In California, you won’t find any high school students trudging to school half-awake at the crack of dawn. A new bill that went into effect in July now requires high schools there to start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. and middle schools no earlier than 8 a.m. States like Alaska, New York, Tennessee, and New Jersey are taking notice and proposing their own bills, each with research pointing to how a later school start time can help teens get more sleep and improve their physical and mental health. 

The data behind later start times

Author and journalist Lisa Lewis recently wrote The Sleep-Deprived Teen and multiple op-eds to promote change in this area. She had an integral role in raising awareness to politicians in California, which ultimately led to the bill mentioned above. Her own teenage son was exhausted entering high school with a too-early start time, she explained, prompting the advocacy for change. She points to the research, including an American Academy of Pediatrics study that revealed 73% of high school students don’t get enough sleep. She adds earlier bedtimes don’t always work because puberty pushes teens’ circadian rhythms back naturally.

The role of elementary schools in the conversation

While most of the attention has been on middle and high school start times, some are considering elementary schools as well. In the case of younger students particularly, not all teachers are on board with later school start times. Educators stated a variety of potential complications, from transportation concerns to student motivation. Rachael Collins, who works at a Houston elementary school, writes in a Facebook post, “No. Kids already barely survive the day. At the end of day they are exhausted and barely listening as is. This will make the day seem even longer and give families less time after school. Plus those teachers that commute will have insane traffic.” 

Lewis says that lost motivation later in the day is a valid concern, but any long day is tiring. “When it begins too early, that means that students are sleep-deprived in addition to having a full day of classes ahead of them. At least with a later start time, this issue of chronic sleep-deprivation is being addressed.”

Denver, for example, is considering how later start times for middle and high school students might impact elementary students needing to start earlier. Due to transportation limitations, some worry this might simply transfer the problem rather than solving it.

The impact on carpools and after-school activities

Another common concern is the impact on after-school clubs and sports. A later start time might push activities back further into the evening. This, in turn, would push dinnertime and homework back and prevent a regular bedtime. 

Karen Ausdenmoore Grumski, a high school educator in Pittsburgh, posted, “Too many kids work after school and would be impacted along with athletes and clubs. Maybe having a half hour/forty-minute later would work.” Her students currently start at 7:20 a.m. and end at 2 p.m., and so she worries starting at 8 a.m. and ending at 2:40 would be doable, but that it runs into middle school dismissal. “No idea of the cost to run another set of buses. Two of our four elementary schools run 9:15 to 3:45 in order to only run one set of buses. Not sure if that would be an issue if they ran 10 to 4:30. You still have childcare issues on both ends of the day.” 

Lewis adds that there might be an added benefit of students getting out later. Parents might be able to pick their children up when they get out of work, whereas many can’t midafternoon.

The benefits for students

Kelly*, who wishes to remain anonymous, teaches high school in Virginia. She reports seeing positive effects of their later school start time—9 a.m.—compared to other districts. “The kids are generally not falling asleep in my first period class, thankfully … I have a few kids who were chronically late anyway, but not as many as I’m sure there would have been if we had a pre-8 a.m. start time.”

As experts and districts consider the pros and cons of later school start times, all eyes are on California and the research on how it might impact students’ sleep, and potentially their mental health.

What are your thoughts on starting school later? Tell us in the comments.

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