The debate on pushing school start times: Is there a perfect solution?

For several years now, there has been a major debate among researchers, educators, and policymakers on whether to start schools later in order to allow teenagers the chance to get a full night of sleep. An abundance of empirical literature suggests that adolescents, on average, receive less than the optimal 7-9 hours of sleep per night on school nights (1). Individuals who have poor sleep duration during their teenage years are at an increased risk of suicide, mental health issues, and car accidents (2,3). To make matters worse, research on chronotypes—a predetermined characteristic influenced by genes and hormones which determines one’s tendency to be a morning or evening person—demonstrates that there is a natural shift in the body’s circadian rhythm during adolescence that delays adolescents’ sleep. As a result, teens tend to be evening people, engaging in later bedtimes and wake times (4,5). Importantly, federal reports suggest that the average school start time in the United States is 7:59AM, interfering with students’ ability to sleep sufficiently on school nights (6). Thus, early school start times coupled with a delayed circadian rhythm has continued to plague adolescent sleep schedules for far too long.

In 2017, California considered a bill asserting that school start times for middle schools and high schools, both public and charter, cannot begin before 8:30AM (7). Ultimately the bill was not passed, however, it was recently revisited this year. Last week, California governor Jerry Brown vetoed the bill claiming that it is a “one-size-fits-all approach” and should not be decided at the state level, but rather should be considered at the community level to ensure that the people whose lives would be directly impacted by such a policy have a proper say in the matter (8). The bill was drafted by California Senator Anthony Portantino and his team, and was backed by a 219 page research and information booklet containing empirical evidence and relevant articles that directly support the bill (9). The opponents of this bill won yet again, squashing several adolescent sleep researchers’ hope that one day teens will be lawfully granted the opportunity to obtain sufficient sleep during the school year. 

There are several reasons as to why many are still against a change to school start times, but most of these reasons are assuaged by legitimate empirical evidence. The main push against this bill comes from school officials who believe that shifting school start times will complicate bus schedules and cost schools a fortune to accommodate later transportation. A recent economic analysis conducted by the Rand Corporation, a non-profit think tank located in Santa Monica, California, evinced that such a policy would actually result in a significant gain to the U.S. economy as a whole: $8.6 billion in 2 years and $140 billion after 15 years, to be exact (10). It was also projected that there would be an increase in students’ academic performances as well as a decrease in the rate of car accidents caused by teens. In sum, the cost of shifting bus schedules to accommodate a new and improved school start time would be far outweighed by the benefits it would bring to adolescents’ lives and the long-term economic profit. 

Others have argued that pushing school start times would not increase teens’ time in bed, rather their sleep schedules would shift to later such that they would maintain low sleep duration. Research shows that this is simply not true. Researchers in Canada were given the unique opportunity to study a high school with two different school start times (11). A devastating fire destroyed a suburban high school forcing the students from that school to attend another nearing high school amidst repairs. In order to accommodate all of the students, the host high school implemented two school start times in which the students from the destroyed high school attended class from 1:25PM-6:45PM and students from the host high school maintained their usual schedule from 7:40AM-1:05PM. Results suggested that adolescents who attended the later school schedule demonstrated increased sleep duration and less daytime sleepiness. Additionally, it was not only the evening chronotype teens who benefitted from the delayed start time. Even students with a morning chronotype—those who naturally tend to wake-up earlier—who were on the morning school schedule reported significantly more daytime sleepiness compared to morning chronotype students who were on the afternoon schedule. Overall, these results indicate that pushing school start times would not result in continued low sleep duration, but rather it would benefit all students, even those with a morning chronotype. 

In 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a policy statement urging policymakers and politicians to push school start times to no earlier than 8:30AM, citing significant research demonstrating that an 8:30AM start would buy students more sleep time (12). Since then, even more evidence has emerged of the benefits that such a change would yield not only for students, but for the country as a whole. It has been four years and nothing has been done despite copious amounts of empirical evidence that supports this adaptation. The resistance emerges from logistical concerns that are unrelated to teens and their well-being, such as bus schedules and parents’ work schedules. Are these inconveniences not undermined by the importance of maintaining and supporting adolescent health? The answer is obvious, and, although it is not perfect, so is the solution. 

 

References

1. Hirshkowitz, M., Whiton, K., Albert, S. M., Alessi, C., Bruni, O., DonCarlos, L., ... & Neubauer, D. N. (2015). National Sleep Foundation’s sleep time duration recommendations: Methodology and results summary. Sleep Health1(1), 40-43. doi: 10.1016/j.sleh.2014.12.010

2. Dewald, J. F., Meijer, A. M., Oort, F. J., Kerkhof, G. A., & Bögels, S. M. (2010). The influence of sleep quality, sleep duration and sleepiness on school performance in children and adolescents: A meta-analytic review. Sleep Medicine Reviews14(3), 179-189. doi: 10.1016/j.smrv.2009.10.004

3. Wolfson, A. R., & Carskadon, M. A. (2003). Understanding adolescent's sleep patterns and school performance: A critical appraisal. Sleep Medicine Reviews7(6), 491-506. doi: 10.1016/S1087-0792(03)90003-7 

4. Roenneberg, T., Kuehnle, T., Pramstaller, P. P., Ricken, J., Havel, M., Guth, A., & Merrow, M. (2004). A marker for the end of adolescence. Current Biology14(24), R1038-R1039. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2004.11.039 

5. Roenneberg, T., Wirz-Justice, A., & Merrow, M. (2003). Life between clocks: Daily temporal patterns of human chronotypes. Journal of Biological Rhythms18(1), 80-90. doi: 10.1177/0748730402239679

6. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Schools and Staffing Survey, public school data file, 2011–12. Additional information available at http://nces.ed.gov/surveys/sass/overview.asp.

7. http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billNavClient.xhtml?bill_id=201720180SB328

8. http://www.latimes.com/politics/la-pol-ca-school-start-time-vetoed-20180921-story.html#

9. https://sd25.senate.ca.gov/sites/sd25.senate.ca.gov/files/research_booklet_sb_328_pdf.pdf

10. Hafner, M., Stepanek, M., Troxel, W.M. (2017) Later school start times in the U.S.: An economic analysis. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2109.html.

11. Martin, J. S., Gaudreault, M. M., Perron, M., & Laberge, L. (2016). Chronotype, light exposure, sleep, and daytime functioning in high school students attending morning or afternoon school shifts: An actigraphic study. Journal of Biological Rhythms31(2), 205-217. doi: 10.1177/0748730415625510

12. Adolescent Sleep Working Group. (2014). School start times for adolescents. Pediatrics,134(3), 642-649. doi: 10.1542/peds.2014-1697

Photo Credit: National Geographic