying the school start times outweigh the costs. During the 1995-1996 school year, Minneapolis schools changed their start times from 7:25 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. The district found that since the change, schools have increased attendance and decreased high school dropout rates.
According to Blitz, the board of education is not planning to reopen the school starting times issue any time soon. That leaves students like senior Andrew Helgeson fighting off sleep during his classes. During lunch, he outlines his plan for the night. By the time he goes home and catches up on his AP European History and AP Comparative Government homework, as well as his AP Physics notes, 7:25 a.m. will be soon approaching. He resolves, "Tonight might be a no-sleeper."
Karima Tawfik. More »