Early classes can harm teens’ health and academic performance—here’s a look at the movement to push back that first bell.
Both the CDC and the AAP noted that sleep-deprived teens not only have poorer educational outcomes, but also are more prone to car accidents, obesity, and depression.
Schools Successfully Starting Classes Later
The realization is spreading that it’s harmful to force teens to rise with the birds. Some schools have adopted later start times, though there’s no hard data on the trend. “Unfortunately, it is very difficult to track how many schools are talking about changing or have changed start times because there is no mandatory reporting. Our lack of tracking start times reflects our level of systemic lack of awareness,” Simera says.
But the Glen Falls School District is one that made the switch. In 2013, the high school pushed back its start time from 7:45am to 8:25am, and saw better student outcomes. The South Orangetown Central School District is another that opted to try a later start. “Our high school and middle school went from a 7:30am start to 8:15. It’s soooo much better,” says Stephanie Mullen, a mom of three in Blauvelt. “Teens are not adults, and there’s no point in forcing them to adapt to an adult schedule.” At Islip High School in Suffolk County, upperclassmen can opt out of first period and come in 40 minutes later, provided they’ll have enough credits to graduate, which most do.
Why Don’t More Schools Make a Change to Start Later?
Like so many other things having to do with public school systems, the current situation is largely driven by budgets. The start times of high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools have to be staggered in order to keep the number of buses and drivers—and costs—to a minimum. And high schools tend to start earliest, often to allow the youngest students to wait at the bus stop in broad daylight and to have teens back home before their little brothers and sisters arrive, an arrangement some working parents depend on.
Aside from increased transportation costs, rejiggering the start times of a district’s schools would mean renegotiating contracts, not only with transportation providers, but with teachers and school staff, including sports coaches.
Another consideration: The traffic that school buses and traveling school sports teams would face if their schedule were closer to rush hour. “As it was, it would take Joey an hour to get back when his away volleyball games ended at four. Imagine if they ended at five?” says Marie Iorio, a mom of two in New Hyde Park in Nassau County. A situation like that could hamper a child’s participation in extracurriculars or sports, which—who knows?—could be the thing that makes or breaks their college applications.
Other parents are simply neutral on the issue. “I have mixed feelings about late start,” says Gina Seymour, the library media specialist at Islip High School. “Yes, the kids are tired, but as a mom I do like to see my children off to school before I leave for work, rather than leave with them still in bed.”
While the premise of later school start times for teens is widely accepted by those familiar with the facts, there’s another stumbling block to overcome: human nature. People, parents included, tend to rally around causes that affect them directly. That means that hard-won advocates graduate along with their kids every four years, so it’s a constant battle for groups such as Start School Later to keep re-educating parents and maintain the grassroots pressure.
None of this is to say, of course, that opening high schools an hour later is the lone magic bullet to kids’ sleep issues and school success. And some kids fare better than others with the current arrangement. Jennifer Geddes, a mom of two teens in Manhattan, is one of the lucky ones. Her daughter’s high school starts at 8:30am. But while Geddes says the late start is great, “Fiona could start earlier than that,” she shares. “She’s up and ready to go well before she has to leave.”
Barring a sweeping change to start times, what are families to do? Promoting good sleep-hygiene habits for kids, such as avoiding caffeine in the evening, shutting down electronics before getting into bed, and keeping to roughly the same sleep schedule on weekends, will help them regardless of when school begins. That, combined with continuing efforts to educate parents, school boards, and politicians on the benefits of letting teens sleep later, may ultimately yield eye-opening results for our chronically weary kids.