Apr 16 2021

Later School Start Times

Yet another study shows the benefits of delaying the start time for High School students. This study also looked at middle school and elementary school students, had a two year follow up, and including both parent and student feedback. In this study: “Participating elementary schools started 60 minutes earlier, middle, 40-60 minutes later, and high school started 70 minutes later,” and found

Researchers found that the greatest improvements in these measures occurred for high school students, who obtained an extra 3.8 hours of sleep per week after the later start time was implemented. More than one in ten high school students reported improved sleep quality and one in five reported less daytime sleepiness. The average “weekend oversleep,” or additional sleep on weekends, amongst high schoolers dropped from just over two hours to 1.2 hours, suggesting that with enough weekday sleep, students are no longer clinically sleep deprived and no longer feel compelled to “catch up” on weekends. Likewise, middle school students obtained 2.4 additional hours of sleep per week with a later school start time. Researchers saw a 12% decrease in middle schoolers reporting daytime sleepiness. The percent of elementary school students reporting sufficient sleep duration, poor sleep quality, or daytime sleepiness did not change over the course of the study.

This adds to prior research which shows similar results, and also shows that student academic performance and school attendance improves. For teens their mood improves, their physical health improves, and the rate of car crashes decreases. So it seems like an absolute no-brainer that the typical school start time should be adjusted to optimize these outcomes. Why isn’t it happening? Getting in the way are purely logistical problems – synchronizing school start times with parents who need to go to work, sharing buses among elementary, middle, and high school, and leaving enough time at the end of the day for extracurricular activities. But these are entirely solvable logistical hurdles.

First, flexible work start times, where possible, are a great idea. People generally differ in terms of their optimal sleep schedule, and giving people the option to sleep even one hour later can make a big difference. This also would spread out rush-hour traffic, to everyone’s benefit. Also, many families where both parents works (or with single parents who work) could use the flexibility to get their kids to school. Similarly, bus schedules should not be difficult to make work, especially if you are just shifting everything later. And expanding the bus fleet may be a reasonable investment to make for all the benefits. Finally I don’t find the notion that kids will have less time for extracurricular activities compelling. We are not reducing the number of hours in the day, just shifting the schedule to better match inherent sleep patterns.

Logistical inconvenience is not a reason to ignore this issue, and the potential benefits to be gained. We can make it work. The current schedule was not really planned, it evolved out of logistical convenience at the expense of the health and academic success of our children.

What I am more concerned about, however, is not this one specific issue but the broader reality that collectively it can be so difficult to institute obviously beneficial changes simply because of minor logistical hurdles. I am also reminded of Daylight Savings Time – it has to go (or be made permanent – either way, the twice a year shift has to go). The evidence has been available for years – shifting the clock has negative health effects and increases traffic accidents. So why are we stuck with this archaic bad idea?

There is a proposed “Sunshine Protection Act of 2021” currently in the senate. We will see if it gets anywhere. It should not have taken this long – why does it take so many years after the evidence is already crystal clear to get things done? That’s mostly a rhetorical question. Bureaucracy is designed to move slowly and carefully. Getting any large group of people to do the same thing is typically a nightmare. Political paralysis is more the norm than the exception. But it is frustrating that for small things where the evidence is clear it should be able to get it done in a more nimble fashion.  And these are just two of the countless things in our society that need fixing, and far from the most important or impactful.

What we seem to need is the ability to change how we make change. The system itself would benefit from some self-improvement. This is complicated but it’s a worthwhile endeavor. Our society is becoming increasingly complex, and our institutions need to evolve to handle that complexity. We can’t handle 21st century problems with 18th century institutions. But of course, this would be even harder to do than changing Daylight Savings Time, so we appear to be stuck.  At this point it would likely take a political movement, which rarely focuses on wonky and logistical issues, but that is precisely what we need. It may help if as a society we value overall competence and expertise more. If we keep selecting ideological warriors rather than skilled legislators, we get what we deserve.


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