September. A new school year dawns. ‘Dawns’ being the operative word. With daylight shortening, increasingly our students are finding themselves heading off to school in the morning halflight. Soon, we’ll expect to see high schoolers lining up for buses or climbing subway stairs while the sky is still dark, hurrying to classes that start well before 8 am.
None of this is new, but this year, the issue of school start times has been a hot button. Just recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics released fresh recommendations on adolescent sleep requirements and ways in which schools could and should adapt to the unique physiological needs of maturing young people. The biology behind these recommendations is hardly novel and not seriously in dispute. The recommendations themselves have to some degree been current for ages. And yet, change isn’t likely to follow.
As Libby Nelson recently observed in Vox, part of this is logistics. Bus fleets around the country are coordinated to start their daily cycle with the oldest students so that the youngest aren’t left out in the dark (really, we build this whole heading off to school in darkness into the system). But, at a certain point, logistics can't ever really be the answer. Practical concerns and raw data never really drive policy.
No, there’s likely some deeper bias also at play in the matter. When it comes down to it, sleep is an intensely moralized matter. Sloth is a deadly sin. Enterprise is a virtue. We scorn the siesta and extol the value of getting the worm. The old Protestant ethic often seems to be most intensely alive in the United States between the hours of 5 and 8 am. And when it comes to our kids, no matter what the doctors may say, we nurse a secret dread that they’re lazy when they sleep late or snooze through the alarm.
Even if some places like Jackson Hole, WY, may be getting wise and rebuilding the school day for teens, there’s little hope of a national rethink on adolescent sleep. Whatever biases may be at play, this issue has not coalesced into a movement that drives change. Perhaps, that's because its chief proponents have decided to sleep in?