Hit the snooze button: States debate later high school start times
Students walk to buses at Morse High School/Bath Regional Career and Technical Center in Bath, Maine. Maine is one of many states that have not adopted later start times for high schools, despite overwhelming scientific evidence that it’s better for students, due to complications such as the cost of new bus schedules. (Elaine S. Povich/Stateline)
California and Florida have become the first states to require later public school start times, a response to reams of research showing significant advantages for high school students who can get more sleep by beginning their day at 8:30 a.m. or later.
But such changes come with difficult ripple effects — upended bus schedules, later starts for extracurriculars and new schedules for teachers and staff — making many other states and localities hesitant to change.
California’s first-in-the-nation law, which requires that high school classes start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. and middle schools not before 8 a.m., took effect last school year. Florida overwhelmingly passed a law this year with similar requirements, which schools must meet by July 2026.
But similar efforts in other states have stalled or been reduced to legislation calling for studies of the issue, in the face of opposition from local school districts worried about budgets and parents concerned about upending family schedules. Lawmakers in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon and Texas all had bills up this year, according to Start School Later, an advocacy group that tracks the bills. But most didn’t pass; Maine, Maryland and Indiana approved studies, the group said.
“The fact that Florida passed it is a game changer; it shows this really is a bipartisan issue,” said Terra Ziporyn Snider, the group’s executive director and co-founder. There has been legislation proposed in 25 states, she added, but getting these bills through legislatures won’t be easy.
Florida state Rep. John Temple, a Republican who sponsored his state’s measure, told the House Education and Employment Committee in March that when teenagers don’t get enough sleep, their health, safety and academics all suffer, and he noted a requirement for local input. The new law requires district school boards to “discuss local strategies to successfully implement the later school start times.” The measure passed on overwhelmingly bipartisan votes.
But Florida state Rep. Patricia Hawkins-Williams, a Democrat who voted against the measure, said she was concerned about costs, especially for smaller school districts. The issue for many school districts is that allowing high schools to start closer to elementary and middle school start times means running more buses. The legislature set aside $5 million to plan, implement and evaluate the new start times, but Hawkins-Williams said she worries districts will be on the hook after that initial money runs out.
“While the students are going back and forth [on buses to school], it’s the responsibility of the districts and it will increase the cost to the district and is a recurring cost every year,” she said in an interview with Stateline. “The state often puts these things together and pushes them down to the local school districts.”
She said she understood the studies about the benefits to kids but added, “The cost outweighed the benefits.”
Studies agree on later starts
The average start time for public high schools was 8 a.m. during the 2017-2018 school year, according to a survey by the National Center for Education Statistics published in 2020, the latest year for which the federal agency has comprehensive statistics.
But Kyla Wahlstrom, a senior research fellow and lecturer at the University of Minnesota, estimates that 1,000-2,000 individual school districts across the country, as well as the two states, have recently moved high school start times to approximately 8:30 a.m. That’s the earliest start time recommended for high schools and middle schools by the American Medical Association.
Numerous studies have concluded that the later start times are healthier for kids, reduce juvenile crime, improve grades, boost sports performance and even result in better teenage driving records, because sleepy teens cause more accidents.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says a lack of sleep is “common” among high school students and is associated with increased risk of being overweight, drinking, smoking, using drugs and poor academic performance. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that high schools not start before 8:30 a.m., and says changing to later start times would result in better outcomes for teens, including reduced obesity risk, lower rates of depression, fewer drowsy driving crashes and improved quality of life.
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that kids 13-18 should sleep eight to 10 hours a day. The policy statement says adolescents of those ages have circadian rhythms that prevent them from falling asleep earlier in the evening. And a study by the Rand Corporation found that the economic benefit of later school start times “would outweigh the costs within five years after the change” in the vast majority of states, mostly due to less use of mental health facilities and juvenile judiciary and detention.
Community life does revolve around school hours.
– Terra Ziporyn Snider, co-founder, Start School Later
But changing school start times affects more than just the students. After-school activities start later too, reducing teens’ availability for part-time jobs. Parents’ work schedules must be adjusted. Traffic patterns also shift, due to school bus schedules and associated crosswalk delays.
“Community life does revolve around school hours,” said Start School Later’s Ziporyn Snider. “This is why it’s so important to do it legislatively. It’s so hard to do at the local level. It’s hell on Earth dealing with people coming at you with pitchforks when you suggest changing the schedule.”
California legislators first passed a bill in 2018, but then-Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, vetoed it amid opposition by teachers unions and many local school districts. But by 2019, many teachers and the state PTA had come around to support the idea of later start times, and the bill was passed and signed by Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Part of the difficulty in passing the laws to change start times is a lack of education about teenagers’ sleep, said the University of Minnesota’s Wahlstrom, a leading expert on adolescents’ sleep patterns. Her seminal study in 2017 noted that research as early as the 1990s showed teenagers are “unable to fall asleep before about 10:45 p.m. and remain in sleep mode until about 8 a.m.”
Of the more than 9,000 students who participated in the University of Minnesota study, those who slept eight or more hours each night were less likely to report symptoms of depression and to fall asleep in class. And the number of car crashes in the districts studied decreased by 13%.
“It’s about educating parents and teens, that they will look better and do better in school, and do better in sports if they will go to bed at 11:15 and get up at 7:30,” Wahlstrom said in an interview with Stateline. Parents should also take cellphones and other electronic devices away after 11 p.m., she said.
Concerns in other states
Sometimes new start times come with a few hiccups.
In Howard County, Maryland, an affluent public school district with about 57,000 students, new start times, combined with a new bus company and an insufficient number of bus drivers, resulted in chaos in the opening weeks of class last month. Some buses never showed up or were hours late, leaving kids stranded. A new app that was supposed to allow parents to track bus whereabouts failed, leaving parents furious.
In response to queries from Stateline, Brian Bassett, spokesperson for Howard County schools, said district administrators were not aware until the first day of school in late August that all the routes were not being covered by the bus company, Zum, due to lack of drivers.
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In a report to the community, Superintendent Michael Martirano said the new start times’ effect on transportation had been studied for six months, but that they were just one of a number of factors in the bus mess.
“The compression of the start times to support our goal of starting schools later has taken out any slack that we used to have in our routes and it is not realistically possible to keep [all] buses … on schedule due to the tight turnaround,” he said. Further, he said, “it is highly likely that an adjustment to some bell times, as well as pick-up times, will be necessary to make sure ALL buses can arrive on time and students do not have to endure long wait times in the afternoon to get picked up.”
In an email to Stateline, Zum, based in Redwood City, California, said almost all of the Howard County bus routes had been covered by the end of the second week but acknowledged there were still delays due to route “stacking,” in which buses drop off students at school and immediately begin another route. The company blamed Howard County for the quick-turnaround schedules, which, it said in an email, “leave no time for our drivers to safely unload their students and begin their next route.”
No system changes had been implemented as of early September.
In Maine, Democratic state Sen. Mattie Daughtry has been pressing for later school start times since she was a student at Brunswick High School, where her yearbook goal was to “get more sleep.” Now age 35 and representing the town where she went to high school, Daughtry has sponsored a later start time bill for several sessions without success.
This year, she got students to testify in favor, but was met with opposition from some lawmakers and the Maine Education Association, which testified that such a change would pose “operational and logistical challenges.”
“Our schools serve students whose parents do not have the workplace flexibility for a later drop off, and their experiences and schedules must be considered,” the union said in written testimony to the legislature.
But Daughtry said such concerns pale beside the advantages, including reduction in obesity rates and diabetes, and less risky behaviors when kids get more sleep. She said she understands the challenges facing working families, and called for communities to take child care needs into account.
“We need to look at everything as a whole,” she said. “We have an opioid crisis in Maine, and that decreases when folks are well rested. This will boost test scores. The opposition isn’t even partisan. It’s just a lot of folks who say, ‘When I was that age, I did [start early] in school.’ There’s not enough awareness of medical science.”
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