Certain parts of the way we operate schools in America are embedded in tradition. Our parents did it one way, so they want to perpetuate that, even in the face of changing cultural needs or scientific proof that a change may be in order. Frog dissections. Football schedules affecting the whole school. And early start times.
On October 27, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed California Bill 328, which makes it law that high schools will begin no earlier than 8:30 a.m., and middle schools 8 a.m.
Legislation about later start times has come up twice before in the California Assembly. In 2017, the bill didn’t make its way out of the legislature; and in 2018 it passed the legislature but was vetoed by then-Governor Jerry Brown.
Rural districts and before-school extracurricular classes such as driver’s ed are exempt from later start times, and schools have until 2022 to come into compliance.
Most of that time will be needed, as the legislation does not come with instructions for specific implementation. The largest hurdle is buses. School districts typically operate enough buses for only half their student body because the drivers do one circuit to pick up the older students, then a second one for the elementary grades.
Under the new policy, decisions will have to be made about how to navigate bussing issues. Either the schedules will be swapped, in which case the younger students will have to be picked up first (around 6:30 a.m.), or both will be shifted later, meaning elementary schools will start around 10 a.m. Both have drawbacks, especially in families with complicated schedules such as low-income families with parents working multiple jobs.
Contemporary research shows that adolescents have sleep schedules that skew late, with many simply unable to shut their minds and bodies down until hours after sunset. This has led to a push by many student advocates for later start times for middle and high school students. And in California, this push has just been successful.
Skeptics of the new schedule point at a paucity of studies on whether teenagers with later-shifted schedules actually get more sleep and whether later start times improve academic outcomes and reduce behavior and mental health issues. And the skeptics are right about this: few studies have been done on the subject, but the California legislation still feels like a step in a healthier direction. Time will tell.