It is rare that we as a community have an opportunity to make a true, meaningful impact on the daily lives of thousands of children with one decision. The school boards of Biddeford, Saco and Dayton will be faced with such a decision in an unprecedented joint school board meeting Wednesday. Following more than a year of advocacy led by the southern Maine chapters of Start School Later, the school boards will vote simultaneously on academic calendar proposals that include later starting bell times for teen students.

If these proposals pass, Saco Middle School, Biddeford Middle and High schools and Thornton Academy will become the first in the state to comply with the 2014 American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement and 2015 federal Centers for Disease Control recommendations that advise school start times of no earlier than 8:30 a.m. for adolescent students, a fast-growing trend nationwide.

The policy statement from the pediatricians’ group is based on decades of research that support the need for adolescents to sleep at least 8½ hours each night for optimal functioning and health. It is well documented that teens have biological clocks that are shifted about 90 minutes later than those of adults and younger children, making it physiologically very difficult for them to get enough sleep to meet the AAP recommendations and arrive at school for the early start times.

Most adults start to experience sleepiness around 9 p.m., when the pineal gland starts to produce melatonin, the hormone responsible for sleep-wake cycles. In the teen years, this production doesn’t start until closer to 10:30 p.m., which explains the familiar phenomenon of our 14-year-old “night owls” who lie awake in the wee hours, long after parents have collapsed of exhaustion after a long day.

Adult melatonin secretion stops around 7:30 a.m., while our teens continue to have this sleep-inducing hormone pulsing through their bodies until as late as 9 a.m. Asking a teen to wake up at 5:30 a.m. for a school bus pickup of 6:15 a.m. is like asking adults to start every day at 4 a.m.

Out of necessity, many adults do sleep less than we should, work overnight shifts and stay up later taking care of the home and children – but it still doesn’t make it healthy, and it is unfair to ask our children to do this at a time when their bodies and minds are already pushed to their maximum.

Early start times and inadequate sleep have been associated with poor academic performance, increased tardiness and absenteeism, increased traffic accidents for teen drivers, higher rates of athletic injuries and poorer health outcomes including obesity, depression, and drug and alcohol abuse.

Districts across the country that have changed to post-8:30 a.m. start times for middle and high school students have seen modest measurable improvements across many of these areas with more students achieving the minimum recommended hours of sleep.The science is solidly in support of later start times, but the challenges for many communities lie in the details. Concerns over bus routes, before- and after-school care for working parents, sports schedules and coordinating with other neighboring districts are all important concerns that need to be vetted in the process of changing school times.

These are all modifiable factors that parents currently manage every day. We will continue to work and plan our lives in the parameters of the school schedules, just as we do now, but with the added benefit of well-rested, healthy, successful students.

As the school physicians for Biddeford and Saco/RSU 23 school districts, respectively, we have advocated wholeheartedly for the adaptation of a healthier start time for our teens. Complicated issues such as this one are often fraught with hints of political influence, fears about the uncertain and resistance to change in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence. We encourage families, school administrators, community members and school board representatives to see the big picture and support healthy school start times.


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