Zero Period: A Student Health and Safety Issue

At last Tuesday's school board meeting I proposed that the board put on its agenda a policy that academic classes be taught only during the regular school day, rather than in so-called "zero period" before the start of school. I made this proposal after learning that several hundred students at Gunn are taking classes, including advanced math, economics, and English, beginning at 7:20 in the morning. This practice contradicts a recent policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics about healthy school start times and undermines our district's own decision several years ago to push high school start times back (at Gunn, to 8:25). The Weekly had an editorial on this subject last Friday. My colleagues Heidi Emberling and Terry Godfrey indicated a desire to hear more on this issue, so it will appear as an information item on the April 21st school board agenda. In this blog post, I'll lay out the reasons why I am making this proposal, which I believe is a prudent, sensible step to improve student health and wellbeing, and increase the safety of our students.

The research on the effects of sleep deficit on adolescents is clear and compelling, and led the American Academy of Pediatrics to issue a policy statement in August 2014 that middle and high school students should start school no earlier than 8:30 in the morning. The statement points to a host of health and learning issues caused by sleep deprivation, and is backed by research pointing to links between sleep and suicide attempts, safety, and academic success. According to the accompanying technical report issued by the Academy, "sleeping less than 8 hours a night seems to be associated with an almost threefold increased risk of suicide attempts." Sleep deficits are also linked to increased risk of automobile accidents and decreased performance in school. Several studies have demonstrated that starting school later is effective in increasing the length of time that teens sleep.

Our parents and students are asking us to take concrete steps to protect student safety and improve their social and emotional well-being. Listening to medical advice and discontinuing academic classes before the start of the school day is a prudent, responsible response. I have spoken with many doctors, child and adolescent psychiatrists, and sleep experts, including advisors to the district and doctors involved in drafting and reviewing the AAP policy, over the last few weeks about this issue. They have universally supported following the AAP's recommendation for all students.

The evidence on the connection between sleep and suicidality is already overwhelming and continues to increase. Just this evening a local doctor sent me a 2014 study from the Journal of Youth and Adolescence. The researchers examined sleep among students in Fairfax County, Virginia, where the high school start time is 7:20 a.m. That study found that:
Controlling for background variables, the odds of a student feeling sad and hopeless increased by 38%; of reporting serious suicidal ideation, by 42%, and of having already attempted suicide increased by a striking 58% for each hour less of sleep a student obtained. These odds accumulate multiplicatively with each hour of sleep lost such that for a student receiving three less hours of sleep...mak[es] such a youth more than 2.5 to almost 4 times more likely to be depressed and/or suicidal [emphasis in the original].

Some in the community, including some students and parents, argue that students should have a "choice" to take classes before the start of the school day. I appreciate the fact that some students and parents find value in academic classes in zero period. But this perspective misses the fact that we often restrict choice in order to protect public health. We don't allow 15 year olds to drive unaccompanied -- even though some could safely. We want all children to be immunized -- even though some would never catch a disease. We don't allow streaking on our high school campuses -- even though many students at Paly were disappointed when that "tradition" ended. Offering a choice that would be unhealthy for many students is simply not an acceptable option, given the stakes in student health and safety involved. We shouldn't have a course catalog that needs a warning label. That's why the American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement for school start times no earlier than 8:30 applies to all students.

The zero period question will be on the school board agenda for April 21 as an information item, which means that action cannot be taken. I plan to propose that the board eliminate academic classes in zero period at a subsequent meeting. The subject of high school mental health and wellness will be on the agenda for this coming Tuesday, March 24, and I urge you to attend if you would like to learn more about this general topic, and to offer any comments you have -- on sleep, or on any other topic involving health and wellness among our high school students.
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