"The Academy notes in an accompanying technical report a nearly threefold increase in the risk of suicide attempts among adolescents who sleep less than 8 hours per night, even when controlling for confounding factors," the letter reads. "The policy statement concludes that 'both the urgency and the magnitude of the problem of sleep loss in adolescents and the availability of an intervention that has the potential to have broad and immediate effects are highly compelling.'
"We agree with this conclusion and recommendation and urge that our high schools begin no earlier than 8:30 a.m. for all students," the letter states.
Both Palo Alto and Gunn high schools moved to later start times in 2010 and 2011, respectively, but now offer earlier zero periods. Just under 300 Gunn students are enrolled in both physical education and academic courses that begin at 7:20 a.m. and 102 Paly students have physical education at 7:10 a.m. The regular school day starts at Gunn at 8:25 a.m. and at Paly, 8:15 a.m.
The debate over the role that school-start times play in teen health and well-being has come front and center after the last school board meeting, when board member Ken Dauber proposed that the board develop a policy that prohibits academic classes during zero period. The board ultimately decided to place zero periods as an information item on the April 21 meeting agenda.
"What's important about this is that we have very clear, I would say, universal advice from the medical community, both locally and nationally, that starting school at 8:30 a.m. or later is a very effective intervention to increase sleep for kids," Dauber said Thursday. "It has a direct effect on a whole set of health and learning benefits, including very significant reductions to suicide attempts, depression and so forth. To me, it's really clear that we should be taking that advice and providing that benefit to students."
Dauber said the letter sent Wednesday "resulted organically" after he both reached out to and was contacted by local doctors and health professionals who wanted to weigh in on the topic.
Some of the health professionals provided comments along with their signatures.
"I enforce the importance of sleep to my kids and patients daily," wrote Patricia Chang, a Los Altos pediatrician and mother of four children in the district, including one at Paly. "I am saddened when my teen patients tell me they sleep 4-6 hrs. Their brains and bodies are growing, memory is formed during sleep, and moods are affected by sleep. Thankfully my son didn't ask to take zero-period PE and I would not have signed the form."
Psychiatrist Adam Strassberg, who has a local private practice and two teenagers in the district, however, wrote that he supports zero-period PE.
"There's a difference between getting up and taking an economics exam and getting up and going for a beautiful run in the early morning air with your friends," he told the Weekly Thursday.
Kathleen Dong — a clinical associate professor at Stanford, Northern California Psychiatric Society Professional Educational Committee chair and mother of a current PAUSD student — went further in advocating for teen sleep, writing: "Also recommend decreasing stress & increasing autonomy by letting students exercise judgment to sleep in when necessary as long as work (is) kept up & taking attendance from noon on."
The ability for students to exercise their own judgment — and choice — about their school schedule has been defended by some high school students who want to keep zero period. Gunn sophomore Chloe Sorensen wrote in a Palo Alto Online guest opinion this week that zero period "allows many students to create balance in their lives rather than disrupt it," explaining that many students choose to and like taking the early-morning classes so there is scheduling freedom later in the day.
"I understand the research behind sleep, and I appreciate the actions of AAP, as well as the local medical community," Sorensen told the Weekly Thursday. "However, the majority of my peers are greatly distressed by the increasing removal of choice."
Sorensen circulated an online survey on zero period this week at Gunn and said that of the 356 students who responded, more than 90 percent do not want the early-morning option removed. Of those 356, 176 are currently enrolled in a zero-period class, Sorensen said.
Sorensen said 6 percent of the responders enrolled in zero period are taking an extra eighth class and around half of them noted that this class is a blended or after-school course such as stage tech, jazz band or chamber choir.
"Many students wake up earlier than others and appreciate having the option to finish school earlier," Sorensen said. "If zero period is removed, I think the schools should look at other alternatives for students to have flexible schedules."
Dauber said he appreciates the student perspective on zero period, but "We have to make policy based on what's healthy for all the students in our schools."
"I don't really see any reasonable alternative or any responsible alternative," he said.
Makoto Kawai, a clinical instructor at Stanford's department of sleep medicine, psychiatry and behavioral science, said education on such choices will also be critical.
"I'm not saying a later school start time will solve everything, but that is a first step, and (teenagers) have to be educated on good sleep habits," Kawai said. "I think taking some action like that will give good information to them that we are taking this seriously."
This story contains 1022 words.
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