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A bill to change Florida school start times passes its first committee

tired and bored young students sit at a school desk during class
wsd.bih@gmail.com/Malik Nalik

School start times for many of the state’s middle and high schoolers would shift under a bill that has passed its first committee. The goal is to get teenagers more – and better – sleep.

“It was stated for improved physical and mental health as well as academic and quality of life that they needed eight to nine hours of sleep,” said Rep. John Paul Temple (R-Wildwood) as he reminded the House Choice and Innovation Subcommittee about experts who explained to them last month the science behind teenagers needing sleep.

They cite biological factors involving an altered sleep drive during adolescence and the timing of the release of melatonin, a hormone that plays a role in sleep.

“It was also discussed that their brains have difficulty shutting off before 11 p.m.,” said Temple, a former teacher and school administrator. He is now the Director of Professional Learning and Accountability for Sumter County Schools.

Temple said nearly half of the state’s public high schools and about a quarter of public charter high schools start before 7:30. So his bill says middle schools can’t start before 8:00, and high schools not before 8:30.

The American Academy of Pediatrics says insufficient sleep causes teenaged students an array of problems. Dr. Brandon Seay echoed that as he spoke in support of later start times.

“We actually showed there was decreased tardiness, decreased missing of school days. Then more importantly I think as well, we saw that there was actually a decrease in the number of car crashes involving teen drivers between 16 to 18 by about 70% with that shift in school start times as well,” Seay said. “So not only the school performance, but also public safety would be a big concern.”

Seay is a pediatric sleep specialist in Tallahassee. He spoke on behalf of the Florida Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. He was asked what the research shows regarding elementary students.

“They do have a longer sleep time that they need, but they are able to get to sleep usually around 7:30, 8:00, as opposed to the 10 to 11:00 that it would usually take for teenagers,” Seay said. “So they are still able to get the appropriate amount of sleep with a school start time a little bit earlier.”

“I do appreciate your bill. I understand. I have a 15 and a 14-year-old in the house, and it is a struggle to get them to sleep,” said Rep. Angie Nixon (D-Jacksonville). She raised concerns about disruptions that could arise with some schools starting later, especially with transportation.

“I have a child in daycare, elementary, middle school, high school. It’s going to be tough. Yes, that is a choice I made and that’s the cost of being a parent. But I also work. My husband also works.” Nixon was the only member of the 18-member panel to vote no, but she said she wants more conversations about the bill.

Similar legislation is awaiting its first hearing in the Senate.

Gina Jordan is the host of Morning Edition for WFSU News. Gina is a Tallahassee native and graduate of Florida State University. She spent 15 years working in news/talk and country radio in Orlando before becoming a reporter and All Things Considered host for WFSU in 2008. Follow Gina: @hearyourthought on Twitter. Click below for Gina's full bio.