Point of View: Ice Cream or Die

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By Susan Lamontagne

My father is an ice cream addict. He is also diabetic. So when his doctor told him a few years ago he had to give up his ice cream, his response was swift: “I’d rather die with my ice cream than live without it.”

Needless to say, his family was appalled. Really??? You are choosing ice cream over us? Yes. Ice cream didn’t talk back or bother him when he was watching baseball. Fortunately, my Dad made a few adjustments to his routine that enabled him to have his daily ice cream and live.

The same applies to school start times. The Sag Harbor School Board set a goal to move Pierson’s start time to 8 a.m. — a change of 25 minutes — because there is an overwhelming body of evidence that later school start times are better for adolescent health. But given the reaction of some parents at recent BOE meetings, you would think that we were trying to take away everyone’s ice cream.

“Later start will kill shared sports,” said some. “Parents need to do their jobs and get their kids to bed earlier,” said others. “What will teens do when they have to go to work?” asked one parent. “Why are you looking at this again?” asked another. They’re all right – almost.

We can move Pierson’s start time and maintain shared sports. It just requires adjustments. One way is to shorten the school day (Pierson has one of the longest school days on Long Island). Another is to allow athletes to leave academic support early to get to games and practices on time. That means an athlete who plays field hockey, volleyball, and lacrosse would only miss some academic support during one of those seasons. And the later shift would have no impact on sports like volleyball or boys’ lacrosse in which practice doesn’t begin until 3:30 p.m. or later.

For bed times, sleep researchers have discovered that adolescent circadian rhythms shift later causing them to feel awake until about 10 or 11 p.m. Tough tea bags, you say? They have also found that teens need more than eight hours of sleep and that the deepest and most important sleep for adolescents occurs early in the morning. So when we demand our teens rise at 6 AM, we are robbing them of the type of sleep that helps most with brain functions such as concentration and memory, sleep experts say. It might sound like hog wash but it’s one reason why teens tend to be cranky, moody, and depressed.

In terms of work, builders, emergency physicians, and others are often required to report for duty by 7:00 a.m. or pull all-night shifts. The effect of those schedules on performance has not gone unnoticed. Research has linked sleep deprivation to medical errors and the military is grappling with the serious toll sleep deprivation takes on soldiers. As nationally recognized sleep researcher Wendy Troxell PhD puts it, ignoring the sleep needs of adolescents is the equivalent of depriving your two year old of his afternoon nap. We all know how that goes.

At the last several board meetings, more people spoke out against later start than for it. Meanwhile, the body of evidence demonstrating the benefits of later school start times continues to grow. Studies released in recent weeks show sleep deprivation harms the brain; sleep disturbances predict alcohol and drug use among college athletes; and how later school start times boost student test scores.

Might you find one or two studies that show no effect? Sure. But can you really ignore the dozens and dozens of studies that demonstrate the benefits of later starts including lower rates of depression, substance abuse, suicide ideation, tardiness, school absences, athletic injuries, teen-related car accidents, and eating disorders. The research also shows later school starts improve academic performance and increase the number of teens who get more sleep and report feeling better.

These advantages underscore why the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Medical Association, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Sleep Foundation recommend that middle and high schools not start before 8:30 AM. Here in Sag Harbor we’re just trying to get to 8:00.

So why are we exploring this issue again when we grappled with it three years ago? I don’t speak for the board, but the reason I have and will continue to push for a later start is because it is a proven way to reduce the high rates of depression and substance abuse among our youth. And it might just make them happier.

I’ll take that over ice cream any day.

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