Does high school start too early in the day? Lawmaker hopes to spark conversation around school start times

ST. GEORGE — Adolescent kids are not getting enough sleep, and it is affecting them physically, mentally and academically. At least that is what one Utah lawmaker is saying ahead of the 2020 legislative session which is set to begin Monday and continue until March 12.

Representative Suzanne Harrison, D-Sandy, is proposing a concurrent resolution – HCR003 – encouraging school districts, charter schools and school community councils to consider the benefits and consequences of starting high school no earlier than 8:30 a.m.

“We know that our kids are sleep deprived and this causes a host of risks,” Harrison said. “… And it is impacting their academic learning and performance.”

Harrison said the problem stems largely from a shift in circadian rhythms when children enter puberty.

“During puberty, adolescents become sleepy later at night and need to sleep later in the morning as a result in shifts in biological rhythms,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, citing further information from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

Headshot of Representative Suzanne Harrison, a Democrat representing House District 32, location and date not specified | Photo from Harrion’s Utah House of Representatives webpage, St. George News

A change in biological rhythms coupled with early school start times during the week, exacerbated by the presence of electronics in teen’s rooms, is creating a perfect storm for adolescents not getting enough rest.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that children ages 13-18 regularly get 8-10 hours of sleep for better health.

As a mother of two teenagers herself, Harrison said she has seen firsthand some of the more subtle effects on teenagers who don’t get enough sleep.

“Anyone who has ever tried to wake up teenagers in the morning knows that it’s like waking the dead,” she said.

But the consequences of not getting enough sleep can be much more severe.

Adolescents who are consistently not getting enough sleep show increased risk for obesity and diabetes as well as anxiety, depression and even suicide, Harrison said.

Sleep-deprived adolescents have also exhibited increased risk-taking behaviors, lower impulse control, a greater risk of substance abuse and car accidents due to drowsy driving, Harrison added.

While Harrison said that some of these issues can be addressed in the home – implementing regular bedtimes and removing distracting electronic devices from bedrooms among the fixes – it is also an important policy issue.

Over a dozen medical organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, recommend that middle and high schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. in order to allow adolescents to get the proper amount of sleep within their biological sleep patterns, Harrison said.

Further information from the American Academy of Pediatrics said this:

Although a number of factors, including biological changes in sleep associated with puberty, lifestyle choices, and academic demands, negatively affect middle and high school students’ ability to obtain sufficient sleep, the evidence strongly implicates earlier school start times (ie, before 8:30 am) as a key modifiable contributor to insufficient sleep, as well as circadian rhythm disruption, in this population.

On the flip side, school districts across the country that have implemented later start times for middle and high schools are starting to see improvements in school attendance, decreased tardiness and increased academic performance, Harrison said.

In a study conducted by the University of Washington in Seattle, researchers concluded that delayed school start times are associated with a later sleep offset and longer sleep, higher grades, reduced sleepiness, improved attendance and punctuality.

While Harrison recognizes there are no silver bullets in terms of fixing all the issues teenagers are facing, she believes changing school start times is one policy change that can address many of them.

Harrison is running a resolution, which, unlike a bill or a mandate, does not make a change to the law. What she is hoping to come from this, she said, is that the representatives, senators and the governor will support what is said in the resolution and encourage local school districts and parents to consider the science and benefits of later start times for high schools.

The language of the resolution specifically addresses high schools, but Harrison said she hopes that conversations would include intermediate and middle schools as well.

Steven Dunham, the director of communications for the Washington County School District, said the district has had, and is willing to have, conversations surrounding school start times, but the ultimate decision would rest with the parents.

“Usually for us, it comes back to, ‘what do our parents want?’” Dunham said.

Most of the opposition to changing school schedules has come down to students who are involved in extracurricular activities or after school jobs, Dunham said.

Other concerns include the possibility of having to swap start times, making elementary schools start earlier, which could affect working parents whose students go to after school care.

Shifting school to a later start time would in turn shift start times for after school activities such as sports, theater, lessons and jobs, and would decrease time at home with families, Dunham said.

“Families have suggested to us that they would prefer the earlier time,” he said.

Dunham’s statements are echoed by parents in the district whose students juggle busy schedules that end fairly late in the day as it is.

“Personally, with sports and the practices, a later school start time would be so hard,” Andrea Smith said.

Smith’s son is involved with wrestling after school which holds practices from 3:30-6:30 p.m. Smith feels that if the school start time was pushed later, they would either hold practices even later or switch practice to the morning, defeating the purpose of a later start time altogether.

In Washington County, intermediate schools begin as early as 7:40 a.m., with high schools beginning at 8:15 a.m., middle schools at 8:20 a.m. and elementary schools (other than afternoon Kindergarten) at 9 a.m.

While most parents in the district agree that intermediate school starts too early, they still prefer to leave the middle and high school start times where they are.

“The intermediate school definitely starts too early. It is still dark when my son rides his bike to school, and before the time change it was pitch black,” Elizabeth Dansie said. “(But) I honestly don’t think 8 a.m. is too early with after school sports and such. With school start time at about 8 a.m. and after school sports, my kids get done about 5:30 p.m. which is reasonable to me.”

In Iron County, most high schools and middle schools start around 7:55 a.m. or 8 a.m., and elementary schools at about 9 a.m.

However, all secondary schools in Iron County have a late start on Wednesday with schools beginning at 9:30 a.m.

The late start Wednesday was implemented to allow teachers, within their contract time, to be able to collaborate with other teachers, have conversations about how to help their students, and do some professional development, Roy Mathews said.

The late start day also allows time for students to come into school who need remediation or extra help on certain subjects, he added.

Mathews is the director of secondary education for the Iron County School District, and he is also the parent of secondary school-aged students in the district.

While late start Wednesday wasn’t started because of the research surrounding sleep and school start times, speaking as a parent, Mathews said his kids have really loved the dedicated day where they are able to catch up on sleep.

The program was first implemented at Parowan High School while Mathews was the principal there, he said. Speaking only of Parowan High School, Mathews said the benefits of starting school late that one day far outweighed any of the possible negatives.

“The kids really appreciate Wednesday mornings,” Mathews said, adding that most of them work really hard to not get into a place where they need remediation so they can use that day to sleep in and get to school refreshed.

That said, Mathews is not sure that adjusting regular start times (late start Wednesday excluded) by only about 30 minutes would make enough of a noticeable difference in academic performance to warrant the change.

Like Dunham, Mathews said the Iron County School District is certainly willing to have conversations and consider the science, but he feels there are many more things that parents, including himself, can do at home to ensure their adolescents are getting the sleep they need.

But Harrison is convinced that the science is sound and that this is one big way to make an impact for the better in the lives of future generations.

“We really can help a ton of kids and set them up for the kind of life success we want them to have,” Harrison said.

As the Utah legislative session begins, Harrison hopes to get her resolution before a committee as soon as possible, she said.

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