Influencers Opinion

Are later school start times the answer to getting kids more sleep? Maybe, maybe not

Note to readers: Each week through November 2019, a selection of our 101 California Influencers answers a question that is critical to California’s future. Topics include education, healthcare, environment, housing and economic growth.

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For every parent who has ever tried to drag their sleeping teenagers out of bed on a weekday morning, the bill that Gavin Newsom signed that would require public schools to start classes later each morning looks like an answer sent from heaven. This new legislation will require classes to start no earlier than 8 a.m. for middle schoolers and not before 8:30 a.m. for high schoolers.

But the issue is more complicated than simply letting kids get more sleep. While no one is against the idea of better-rested and more alert students, many of The Sacramento Bee’s California influencers warn about the unintended consequences of a statewide mandate.

“Late start times create hardship for families since many working parents cannot adjust their schedules to suit the Legislature. (This bill) would disproportionately affect low-income families and prevent many students from working after school or from caring for their siblings,” said California School Boards Association Executive Director Vernon M. Billy. “Late school start times are worth exploring, but those decisions should be made by local communities, not mandated from Sacramento.”

State Senate Education Committee Chair Connie Leyva (D-Chino) also pointed to the challenges that later starting times could present in lower-income communities.

“I remain concerned about the unintended consequences of forcing later start times, including the obvious effect it will have on working or single parent families and local transportation demand,” Leyva said. “We can all agree that our students need a sufficient amount of sleep and that sleep time is a significant and important factor in overall health, but improving sleep time for students requires more than just later start times.”

Several influencers agreed that later start times are just one part of an overall solution and called for a broader range of remedies.

“Teenage brains are undergoing significant transformation and sleep deprivation is a serious problem. School leaders should try to ensure that start times don’t exacerbate the problem,” Children Now President Ted Lempert said. “At the same time, there needs to be a coordinated effort to encourage students to cut screen time; to help students navigate multiple school, family and often economic obligations… and for policymakers to help families by ensuring there are supports, like accessible, quality child care for siblings.”

State Senator Ling Ling Chang (R-Diamond Bar) argued that starting classes later is a necessary first step to help students concentrate more effectively on their studies.

“The science is clear: sleep deprivation impacts brain development, can contribute to depression, trouble concentrating, and drowsy-driving accidents,” said Chang, citing studies from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. “Most teens have a biological tendency for late bedtimes, so getting to bed early is not a simple answer… It’s time for us to bring school start times in line with science and public health needs.”

University of California President Janet Napolitano suggested that school districts be encouraged to experiment with different approaches to gauge the impact of later start times.

“As much as I sympathize with sleepy students, we must also carefully consider how the change would affect families and schools,” Napolitano said. “I’d like to see pilot studies on later start times conducted with willing school districts. That way we can collect data about the impacts of a time shift on childcare, family transportation schedules and after-school sports, among other things.”

California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Oakley addressed a similar need for more flexibility for higher education as well as middle and high schools.

“Today’s debate… should lead us to a wider conversation about whether education at all levels is evolving quickly enough to serve a public that increasingly embraces – and needs – nontraditional learning,” said Oakley, who touted the state’s new online community college. “Offering classes at times that best serve learners is important, but so too is using different modalities to reach students, especially adult learners without college credentials who find themselves stranded in low-wage jobs and struggling to provide for their families.”

Other influencers offered a reminder that this challenge starts long before adolescence.

“According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, young children should sleep between 9 to 13 hours every 24 hours, including naps, on a regular basis to promote their health”, said Kim Belshe, executive director for First 5 LA. “Would a modified school start time help? The short answer is yes, as part of a broader solution that considers the effects later start times would have on parents in the workforce.”

Dan Schnur, a veteran analyst and longtime participant in California politics, is director of the California Influencers series for McClatchy.
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