There’s a teen sleep crisis in the U.S., according to researchers like Dr. Rachel Widome, a sleep researcher at the University of Minnesota.

Widome was one of several experts present at an informational meeting March 30. She was invited by the White Bear Lake school district to weigh in on a proposal to change school start times across the district.

The proposal includes an earlier 7:45 a.m. start time for elementary school students, except for those who attend Matoska International, which would start at 8:30 a.m. The middle school start time would be pushed to 9:15 a.m., North Campus to 8:25 a.m., and South Campus to 8:45 a.m

Brain biology changes drastically at the start of puberty, causing teens’ circadian clock to delay by about two hours in the evening. 

“After this happens, it becomes quite difficult for adolescents to fall asleep prior to 11 p.m. or wake before 8 a.m.,” Widome said. 

For some, the sleep schedule can be so out of sync with the demands of school schedules that it can put a student in an almost constant state of jet lag. Lack of sleep is associated with a number of risks to health and safety, and also tends to hit students from disadvantaged communities the hardest.

“A teenager, even with the best intentions, is not going to be able to fit in nine hours of sleep with that early high school start time,” Widome said. 

Widome and her colleagues were able to conduct a study of a few nearby school districts that made start time changes and contrast them with schools that didn’t. At the start of the study, only 15 percent of students in these schools with early start times

were getting the recommended minimum of 8.5 hours of sleep per night. Over several years, it was clear that the students who attended school with 

later start times were sleeping about 45 more minutes per night than their peers with early start times and required less oversleeping on weekends.

While the delayed start time has many benefits for teenage biology, there’s another strong incentive to alter the school start timing. The change would allow the district to implement a three-tiered transportation system, enabling the district to eliminate seven buses from its fleet. The potential cost savings were estimated to be $600,000 a year, Kazmierczak said.

“We’re in a unique situation; not every district can say this that’s made this change, but by making the change we would be able to run a more efficient transportation system,” he said.  

Part of the impetus for these proposed times came from a traffic study that determined what traffic flow may look like when the united high school at North Campus opens in 2024. The later time would allow the bulk of rush hour traffic to pass through the Highway 61 corridor before school begins. 

Families in attendance at the meeting were able to pose questions to district staff—many of them expressed dismay with the way the start time upset their plans for the coming school year. Given the fact that things still aren’t back to normal with the COVID-19 situation, and that the united high school won’t open until 2024, some questioned whether the timing was right.

“Any delay in this decision pushes off significant benefits for students,” Kazmierczak responded.

Parents expressed concern about young children waiting in the dark winter mornings at bus stops, and about having them spend additional hours at school. Extended Day Coordinator Christina Thayer Anderson responded that many students are already spending lengthy amounts of time on site before and after school, and the earlier start time would likely mean students won’t have to wait as long in the mornings before their lessons begin. 

“There’s certainly going to be an impact in family schedules,” Kazmierczak said. “Some are going to love the change, and some are not going to love the change, and we know that.”

A video recording of the informational meeting, as well as a Q&A section, are available on the school website at isd624.org. The school board will consider the proposal at its next meeting, 5:30 p.m. April 12 at the District Center.

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