Help may be on the way for students who struggle to keep their eyes open in those early-morning classes.
Passage of Senate Bill 328 – the Start the School Day Later bill – would require California’s public middle schools and high schools to begin classes no earlier than 8:30 a.m., starting in fall 2020.
Jeff Harding, superintendent of the Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District, said the district has not formally taken a stance on the bill – which has already passed through the California State Senate and Assembly Education Committee – but is prepared to “respond appropriately” if it passes.
If approved by the Assembly Appropriations Committee, scheduled to reconvene Monday, and by an all-Assembly vote, SB 328 will become law.
State Sen. Anthony Portantino (D-25th District, which covers San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys) introduced the bill in February to improve “the quality of education, health and welfare of our children,” he said on his website.
The American Medical Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are among the organizations recommending later start times to allow teens sufficient sleep that could benefit their performance in the classroom.
“As the competition to get into universities increases and there are more activities students are involved in, one thing we find is (that) students aren’t getting enough sleep,” Harding said.
However, pushing back the start of the school day won’t mean shortening classes, afterschool athletics and other activities in the MVLA district.
“We’re very sensitive to the needs of students to gain adequate sleep each night,” Harding said. “We have a mandatory number of minutes in a school day, so when you start later, you have to end later.”
A student’s perspective
Elise Withers, a senior at Los Altos High School, said she is “mostly in favor” of the proposal – especially after having a free first period during her junior year.
“This allowed me to wake up at a reasonable time, so I wasn’t as sluggish most mornings,” she said.
However, Withers sees a drawback to the later start time.
“I don’t really like the thought of ending the school day at 4 (p.m.) or so,” she said, “but I think I could get over that.”
Health, safety concerns
While schedules may have to change, representatives of Start School Later – a nationwide nonprofit organization that advocates for a later start time – believe that SB 328 is a step in the right direction.
“Schools should provide education in the most effective way and the safest environment,” said Irena Keller, co-chairwoman of the California chapter of Start School Later. “If lack of sleep is hurting the children, there should be some guidelines.”
Keller added that a later start time is the key to better grades, but the most crucial factor is the safety risk posed by sleep deprivation.
“All of the children who bike and walk (are) at risk because the other teenagers are driving around sleepless,” she said.
But Harding reasoned that a later start time is not the only way to ensure the safety of students and improve their educational experience.
“I think this (bill) is one way,” he said, “but there are many other ways that could positively impact student sleep.”
Harding suggested that parents encourage their children to ditch their phones and electronics earlier in the day so that they can sleep better.
Keller, however, said that it’s irrational for parents to force their children to go to bed sooner.
“It’s a medical, biological fact (that) adolescents cannot fall asleep too early,” said Keller, who earned a doctorate in child and adolescent development. “They don’t get the melatonin (hormone) early – it comes around 10 or 11 (p.m.).”
For now, Keller said she hopes that schools and parents will ultimately prioritize student health and education.
“It’s difficult, because everyone has to agree,” she said. “(But) the more people who have understanding about development … and sleep importance, then change will come. I’m optimistic that science will win in the end.”