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Opinion

Column: Parents are getting the message on vaccinations, but what about school start times?

MIAMI, FL - JANUARY 28: In this photo illustration, a bottle containing a measles vaccine is seen a
In this photo illustration, a bottle containing a measles vaccine is shown.
(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

My column this week is devoted to two important health issues affecting our children. I’ve written about both of these subjects before, more than once. But I return to them because there is new information and because, despite progress, they remain stubbornly problematic.

On the first topic, vaccination rates, there is definitely good news. Recently released data show that California’s vaccination rate of kindergartners, at nearly 96%, represents a three-point increase from the 2015-16 school year. The rate is now at its highest level since the current set of immunization requirements took effect in 2001.

The rate has improved since a state law was passed after the measles outbreak at Disneyland in late 2014 and early 2015 -- an outbreak that was attributed largely to transmission by un-vaccinated individuals. The new law closed the “personal belief” exemption previously used by some parents to enroll their children in schools without the required immunizations.

(Exemptions for medical reasons are still allowed, and home-schooled children aren’t subject to the new law.)

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The progress, however, is tempered by the fact that vaccination rates remain spotty, particularly among older students, and the potential for outbreaks is still a concern in certain areas and at particular schools.

At Laguna Beach High School, for instance, an un-vaccinated student was reportedly quarantined in April after contracting measles. The school also required several other un-vaccinated students who might have been exposed to the virus to stay home until the danger passed.

Outbreaks at other local schools remain a possibility. Consider that several elementary schools still have less-than-optimum rates of fully immunized students, according to the California Department of Public Health.

El Morro Elementary in Laguna Beach, at 84%, and Christ Lutheran Elementary in Costa Mesa, at 81%, are classified as “more vulnerable.” Meadow Park Elementary in Irvine is even worse; at 76%, its rate is designated as “most vulnerable,” according to the CDPH.

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Even those with higher rates, such as Paularino Elementary in Costa Mesa, with 86%, and Newport Elementary in Newport Beach, at 88%, are considered “moderately vulnerable,” as are many other schools in the area. Only those with rates of 95% and higher are in the “safest” range.

The trend might be going in the right direction, but it’s obvious we still have a way to go. Misinformation and misguided beliefs about the relative safety of vaccines endure –– including the thoroughly debunked claim that links some vaccinations with autism. The fight to achieve full-immunization rates throughout all communities must continue.

Reconsider high school start times

The other important health issue that bears continued attention is early school start times.

In April, yet another study added to the overwhelming body of evidence that has surfaced in recent years showing just how much we are damaging our children when we begin the school day too early. The new study, by researchers at Central Connecticut State University, found that delaying high school start times to 8:30 a.m. or later significantly improved graduation and attendance rates.

School districts “set students up for failure by endorsing traditional school schedules,” the lead researcher Pamela McKeever wrote.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that between 75% and 100% of public schools in 42 states begin instruction before the recommended earliest start time of 8:30 a.m.

The effect on academics is important enough, but research also shows that too-early school days also put stress on students’ health. Those early classes are completely out of whack with adolescents’ biologically driven sleep cycles, resulting in chronic sleep deprivation. That, in turn, has been linked to increases in car accidents, substance abuse, suicide attempts, depression and other undesirable behavior among our youth.

The somewhat good news here is that a few states have passed, and many others are considering, legislation that would encourage schools to delay start times. U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Mateo) has introduced several bills in Congress related to start times, including her latest calling for a federal study.

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But advocates of later start times –– I count myself in that group –– have a tough fight.

Resistance to beginning school later runs deep in many communities. Early start times allow for expanded academic offerings and more-enriching extracurricular activities, the arguments often go. They can also help out hard-pressed working parents.

But we all know the biggest reason we start school early: Sports.

Don’t get me wrong; I love sports. They undoubtedly provide many important benefits for kids.

Yet sports have come to occupy such an outsized presence in our children’s lives that we are actually harming their health because of them. We force our children to wake up too early, start school before their brains are ready, try to pay attention in class when they are chronically fatigued, and squeeze in piles of homework amid all the games and practices.

Of course we should let our kids play sports. I’m just asking for a little perspective and sturdier backbones by school districts and administrators who could revise their policies and require coaches to limit practice times and trim game schedules. Surely modest adjustments aren’t too much to ask.

It shouldn’t be controversial to suggest that children should have appropriate rest, but I’ll go out on a limb and state it anyway: Let the kids sleep.

PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.

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