California Leads Charge for Later School Start Times

Supporters of a new California law hope to make it easier for teens to achieve their academic and athletic potential and improve their health and wellbeing.

By Andrea Pisani Babich

This week, California’s Governor, Gavin Newsom, signed into law Senate Bill 328 which states that no California high school shall begin the school day earlier than 8:30 am. It further stipulates that all middle schools across the state will begin after 8:00am.

Schools must adopt the new start times before July 1, 2022. Newsom’s approval makes California the first state in the country to mandate later start times for schools statewide.

This comes in recognition of new research that demonstrates teens experience delayed sleep phase that keeps them alert later into the night and sleepy well into the morning. Supporters of the bill hope the new state law increases attendance rates, reduces truancy, enhances academic and athletic achievement, and improves the health and wellbeing of California teens.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 20% of California schools already start at 8:30am or later. But as much as 75% of schools in the state start between 7:30 and 8:30am, with about 3.5% starting before 7:30am.

Will Later Start Times Solve the Problem?

Last year former Governor Jerry Brown vetoed the very same bill on the grounds that the decision should be handled by local authorities. Current critics of the bill, including the state’s Teachers Association, School Boards Association, and the Association of School Business Officials, say pushing back school start times, while well intentioned, will not solve the problem of teen sleep deprivation for many students, especially in working class communities.

Critics argue that many students are dropped off at school by parents on their way to work. That won’t change regardless of school start times. The result will be many students arriving at school long before the day begins as well as staying later in the afternoon, leaving less time to do their homework after extracurricular activities and part-time jobs, and ultimately, resulting in fewer hours of sleep—exactly the opposite result from the intended goal.

Furthermore, they believe that early school start times are not the only cause of teen sleep deprivation. Pushing them back, therefore, will not necessarily solve the problem and will result in unintended consequences that make daily life harder, especially for communities already struggling to manage work and school schedules.

These critics, while supportive of students need for more sleep, believe that this decision is best handled not on the state level but by local governments who can best accommodate their particular communities.

Circadian Shift for Teens

The bill’s sponsors cite mounting evidence that teens have different sleep requirements than the general population, including a shift in their circadian rhythms, which influence the timing of daily functions like sleep/wake times, metabolism, body temperature, and hormone release.

Sleep patterns are determined by melatonin production, which responds to light exposure during a 24-hour period. As light fades and darkness falls, melatonin production rises making us sleepy and ready for bed. Melatonin levels decrease as the sun rises and falls to undetectable levels during the day, keeping us awake and alert during daylight hours.

Research has revealed that teens have a delayed response to the evening’s fading light, pushing back the spike in melatonin production and keeping them awake well past 11:00 p.m. Since most teens need 8 to 10 hours of sleep, they don’t begin to feel awake in the morning until as late as 9:00 a.m., well past most schools’ start times. This conflict between their biological clocks and societal norms sets teenagers up for sleep deprivation, putting them at risk for daytime fatigue, poor academic achievement, depression and anxiety disorders, and suicide.

The new California state law may have many teens across the country California dreamin’ and many parents pressuring school boards to follow California’s lead.

Other Sources
  • Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine: resources/pdf/pediatricsleepdurationconsensus.pdf

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