Over three-quarters of high school students were not getting enough hours of sleep during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the shorter sleep times were linked to poor mental health and difficulty doing schoolwork, according to a nationally representative survey of 7,705 high school students released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Students who slept less than 7 hours on an average school night were more likely to report poor mental health and greater difficulty doing schoolwork during the pandemic compared to before the pandemic. Poor mental health was reported by over a third of the students (37%), and students who experienced poor mental health had a 17% higher chance of finding schoolwork more difficult.
A quarter of students (25.2%) who met sleep recommendations still reported poor mental health, while about half of students (49%) who slept 5 hours or less reported the same.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, shorter sleep times were becoming more common among high school students. In 2017, 75% reported sleeping less than the number of recommended hours, which slightly increased to 78% by 2019, according to the CDC.
"We found that short sleep duration remained widespread during the COVID-19 pandemic," researchers wrote.
Among the biggest barriers to academic recovery has been the need for increased emotional and behavioral support, and both teachers and superintendents have noted mental health and behavioral issues are more pressing issues now than prior to the health crisis. However, schools lack resources to address the issues properly, according to surveys released in February by EAB, an education research and consulting firm.
As a possible solution, the CDC report suggests changes to practices known to improve sleep duration among students, like adopting later school start times. Prior to the pandemic, a study also suggested nap times for sleep-deprived teens could help them better remember pictures and facts.
"Schools can consider addressing sleep duration within a broader strategy to bolster adolescent mental health and learning, including addressing protective factors," the authors noted.
Research has repeatedly suggested districts should stagger school start times, beginning the school day earlier for elementary students and later for those in secondary school. Later start times for teenagers have even shown to slightly improve GPAs and have helped students meet the recommended hours of sleep.
Teenagers ages 13-18 should get 8-10 hours of sleep a night, per CDC recommendations.