Does Your School Start Too Early?

by Carol Kocivar | April 16, 2019 | 1 Comment
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The Debate Over Healthier School Start Times

I can say with the scientific accuracy of a mother that teenagers stay up waaay too late and struggle to get up in the morning. While my personal research is limited to my two children over a nine year period, it is corroborated by every parent with teenagers I know. Argh. So why do some high schools start at 7:30 in the morning?

It turns out there is a lot of real scientific study on teenage sleep. When kids reach puberty their bodies are wired differently. The folks at the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control say “Let them sleep.” They recommend delaying start times at middle and high schools to 8:30 am to combat sleep deprivation.

What’s the Science Behind this?

Why don’t teenagers just go to sleep earlier when I tell them to? Short answer: They can’t.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine explains why.

“As children progress into their teenage years, they experience delayed patterns of melatonin secretion and a slower buildup of homeostatic sleep pressure during wakefulness.These changes reflect a delayed circadian rhythm that contributes to later sleep onset and later morning awakening, with teenagers typically struggling to fall asleep before 11:00 PM.”

They recommend teenagers sleep 8 to 10 hours a day on a regular basis to promote optimal health. What if they don’t? The chart below explains.

Sleep Deprivation is an Epidemic

Stanford Medicine calls this sleep deprivation an epidemic. This epidemic increases the likelihood of an inability to concentrate, poor grades, drowsy-driving incidents, anxiety, depression, thoughts of suicide and even suicide attempts.

According to the 2014 School Health Policies and Practices Study, 93% of high schools and 83% of middle schools in the U.S. start before the recommended 8:30 a.m. Is your’s one of them? Some school districts have taken action, moving to later start times. After changing the start time, Seattle reported an improvement in grades and a reduction in tardiness and absences. (And yes, a reduction in kids snoozing during class.)

Will California Adopt Later School Start Times?

About four out of five middle/high schools in California start earlier than 8:30 according to data collected by the CDC. In 2018, a bill to require later start times passed in the California legislature but it was returned unsigned by then-Governor Brown. The legislature said “Yes” but the Governor said, “No.” The bill died.

Listen to Carol’s interview with Senator Portantino on his bill to require later school start times.

In 2019 the legislature will consider a similar measure, SB 328. If it passes and is signed by Governor Newsom, California be the first state in the nation to implement the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Center for Disease Control on a statewide basis.

The debate about requiring later school start times pits groups against each other that are usually in agreement:

Proponents: A long list of medical experts and children’s advocates support a statewide rule that middle and high school start no earlier than 8:30. Based on consistent research that finds later school start times support the health, safety and academic success of students, they say this science applies to kids wherever they live, not sorted by school district. Comparing the health risks of sleep deprivation to other big statewide risks such as lead in the water or sugary drinks, they argue that it is irresponsible to ignore these risks and leave it to each local community to get around to taking action, or to decide which kids are protected from these risks.

Opponents: Those who are opposed—notably the California Teachers Association and the California School Boards Association—argue that these kinds of decisions can and should be made by local communities, not by a statewide law. For them, it is not a disagreement about science but about local control. Their argument is that changing start times is complicated, involving bus schedules, teaching time, local community needs, athletics and a host of other issues, including money.

Governor Brown’s opposition to the proposed law was not a surprise. His signature education reform, the Local Control Funding Formula was all about—you guessed it—local control.

In returning the bill unsigned, the Governor issued the following statement:

“This is a one-size-fits-all approach that is opposed by teachers and school boards. Several schools have already moved to later start times. Others prefer beginning the school day earlier. These are the types of decisions best handled in the local community.”

Senator Anthony Portantino, author of the bill, characterized last year’s defeat as “science lost to the status quo” and vowed to bring it back.

What do you think?

This year the bill is back as SB 328. A new governor and newly elected legislators get a chance to look at this issue again.

Does your school start too early? Should the state follow the research and require middle and high schools to start no earlier than 8:30? Or should each local school district decide how to handle this health epidemic? Add your thoughts in the comment section at the end of this post.

Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Elaine Scotton1 May 7, 2019 at 11:32 am
This needs to be statewide. It helps our students.
user avatar
Caryn May 7, 2019 at 11:44 am
Hi Elaine, thanks for your comment. If you do agree that schools start too early for teenagers, be sure to share your thoughts on SB 328 with your administrators and Board of Education, as well as your state representatives. Your voice on this public health issue matters!
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