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Early School Starts Make It Hard For Teens To Catch Enough Zs

Students arrive at McKinley Classical Leadership Academy Middle School for a 7:10 a.m. class start time, one of 17 St. Louis Public Schools that start that early.
Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
Students arrive for a 7:10 a.m. class start time at McKinley Classical Leadership Academy Middle School, one of 17 St. Louis Public Schools that start that early.

School at McKinley Classical Leadership Academy Middle School begins at 7:10 a.m.

If Lisa Manzo-Preston’s seventh grade daughter took the bus to the St. Louis public school, she’d have to be outside at 6:03 a.m. on the dot.

“That's impossible for us. That’s absolutely not something we're able to do because of her level of exhaustion and her inability to wake up in the morning,” she said. 

Instead, her 13-year-old daughter can “sleep in” until 6:45 a.m. 

Manzo-Preston is part of a parent group lobbying St. Louis Public Schools to push back early morning school bells so teens get more of the sleep doctors say they need. It’s a push that’s happening around the country as sleep research shows teens naturally go to bed — and wake up — later.

In October, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law mandating most middle and high schools in the state begin no earlier than 8:30 a.m. 

Missouri lawmakers have not weighed in on the start of the school day, but several suburban districts have responded to parents’ concerns and recommendations from experts.

Eric Landsness is a member of the SLPS parent group lobbying for later starts. He’s also a sleep physician with Washington University School of Medicine. Teens' biological clocks want to stay up until midnight, he said.

“This is why our kids are so sleep-deprived,” Landsness said. “They want to go to bed at 1 in the morning, but they have to get up at 6 in the morning to get to school at 7.”

National sleep and pediatric medical associations have all come out in favor of later school start times. Middle and high schools shouldn’t start before 8:30 a.m., argues the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Sleep researchers said it’s a misnomer that simply sleeping until noon on the weekends, as teens are wont to do, makes up for not getting enough sleep on school nights.

In recent years Rockwood, Affton and Maplewood Richmond Heights have pushed back the first bell by 20-50 minutes. Students arrive for school more attentive and ready to learn, district officials said.

Still, 17 St. Louis Public Schools start at 7:10 in the morning. Mehlville and Bayless in south St. Louis County have middle schools that begin at 7:15 in the morning.

SLPS administrators are open to amending school start times, a spokeswoman said. First bell was adjusted as recently as the 2016-17 school year after recommendations from parents, said SLPS’s Meredith Pierce. 

“With 68 buildings, it is always challenging to make school schedule changes,” Pierce said.

The district’s contracted fleet of 276 school buses does triple duty, dropping students off at some schools around 7 a.m., then at 8 a.m. and lastly at 9 a.m. If all schools began at the same time, the district would have to add more buses — an expensive move. 

“It would be a monster,” said Superintendent Kelvin Adams, regarding the cost increases of moving all schools to an 8 a.m. or later start.

“We would literally have to run close to 700 buses, and I don’t even know if we have the ability to do so,” he said. 

Adams said changing just one school from a 7:10 to 8:10 a.m. start would cost nearly $890,000.

Moving back the morning bell would also mean a later ending to the school day. That can complicate after-school activity schedules, such as sports.

But Landsness, the sleep physician and SLPS parent, sees an upside for student athletes.

“Actually, when students are sleep-deprived and not getting enough sleep, they’re at a higher risk for having injuries and being able to recover that for them,” he said.

Manzo-Preston has limited the number of extracurriculars her daughter can do at McKinley so that she has enough time to complete homework before bedtime.

“We're trying to really focus on making sure she stays healthy because of that lack of sleep,” she said.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

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