California just became the first state to require most middle and high schools to start later in the morning, bringing them in line with research showing that teenagers benefit academically and in other ways.
Gov. Gavin Newsom, D, signed legislation Sunday that would phase in over three years a change in start times so that middle schools could not begin earlier than 8 a.m. and high schools no earlier than 8:30 a.m. Some rural schools are exempt.
The measure was not universally embraced, and Newsom’s predecessor, Jerry Brown, D, had vetoed similar legislation in 2018. Brown said local districts should set their own start times and noted that the California School Boards Association and the California Teachers Association, a large union, opposed it. Other critics opposed the measure for a number of reasons, including parents being unable to adjust work schedules, the consequences for after-school activities and some students still needing to get up very early to get to school by 8:30 a.m.
Newsom said in a statement the legislation jibes with recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “The science shows that teenage students who start their day later increase their academic performance, attendance, and overall health. Importantly, the law allows three years for schools and school districts to plan and implement these changes,” he said.
School start times have long been controversial. Sleep experts say teens have unique biological sleep patterns that make it difficult for them to fall asleep before 11 p.m., and that they need 8 to 10 hours of sleep each night to function at their best. The CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey in 2017 showed that nearly 75% of U.S. high school students were getting less than eight hours of sleep on school nights. As a result, many miss breakfast and fall asleep on their desks during the school day.
Experts say lack of sleep increases the risk of depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts and motor vehicle accidents among teens. Research shows students who get enough sleep are less likely to be late and absent from school, and more likely to be alert and get better grades.
Last month, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine sent a letter to Newsom urging him to sign the legislation, saying:
“In puberty a natural shift occurs in the timing of the body’s internal ‘circadian’ clock, causing most teens to experience a biological drive for a late-night bedtime. Therefore, early middle school and high school start times make it difficult for students to get the 8 to 10 hours of nightly sleep that the [American Academy of Sleep Medicine] recommends for optimal teen health. Simply going to bed earlier is not a realistic option for most teens.”
The academy, which says it is the only professional society dedicated exclusively to sleep medicine, released its first recommendations for sleep times in 2014. A 10-month study by a panel of 13 experts reviewed 864 scientific articles about the relationship between sleep and children’s health and evaluated the evidence. That same year, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement recommending that middle and high schools start class no earlier than 8:30 a.m.
Some school systems have made their start times later, but most haven’t, meaning most teens still go to school without the recommended sleep. A 2013 report by University of Minnesota researchers looked at seven high schools in South Washington County, Minnesota, that had moved start times from 7:15 a.m. to 8:40 a.m. in 2009. The study found that students were tardy and absent less and got better grades.
In 2017, the Boston School Committee voted to push back school start times, but the later times were not implemented after strong pushback from parents and others. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 13.4% of high school students started school at or after 8:30 a.m. in 2015-2016, the latest year for which data is available.