California Introduces Later Start Times for All Public High Schools

An clock that reads 8:30.

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For generations now, school for adolescents has begun between 7–8 a.m., early enough that the buses can finish with the older students before coming back for the younger ones. But science today is telling us that we’ve got it backwards.

Teenagers need between nine and 10 hours of sleep a night, but their bodies aren’t wired to feel tired until late in the evening, even when they make an effort to get enough sleep. This leads to chronic sleep loss in teenagers who can’t sleep until after 11 p.m. but have to be in class eight hours later, which puts them at risk of all kinds of disorders and injuries.

Several states and school districts have listened to the research, adopting later start times for junior high and high school, and soon, California will join them.

On Tuesday, May 30th, a bill was approved in the California state senate to impose an 8:30 a.m. start time on all public high schools. The bill won’t go into effect until the 2020 school year, and will allow rural school districts to waive it if the schedule changes are too inconvenient. But for most of California’s 1.8 million high school students, a more rested education is on the way.

Opponents of the bill had mostly economic concerns–the cost and inconvenience of rescheduling, of dealing with the various unions that serve public education. Some had more petty concerns, dismissing teenager’s needs as just “staying up too late” and assuming their future careers would need them trained to wake at dawn. But proponents had science on their side, including studies into student results by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychiatric Association. Another study by the University of Minnesota showed a reduction in teenage auto accidents with later start times.

As more and more states adopt these later start times, they each have seen improved test scores, behavioral outcomes, and higher graduation rates. Hopefully, when California’s numbers begin to join those statistics, we’ll reach a national tipping point and make these new hours standard.

Seattle Public Schools Approve Later Start Times

Boy asleep on school desk

Seattle schools will officially move to later start times starting next year.
Image: Shutterstock

Seattle Public Schools have pushed start times for students until after 8:30 A.M. for the 2016-2017 school year, per recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics. High schools, most middle schools, and elementary schools will be starting classes at 8:45 A.M., though some schools will start at 7:55 and others at 9:35 in the morning.

“This is a great win for our students,” says Sharon Peaslee, Vice President of the Seattle School Board. “We will unleash a torrent of public schools shifting to bell times that make sense for students.” The change follows years of petitioning from parents, teachers, and scientists who advocate for more sleep for the young and growing, especially for teenagers, who biologically tend to be night owls.

Teachers notice a difference in their students between first period and third period classes, when students are more awake and engaged in the material. But a problem with starting schools at different times is that it puts pressure on parents to find alternative methods of transportation for their little ones, and the later times might make all of this happen in rush-hour traffic, exacerbating the state’s already-awful traffic problems.

However, traffic patterns were considered in the board’s decision. “They looked at [the patterns], they looked at how that would change, what time would the buses be arriving and leaving, looking at standard city traffic, and showing that there will be some changes in traffic. But it would not have any major impact,” says Sam Markert, senior project manager for Seattle Public Schools.

The American Academy of Pediatrics report that young students who don’t get enough sleep are subject to physical and mental health problems, an increased risk of automobile accidents and a decline in academic performance. The organization specifically recommends that school start times be delayed until after 8:30 to allow the recommendation of 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep to be met.