California Considers Requiring Middle and High School to Start Later, In Effort to Give Teens More Sleep

The biology of the adolescent brain makes it difficult for teens to fall asleep before 11 p.m., so the only way for them to get the recommended eight to nine hours of sleep per night is to have school start no earlier than 8:30 a.m.

Several Mondays each month, Gerardo Correa notices a difference in his students.

“There’s a more easy-going atmosphere; there’s less anxiety, less stress,” said the assistant principal at Segerstrom High School in Santa Ana.

The reason, he said, is simple. Those Mondays the Orange County school has morning faculty meetings, so classes start at 9:20 a.m. instead of 8 a.m.—and students get more sleep.

Correa’s students, many of whom come from low-income and immigrant families, often have a difficult time getting a full night’s rest because of their obligations outside school. Many of them work to contribute to the household income and care for young children at home, he said.

“Even 15 or 20 minutes of extra sleep makes a noticeable difference,” Correa said.

A new bill headed to the California Assembly could allow these students and more than 2.7 million others statewide to get more rest every night. Senate bill 328, which the state Senate approved 25-13 in late May, would require all public middle and high schools in California to start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. in an effort to give preteens and teens more sleep.

The proposed start time of 8:30 a.m. is based on a 2014 recommendation by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which explains that the biology of the adolescent brain makes it difficult for teens to fall asleep before 11 p.m., so the only way for them to get the recommended eight to nine hours of sleep per night is to have school start no earlier than 8:30 a.m.

“Waking up a teen at 6:30 to go to school at 7:30 is the biological equivalent of waking you up at 4 in the morning,” said state Senator Anthony Portantino, a Democrat from Los Angeles County and the sponsor of the bill. “Can you imagine how you would feel if 187 days a year you had to wake up at 4? You would be miserable and unhealthy.”

The average start time in California is 8:07 a.m., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Sleep-Deprived Teens

A 2006 National Sleep Foundation study found that 87 percent of high school students across the country didn’t get enough sleep.

Rafael Pelayo, a sleep specialist at Stanford University’s Sleep Disorders Clinic, explained that a lack of sleep isn’t just about feeling drowsy in the classroom—it can lead to irritability, inattentiveness and increased risk for obesity, sports injuries, car crashes, depression and suicidal thoughts.

“Any teenager you deal with—just assume they’re not getting enough sleep,” he said. “People thought they were getting into car accidents because they’re inexperienced, but it’s because they’re sleepy.”

School districts that have adopted later start times have seen these risks go down. A 2014 University of Minnesota study, for example, showed that teen car accidents dropped 70 percent after classes were delayed from 7:35 to 8:55 a.m.

“We have 20 years of data and hundreds of articles saying the same thing—that no matter which district you look at, the kids do better when they start later,” Pelayo said.

While all adolescents can benefit from additional sleep, the advantages for children from low-income families are even more pronounced. Research has shown that these children get less sleep and a poorer quality of sleep compared to children from more affluent backgrounds. Low-income children also have a greater incidence of sleep disorders compared to kids from wealthier families.

A 2017 study published in the journal Sleep Health showed that students in low-performing school districts saw the biggest academic gains after high schools switched to an 8:30 a.m. start time. Across the board, the average attendance and graduation rates increased 4 and 9 percent, respectively. But in the lowest-performing districts, attendance jumped 18 percent (from 68 to 86 percent) and graduation rates spiked 17 percent (from 51 to 68 percent).

And a 2007 study published in the journal Child Development showed that when sleep was optimal, black and white children of various socioeconomic backgrounds had similar performance on cognitive tests. But when sleep was more disrupted, kids from higher socioeconomic backgrounds performed better than lower-income students.

“It’s more beneficial to them because they have more to gain,” Pelayo said of low-income children getting extra rest at night. “Sleep is the great equalizer.”

Would the Bill Result in More Sleep?

Nancy Chaires Espinoza, legislative advocate for the California School Boards Association, which opposes the bill, said S.B. 328 is unlikely to help low-income students, since “they’re more likely to have parents who work in the retail industry or the service sector where they don’t have the ability to adjust their work hours” to take their kids in at a later time.

Elias Cazales, a Santa Ana father of two middle school students, said that while he is “fine” with later school hours, he worries about its impact on other families in the area.

“You have a lot of parents that are dropping off their kids at 7:15, 7 in the morning so they can get to their jobs on time,” he said of his daughters’ middle school that starts at 8:10 a.m. “I could see it being an inconvenience to those families.”

The bill proposes that the new start times not go into effect until 2020, in an effort to give families time to adjust to any logistical issues.

For Portantino, whose bill is supported by groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, California State PTA, American Academy of Sleep Medicine, California Federation of Teachers and Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles, adolescent sleep deprivation should trump concerns over adults’ schedules.

“This is a public health crisis,” he said.

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