The Forgotten Students: | How Early High School Start Times Leave Younger Students Behind

By: Ron Freeman

Most M-A students woke up this year to an earlier start time after the passage of SB-328, a law designed to protect student sleep.

In 2019, the California State Legislature passed Senate Bill 328, which requires all high schools in the state to start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. and all middle schools start no earlier than 8:00 a.m. Passed largely in response to grassroots lobbying, this is the first legislation in the country that conforms to the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines that school should start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. for adolescents. The bill is also geared to make California a leader in late school starts, according to a 2018 national study.

However, in an M-A Chronicle audit of school start times across the state, it soon became clear that in the legislature’s rush to reform high schools, middle and elementary schools were left forgotten.

California was #16 in the nation for early start times

Part 1: In the Name of Health, High Schools

The scientific consensus is that later start times benefit high school students. Dr. Rafael Pelayo, a clinical professor at the Stanford School of Medicine, said in an opinion in CalMatters, “When schools start later, teens get more and better sleep, and they are happier, healthier and safer. They do better in school and in life.” 

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According to a 2006 National Sleep Foundation poll, 28% of students reported falling asleep in school at least once a week.
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In a study of eight schools across three different states that moved to later start times, 66% more students slept over 8 hours.

Despite these substantial benefits, SB-328’s broad mandate leaves some schools, like M-A, in a dilemma. SB-328 leaves no exceptions for zero periods, which forced M-A to change its schedule in order to continue to accommodate a 7th period. 7th period is now at the end of the day, leaving the majority of students starting earlier. Ianother opinion in CalMattersAl Mijares, the Orange County School District Superintendent, said “The indisputable reality in many of our communities is that students have to begin their day at the same time as their parents,” and that “students won’t be getting any more sleep, and the additional idle unsupervised time alone could put them in danger.”

Jeremy Adams, a teacher at Bakersfield High School, in his CalMatters opinion piece said, “Many large school districts in the state scatter their bus schedules so they don’t have to purchase such a large fleet of expensive buses. […] A mandatory start time of 8:30 a.m. will really mean a start time of roughly 9:30 a.m. for half of the schools in some of these large districts like mine.” A start time of 8:30 also puts students who commute to school directly in conflict with rush hour traffic, especially a problem for larger schools like M-A with many students.

Part 2: Elementary and Middle Schoolers

While most experts agree that later start times benefit high school students, it is unclear what later school start times mean for younger students. 

The M-A Chronicle surveyed over 200 elementary and middle schools across the state of California, analyzing school start times before and after the passage of SB-328. We found that following the passage of SB-328, 30% of the over 200 elementary and middle schools surveyed across the state moved to earlier start times. 37% of those elementary and middle schools had start times earlier than 8:00 a.m., the recommended start time for middle schoolers in the state law (no recommendation exists for elementary schoolers).  

It’s still unclear how much early start times influence elementary and middle schoolers. One study conducted by Hanover Research for Buck’s County, Pennsylvania found that “Earlier elementary school dismissal means that parents may have to rely on child care providers for after-school care,” because of overlaps with the working day. This need is compounded by “later high school dismissal, mean[ing] that older students are not available to take care of their younger siblings.”

As for sleep, the jury is still out. A Boston University study published in the Sleep Health journal by Dr. Rhoda Au et al. analyzing a single elementary school found that “school start time change[s] did not decrease total amount of sleep.” However, a Kentucky University study published in the American Psychological Association trade journal found that, for elementary schoolers, “Every additional minute later in the school start time increased retention rates by 0.2%. […] [E]arlier start times were related to poorer test scores, lower school rank, and more student absences,” concluding that “earlier school start times can be associated with poorer school performance in elementary schools.” Earlier studies in 2007, 2002, and 1998 support these findings. 

It can seem like elementary schoolers have fewer sleep problems than high school students. However, in the National Sleep Foundation’s 2004 Sleep in America Poll, researchers found that 25% of students from first through fifth grade slept less than the recommended amount for their age group. This sleep deprivation has developmental consequences for elementary schoolers, including, according to the CDC, “obesity, type 2 diabetes, poor mental health, and injuries. They are also more likely to have attention and behavior problems, which can contribute to poor academic performance in school.”

The M-A Chronicle audit found that of all schools surveyed, 30% had earlier start times, which is concerning by itself. 

% School Start Time Change in 2022

However, once we began to analyze the breakdown of start times, a troubling trend became apparent.

Following the passage of SB-328, 80% of schools started before 9 a.m. 20% had start times after.

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80% started before 9 a.m.
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47% of schools began before 8 a.m., the APA recommended earliest start time for middle schoolers. No recommendation exists for elementary schools.

Shifts in school start times are not evenly distributed, with schools that started later moving to even later start times and schools that started early moving even earlier.

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Of the schools that moved their start times earlier, 100% had a start time before 9 a.m.

No school surveyed with a start time later than 9 a.m. moved their start time earlier. 79% moved start times later.

Part 3: Conclusion

SB-328 was largely successful in pushing high school start times later, in agreement with the scientific consensus that appears to be largely in favor of later school start times for high school students. However, in doing so, SB-328’s broad mandate had inadvertent effects as some high schools, like M-A, were forced to move earlier and elementary and middle schools largely moved even earlier. The impacts of these changes are not fully understood by the scientific community. 

After surveying research on the impact of school start times, a group of Harvard and Brown researchers concluded “healthy school start times are likely necessary but not sufficient to reduce chronic sleep loss in adolescents. This observation should not be surprising. […] It has been long recognized in the obesity literature that sustained weight loss requires continual intervention.” The unfortunate fact of the matter is that merely changing school start times is not enough to solve the American sleep dilemma.