For the past several years, health experts — including those at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP) — have expounded on the health benefits of a later school start time for older students. Thanks to hormones and bodily changes, many teens have a harder time falling asleep at night and therefore a harder time dragging themselves out of bed in the morning. When they do get up, it's often after getting only a fraction of the nine plus hours of sleep they need to stay healthy.
Pushing back middle and high school start times could alleviate the chronic sleep deprivation seen among teens, an issue that has been linked to an increased risk for obesity, higher levels of anxiety and depression, a greater likelihood of risky behavior, lower test scores, and higher rates of drowsy driving. But despite the health benefits associated with more sleep for teens, changing school schedules comes at a cost that some school administrators find too steep to accommodate.
In 2014, the AAP released a policy statement noting the chronic issue of sleep deprivation among teens. They recommended that middle and high schools push back their start times to no earlier than 8:30 a.m. in order to help kids log their much needed zzz's.
But many school districts are reluctant to make the change. And they have good reasons.
The domino effect
For starters, there are financial issues associated with changing school start times. Most school districts have a carefully choreographed bus schedule designed to get kids of all ages to their appropriate schools on time. Change the high school start time and you may need more buses or drivers to accommodate the change. This can add up to hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars depending on the school district.
One solution that has worked in some districts is to keep bus schedules the same but swap the start times for elementary and high schools. An earlier start time might work better for younger students who are more likely to hit the hay earlier and wake up earlier each day. But this might also mean that little kids — who need at least 10 to 11 hours of sleep each night — may need to go to bed just after dinner. Logistically, it's never easy to alter the family schedule.
Another big issue affecting the decision to change school start times? Sports. If schools start later, they will presumably end later, too, giving students less time for after-school activities, including clubs, jobs and the all-important sports. Many student athletes already miss some school time to attend away games and practices. Moving the school day back means teens will miss even more school — or face having to decide between sports and their studies.
Benefits all around
But one of the major advantages of the allowing students to get the amount of sleep they need each night is that well-rested teens take fewer sick days and are less susceptible to sports injuries. For school districts where federal funding is based on student attendance, fewer absentees could equate to hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars in additional funds.
The Los Angeles Times reported that a district-wide attendance increase of even one percent would bring in an extra $40 million per year for the Los Angeles Unified School District. In another study, researchers found that student athletes who get at least eight hours of sleep each night were less likely than their sleep-deprived peers to get injured on the field.
So while students may have less time in the evenings for after-school activities, they may be able to make more out of the time they do have if they get a better night's sleep.
The financial and logistical hindrances to altering school start times are issues that need to be addressed before school districts can move forward with schedule changes. But considering the extraordinary health benefits for teens that could be gained by making the change, it seems more than worth it to make the effort.