CTeenagers in Alifornia can now sleep in a bit later thanks to a new law. Most high schools and middle school cannot open before 8:30 AM and 8 AM, respectively.
That law—the first in the country to set statewide mandates for school start times—isn’t only big for California students, but also for public-health experts fighting against what the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has called an “epidemic” of teen sleep deprivation. The AAP and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention both oppose early-morning classes and support bell times for high and middle school at no later than 8:30 AM.
Research shows that teens are less likely to sleep at night, so they delay school start times. Research suggests that teens and teenagers can be at greater risk of obesity, drug use and poor academic performance due to sleep deprivation.
Research has long shown that circadian rhythms—light-mediated internal cues that help regulate sleep—change throughout the lifecycle. That’s, in part, why adults may find themselves naturally rising earlier as they age. Teenagers’ body clocks, meanwhile, are best synced to bedtimes around 11 p.m. or midnight and wake times about nine hours later—a timeline that’s impossible when classes start before 8 a.m.
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Early school schedules are largely a holdover from when most families didn’t have two working parents and thus didn’t need to worry about adhering to a 9-to-5 schedule. It has been a challenge to coordinate bus routes, classes and extracurricular activities.
These schedules, however, aren’t based on science. The mismatch between teenagers’ internal rhythms and external schedules sets them up to fail, studies have long suggested. One 1998 paper found that when a small group of students started school about an hour earlier than they had previously, they experienced “significant sleep deprivation and daytime sleepiness.”
The opposite effect has been observed when start times are moved back. Five years ago, seven Minneapolis public high schools switched their start time from 7:15 to 8:40 am. A study found that this shift gave kids an extra hour per night. Students also had better attendance and reported fewer depression symptoms. A 2010 study examined high school students from Rhode Island. After the start time was changed to 8:30 AM, students reported that they got 45 minutes more sleep per night.
Recent research published in 2021 revealed that Denver area middle school and high school students slept better after school districts delayed their start times by up to 40 minutes. An additional 2021 study found that students who started school at 8:30 am were somewhat more likely to commit suicide than those who started their classes later. The results weren’t statistically significant. The findings of the 2021 study on Colorado students suggest that starting school later may improve teens’ mental health. However, more research is necessary and there are many variables which could confuse the connection.
But changing bell times isn’t a panacea. Research that looked at the relationship between academic achievement and later start times in February 2022 found mixed results. Some schools reported positive outcomes while others had unclear or negative consequences.
Additionally, there are many logistical issues to be aware of. Public schools in Durham changed their starting times to 9:00 a.m. in 2016. The following year’s survey found that only 26 percent said their children were more tired and 14% claimed they learn better. The new schedule was not liked by 13% of staff members and 27% among parents. Why? Why?
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After a two year experiment using later bells that caused logistical problems, Newport schools reverted to their old start times in 2018. This was after the school’s second-year experience. Transportation can also be an issue, whether it’s rejiggering bus schedules, contending with traffic patterns, or finding ways for working parents to drop off kids later in the morning, some schools have learned after pushing their schedules later.
Jeremy Adams, a California teacher, raised many of these concerns during a January interview. Cal MattersOp-ed. Adams stated that the state law would cause problems for teachers on campus who need to be there for extracurriculars after class ends. “Ultimately,” Adams wrote, “this law will become a case study in ‘unintended consequences.’”
Research continues into the topic of school start times. A team in Colorado, for example, is studying how changing school start times affects not just students’ health, but also that of their families, teachers, and wider community. After the 2019 policy was passed, Deborah Temkin (an education researcher) told NBC News that all eyes will be focused on California’s statewide change. “If this turns out to be successful, with relatively few consequences, then I think it’s something that other states will likely consider,” Temkin said.
With the academic year only just beginning, it’s too soon to say how the experiment will turn out. But, as high schoolers from California explained to the Mercury News, it’ll take more than a later starting bell to cure their fatigue. “When you’re in high school, no matter what time you wake up, you’re going to be tired,” said senior Anika Bose. “At least I have time to grab a coffee before class now.”
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