After California Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed legislation that would keep middle and high schools from opening before 8:30 a.m., advocates are pushing back, calling for districts nationwide to move forward with the policy and start their school days later.
Shifting school start times back would let students get much-needed sleep, boost their health and increase their academic performance, according to articles in The New York Times and The Atlantic. But there are underlying questions about the effects of later start times — how districts would fund increased transportation costs, how after-school activities would be affected and how the new schedule would interfere with parents’ work days.
Alongside this movement, a call to extend the school day is picking up steam. It would help working parents, but it comes with a heftier price tag for districts, The Atlantic notes.
A typical post-school day schedule includes sports practices, club meetings, hours of homework assignments and the inevitable distractions from too much screen time — all of which leaves learners, especially teenagers staying up until at least 11 p.m. The average U.S. public school start time, federal data shows, is 7:59 a.m., but health experts say these teens should be sleeping at least 8 hours per day. As teens, they're going through puberty that keeps them up later and forces them to need more sleep. But in many cases, that’s not happening, causing students to have a harder time staying focused, to perform worse academically, and to be more likely to have physical or mental health problems.
Without enough sleep it, according to the National Institutes of Health, memory, decision-making skills and alertness go down. Students can become more irritable and more likely to struggle paying attention, which, in turn, impacts their ability to learn and absorb class material. Enter a later school start time, which districts in at least 46 states have adopted, says advocacy group Start School Later. Later school start times and more time for sleep are said to have physical and emotional benefits. The heart rate goes down, muscles relax and the rapid eye movement (REM) cycle allows one to reach a deep sleep that can even boost the immune system, Harvard Medical School says. It promotes an active, healthy lifestyle and lowers the risk of mental health issues like depression or bipolar disorder. Sleep can even boost the economy by more than $80 billion, according to the RAND Corp. Studies also say there’s a link between early school start times, tardiness and disciplinary issues.
But there’s a reason why so many schools haven’t changed their schedules — it’s not just students that school communities have to consider. As is, the school day ends a few hours before the typical workday, leaving parents to organize a child-care plan while they’re still gone. Shifting the start time back — and offered extended day programs — means fewer parents might need these services, but they might struggle to both get to work and get their children to school on time. It also means schools would have to pay more for transportation, and after-school activities like sports and clubs would have to shift their schedules. There are plenty of parents who support a change, but there are still many who don’t.
While some are upset about Brown’s veto, his explanation, as reported in the Los Angeles Times, holds some weight: “This is a one-size-fits-all approach,” and “these are the types of decisions best handled in the local community,” he said. It’s impossible for everyone to be perfectly satisfied or in agreement, and not all schools — as well as the communities within them — have the same needs. Regardless of which approach is deemed “better” or “worse,” the decision should be made by the people who have to deal with its effects, along with the input of other relevant stakeholders: parents, teachers and the students who will be going to class.