Science says that teenagers need more sleep. So why is it so difficult to start school later?

. So why is it so difficult to start school later?

NASHVILLE, Tennessee. In this city, classes in middle school start so early that some children board buses at 5:30 in the morning.

According to federal statistics, only 10% of public schools across the country start before 7:30 a.m. But in Nashville, classes begin at 7:05 a.m. - a fact that Mayor Freddie O'Connell has criticized for many years.

"It's not a badge of honor," he said when he was still a member of the city council.

After his election in September, O'Connell announced that changing the start times of school was a cornerstone of the education policy he is promoting. He and others across the country are trying to emphasize that teenagers are not lazy and not to blame for getting too little sleep. It's science.

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"All teenagers have a shift in their brains that makes them not feel sleepy until about 10:45 or 11 o'clock at night," said Kayla Walstrom, a senior research fellow at the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota. She studies how education policy affects learning and used to be a teacher. "This is a shift that is biologically determined."

Teen sleep deprivation is linked to mental health problems, poor grades, traffic accidents, and more. That's why states including California and Florida have set later start times. Individual districts across the country, including some in Tennessee, have made similar changes.

But resistance to a later start time is less about science and more about logistical and financial difficulties, especially with basic tasks like bus transportation.

State Representative John Ray Clemmons, a Democrat from Nashville, tried to pass a bill setting a later start time in 2022.

"I'm starting to experience this with one of my own children," he said during a bill committee hearing. He delved into biology, including the famous sleep hormone melatonin.

Melatonin causes drowsiness in people. The brain starts producing it when it gets dark outside, and its production peaks around midnight. According to the American Chemical Society, teenagers' brains start producing melatonin about three hours later than adults' and younger children's brains. When teenagers wake up early, their brains are still producing melatonin.

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"Because of how a teenager's body produces melatonin, a teenager waking up at 7 a.m. is equivalent to one of us waking up at 4 a.m.," said Clemmons.

He invited a local mother, Anna Thorsen, who showed that legislation for a later start time could protect vulnerable children like hers.

"My youngest daughter is a freshman, suffering from a rare genetic epilepsy that killed her older sister last year," she said. "Actually, in March of last year, my youngest daughter had a life-threatening seizure, partly due to sleep deprivation."

State Representative John Reagan, a Republican from Knoxville, said almost all the feedback he heard on the bill came from Nashville.

"Go to the school board and tell them to change the rules, change the law, change the school start time," he said. "But to make [the rest of the state] do it because of one school board that doesn't want to listen to their parents?"

Legislative leaders gave the bill one hearing. It did not become law.

This leaves Nashville, a city that often calls itself the Silicon Valley of healthcare, to find its own way. O'Connell is taking it up now. The mayor has some authority over the school budget, giving him influence over education policy. However, start times are determined by the school board.

"Early start times, especially for teenagers, are problematic," the mayor said. "We also know that making changes - even 30 minutes - requires complex logistics."

Buses are a serious concern. Even in normal times, districts use the same buses and drivers for students of all ages. They fluctuate in start times: high school students come and go to school early in the morning. The idea is that they are better able to endure being alone in the dark at a bus stop than younger children, and it allows them to be the first to come home to help care for younger siblings after school.

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If middle schools started later than middle and elementary schools, it would likely put a strain on transportation resources. O'Connell said limited public transportation in Nashville exacerbates the problem.

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