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To combat teens' sleep deprivation, California schools must start their days later

Experts say more sleep will improve students' health, academic and athletic performance
Students walk around campus on the second day of school at Palo Alto High School on Aug. 11, 2022

Carol Maheras isn't going to miss the early morning scramble to get her twins to school.

Zoe and Theodoros, both rising seniors at TIDE Academy, a small public high school in Menlo Park, had classes at 8 a.m. this past school year, which meant starting their day before 6 a.m. Like many families at TIDE, which draws students from throughout the Sequoia Union High School District, Maheras and her kids don't live in the immediate vicinity of the school.

"It meant getting up at 5:45 to leave the house at 6:50 for a 7:05 bus," she said.

The lengthy bus ride followed by more than seven hours of school added up to a really long day, she said. Rousing her kids to get up on time was sometimes impossible, and in an effort to shorten the commute, she and her husband decided early on in the school year to start driving them.

Still, she said, her son was often late for class.

"The thing is, if the kids have to start earlier, they're not going to adjust their nighttime because of that," Maheras said. "What happens is they sleep less, they're more irritable, they're more tired, they're more stressed."

A new state law is about to change things for Maheras and her kids. Beginning this coming school year, California high schools aren't allowed to start earlier than 8:30 a.m. Middle schools must begin at 8 a.m. or later. Maheras said she is emphatically in favor of the change.

'The thing is, if the kids have to start earlier, they're not going to adjust their nighttime because of that.'

-Carol Maheras, parent of rising seniors at TIDE Academy

The California legislature passed the bill requiring later start times in 2019, with the rules taking effect on July 1, 2022. A major part of the reasoning behind the law was research showing that teenagers suffer from sleep deprivation and that later school start times can make a positive difference.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an analysis of survey data from 2015 showed that over 70% of high school students were not getting enough sleep on school nights. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that middle and high schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m., citing research showing that teenagers generally need 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep per night.

When schools start later, studies have shown that adolescents get more sleep, leading to better daytime functioning, a decrease in behavioral issues, fewer absences and tardies, and improved mental health, among other benefits, Professor of Psychology Amy Wolfson of Loyola University Maryland said in an interview with this news organization.

Wolfson — whose research focuses on adolescent sleep health and is one of the coauthors of the American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement on school start times — strongly supports the new California law.

"It's phenomenal, and I think California is showing tremendous adolescent public-health leadership for the country," Wolfson said.

In anticipation of the new law, many local school districts have already shifted to later start times, including the Palo Alto Unified and Mountain View Los Altos Union High school districts. Other schools will be making the move for the first time this fall, including Woodside High School.

Students follow the teacher to the library on the first day of school at the Woodside High School on Aug. 17, 2016. Photo by Natalia Nazarova.

Among those that already made the change, some are considering whether to make further tweaks. Palo Alto Unified Superintendent Don Austin announced the formation of a committee to review bell schedules this coming school year after the district pushed high school start times to 9 a.m. during the pandemic and kept it in place last school year. Previously, first period had started at 8:30 a.m. at Palo Alto High School and 8:25 a.m. at Gunn High School. The committee, whose goal is to make a recommendation this year, will explore whether another schedule could serve the district better and may look at the possibility of starting classes at 8:30 a.m. or 8:45 a.m.

While sleep experts are generally in support of pushing back start times, the logistics of actually doing it are complex and can lead to complications for things like athletic schedules, extracurricular activities and the morning drop-off routine for working families. One of the main challenges is that starting later means ending the day later.

"There are people who love it and people who hate it, as with anything," Palo Alto Unified's Director of Secondary Education Kathleen Laurence said of starting school at 9 a.m. "Overall, the kids like coming later — what they don't like is getting out at 4:10 on some days."

The benefits of starting later

students at a desk
Junior Carter Scoville works in a computer science class at TIDE Academy in Menlo Park on Oct. 27, 2021. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

According to Wolfson, the research supporting moving back school start times is clear cut. She listed wide-ranging benefits, including fewer automobile accidents because teen drivers are better rested and evidence of improvements to students' immune systems.

Part of why starting classes later is effective is because kids experience what is known as a circadian "phase delay" in early adolescence, Wolfson said, which means they can't fall asleep until later in the evening, compared with their younger siblings and peers, despite still needing 8.5-9.5 hours of sleep each night.

"By delaying the timing of school ... it aligns their school schedule with their biological clock," Wolfson said.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that middle and high schools start at 8:30 a.m. or later because it was the earliest time researchers believed students could attend classes while also getting a healthy amount of sleep, Wolfson said, adding that many experts think 9 a.m. might actually be preferable.

A common concern is that if kids can wake up later, they'll just fall asleep commensurately later, but Wolfson said that studies have found that generally isn't true. The American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement includes descriptions of a number of studies showing that teens, on average, sleep longer when school starts later.

Chuck Velschow, Woodside High's administrative vice principal, saw firsthand the challenge of getting students to school on time at 8 a.m. when he was a teacher with a first period class.

"Do you give the detention you're supposed to receive after three tardies?" he said. "How do you compare a student who is 30 seconds late versus 10 minutes?"

Velschow pointed out that it can be difficult to get to school at 8 a.m., especially for families that have several children.

Woodside High will begin later for the first time this coming school year, with half of students starting at 8:30 a.m. and most of the remaining students beginning at 9:30 a.m. Seventh period will let out at 3:40 p.m.

School staff decided to keep things simple for the first year of later start times by just pushing back schedules by half an hour, Velschow said. Administrators surveyed families and teachers last school year about the change and plan to create a bell schedule committee this school year to review the new schedule, Velschow said.

"Kids seem to be happier they'll have a little bit later start to the day," he said, noting it should make mornings less hectic for families.

The Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District began school at 8:40 a.m. last school year, a 30-minute shift from the 8:10 a.m. start time that the district had before the pandemic.

The district is keeping the later start time this fall.

According to Associate Superintendent of Educational Services Teri Faught, the district chose 8:40 a.m. as the middle ground between the research supporting 9 a.m. and the reality of balancing the needs of after school activities. With the shift later, the district also eliminated a zero period, which used to start at 7:15 a.m. or 7:20 a.m., depending on the day. (Read more in "The controversial zero period.) According to Faught, the feedback on the later start from students has been largely positive.

"They felt more awake. They felt like they got a better night's sleep," Faught said. "They felt rested, not like they were dragging their feet to come to school."

The Mountain View Whisman School District moved its middle school bell schedules roughly 30 minutes later last school year so that both Crittenden and Graham middle schools now start at 8:25 a.m. Spokesperson Shelly Hausman said that the district hasn't seen any large impacts from the change, other than students being "a little more awake and lively in the mornings."

The impact on sports

Swimmers warm up before a virtual meet at Gunn High School in Palo Alto on Feb. 24, 2021. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

While studies show teens generally fall asleep and wake up later, Laurence noted that isn't a universal experience. Some kids are early risers, and for them, later start times have been a mixed bag.

Incoming Palo Alto High School senior Elizabeth Fetter is one who gets up early. In some ways, starting later has its benefits, Fetter said. Last year she would sometimes go on group bicycle rides from 6-8 a.m., which wouldn't have been possible when school started before 8:30 a.m.

However, the flip side of starting later is finishing school later, which Fetter said caused substantial problems for her athletic schedule. Seventh period at Paly ends as late as 4:10 p.m., depending on the day of the week, which meant her outdoor cross-country practices in the fall would often start after the sun had set.

"With the sun going down, it makes me feel like I just want to go to sleep, but I know my day is almost just starting," Fetter said, noting that after school ends she still has to attend sports practices and then go home to finish all of her homework.

'Overall, the kids like coming later — what they don't like is getting out at 4:10 on some days.'

-Kathleen Laurence, director of secondary education, Palo Alto Unified

Running off campus in the dark with her cross country team also felt somewhat dangerous, Fetter said, adding that she was concerned about the potential for athletes to get lost or injured.

The later end time also meant missing more class time for sports competitions.

"The sentiment among a lot of athletes is that it's really hard and really frustrating to miss so much class every week," Fetter said.

Laurence acknowledged the impact that ending class later has on outdoor sports that practice without lights. Sports games and meets cutting into more class time may be somewhat alleviated this coming year when all schools have to start later, Laurence said.

Sequoia High shifted to later start times 11 years ago and Athletic Director Melissa Schmidt has spent years pushing for later game times. Though she struggled when Sequoia was the only school starting at 8:30 a.m., she hopes that the new state law may change that.

"As a league, we've started having conversations about changing even more game times now that everyone is going to be getting out later," she said. "For some sports, it may not be possible due to constraints like availability of officials, lights, etc., but we're hopeful we can change many."

Schmidt was the girls soccer coach in 2011 and distinctly remembers the shift from 8 a.m.

"The change was definitely a concern for athletics ... and the impact on us was huge. At the time, we only had one field with lights, so all four soccer teams were going to lose a lot of practice time," she wrote in an email. "For other sports, there was also an adjustment to simply being at school later each day — family dinner times had to shift, etc."

Schmidt described Sequoia's teachers as "very accommodating" of the athletes' schedule needs and said that a newly instituted flex period has helped make up lost time. Though the current schedule seems to be working, she said it takes a lot of work from both staff and students.

"I don't think there's a 'perfect' solution," she added.

students on a field
Woodside High School cheer members hold a pose during practice while a flock of geese flies overhead in Woodside on Dec. 10, 2020. Photo by Olivia Treynor.

When it comes to Woodside High, Velschow said the board of managers that governs the Peninsula Athletic League (PAL), a 17-member school league that is made up of administrators from Peninsula high schools, voted in March to maintain some game times for this upcoming year. PAL Commissioner Terry Stogner said the league did move several events to 4:30 p.m. if they're indoors or if there are field lights. Tennis already had a 4 p.m. start time. Some sports like girls golf can't start late because they'd go too late into the evening.

"We realize the thinking behind moving the school day back and we'll move it along as best we can," he said.

Some schools have seen a more limited impact on sports from moving start times later.

At Menlo-Atherton High, seventh period will end at 3:45 p.m. this fall, but only roughly 20% of students take seven periods, Principal Karl Losekoot said, adding that of those, only a small percentage play sports.

"There are concerns, but we've reassured them they should be able to play," he said. "Any time you miss a class for a game, that's an excused absence. You have access to that content and curriculum and homework."

'By delaying the timing of school ... it aligns their school schedule with their biological clock.'

-Amy Wolfson, professor of psychology, Loyola University Maryland

Late start times also have potential benefits for athletes. Wolfson noted that some studies have shown improved athletic performance when school starts later.

"Tired athletes are not going to be very competitive," Wolfson said.

Sequoia High junior Jackson Bae, who runs on both the cross-country and track teams, experienced that tiredness firsthand last school year. Twelve-hour days became the norm for him when he was assigned a zero period starting at 7:30 a.m. Although he got out of school around 2:45 p.m., he still had to wait on campus for his two-hour sports practice to start every day. As a result, he rarely got the sleep he needed to be on top of his game

"My coach says I need to get nine to 10 hours of sleep a night," said Bae, who runs upwards of 8 miles a day. "And if I'm waking up at 6:30 a.m., that means I have to get to bed between 9:30 and 10:30."

Bae struggled to squeeze in dinner, homework and everything else in the hours remaining before bedtime. And, like many teenagers, he found his mind still racing late into the night.

"It doesn't feel natural to me to be getting in bed at 9:30 or 10," he said. "A lot of times, I lie in bed and I just can't sleep for an hour."

The lack of sleep impacted both his academic and athletic performance, he added.

"I had a lot of tardies for my zero period. I had to get extensions on some homework, and I did not get the sleep that I should have gotten, which led to some injuries," Bae said.

Bae said if he's scheduled for another zero period this fall, he will petition the school to change it.

The transportation challenge for working families

crossing guard and students crossing
A crossing guard helps children make their way across East Meadow Drive to JLS Middle School on their first day of school on Aug. 11, 2021. Photo by Adam Pardee.

For some working parents, the later bell times can present a logistical challenge. Brizeida Soto, a mother of two, lives in North Fair Oaks and works as a full-time nanny. Without an easily accessible bus, Soto has to drive her kids to Sequoia High and Clifford Elementary in Redwood City.

Hypothetically, Soto said, later start times allow students to get more sleep, but that isn't how it works for her family. Even though Sequoia's classes don't start until 8:30 a.m., she still has to drop her son off by 8 a.m. in order to get to work on time.

"Right now we get up at 6:50, and we leave the house at 7:30," she said. "So I don't think it makes a difference when they start."

To support the later start times, she said she'd like to see more support — such as better bus or carpool infrastructure — for working parents like herself.

"Those moms, they need to go to work every day," she said.

Some schools have tried to put resources in place to support kids who have to be dropped off early. At Mountain View and Los Altos high schools, the school library is open by 8 a.m.

At La Entrada Middle School in Menlo Park, which made the shift to later start times in 2019, children who are dropped off early can take advantage of a homework center, which opens around 8:10 a.m., Principal Mark Jones said.

Ending school later in the afternoon can also impact teachers who have long commutes and have to leave school closer to rush hour, Laurence said.

students studying in a classroom
Eighth graders Sarah, left, Louisa, center, and Lily, right, work in class at La Entrada Middle School in Menlo Park on March 24, 2022. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Edith Salvatore, president of the Sequoia District Teachers Association and a math teacher at Sequoia High, said many employees in her district shared this worry.

"There's definitely concern among commuting teachers that the later start time means a later end time, which means you're going to get stuck in commute traffic," she said.

Daily commutes vary among Sequoia's teachers, some of whom live nearby while others come from as far away as Tracy and Fairfield, according to Salvatore, who drives down from San Francisco every day.

"We had an administrator who lived south of San Jose, and she got an apartment in the school district area because the commute was too much," she said.

But that's not always an option for lower paid teachers and other district employees, Salvatore said.

'There's definitely concern among commuting teachers that the later start time means a later end time, which means you're going to get stuck in commute traffic.'

-Edith Salvatore, president, Sequoia District Teachers Association

For some teachers though, the benefits still outweigh the costs. Slightly later start times haven't been controversial among educators at Summit charter schools, according to Justin Kim, an eighth grade history teacher in El Cerrito and union president for United Summit.

Summit operates seven charter schools throughout the Bay Area, including two in Redwood City. This fall, Summit's first block will start at 8:30 a.m., just 10 minutes later than last year.

"Students are just generally more alert, and there's more participation and more engagement later in the day," he said. "So I enjoy the latest starting time from a teaching standpoint."

That said, he wondered if narrowing the window of start times for all local schools might cause more congestion on the road.

"If more schools are starting around the same time that we are ... it could worsen traffic," he said.

At Menlo-Atherton, where students will all be starting classes at the same time in the fall, administrators are expecting more traffic congestion in the morning. They are encouraging students to bike or carpool as much as possible, Principal Karl Losekoot said.

Concerns about a one-size-fits-all approach

students walking to class
Students head to their second class of the day during their passing period on their first day back at school at Mountain View High School in Mountain View on Aug. 10, 2022. Photo by Adam Pardee.

The California School Boards Association opposed a statewide mandate for later start times because its members felt that it failed to account for the varied populations of students throughout the state, said Troy Flint, the organization's chief information officer.

"Studies suggest significant benefits (of later start times) for students, which is why we aren't opposed to the idea in concept," he said. "We thought the decision should be made with local knowledge though."

Since the bill's passage in 2019, the group has focused on supporting school districts shifting to later start times. It sponsored Assembly Bill 2933 to increase the funding for public school transportation, which the group believes school districts will need with the later start times. For example, some districts with limited numbers of buses will stagger schools' start times in order to use the same buses to transport students.

If all students are starting at the same time, though, districts may need to spend extra money on more buses, Flint said.

While Wolfson acknowledged issues around transportation, athletics and other after-school activities, she said that, in the end, making sure teens are well-rested has to take priority.

"(These are) all important issues, but ultimately students can't do any of these things without getting sufficient sleep," she said.

backpacks in a hallway
Backpacks stewn in a hallway at Ellen Fletcher Middle School in Palo Alto on Nov. 17, 2021. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Zoe Morgan is a staff writer for the Palo Alto Weekly and Mountain View Voice. Angela Swartz is a staff writer for The Almanac. Leah Worthington is a staff writer for the Redwood City Pulse.

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