In-Depth: Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) reintroduced this bill from the 115th Congress to examine the relationship between school start times and adolescent health, well-being, and performance:
"Students across the United States are not getting enough sleep at night – this affects not just their academic performance, but their health, safety, and well-being. We know that as kids become teens their biology keeps them from getting to sleep as early, which can make it harder for them to wake up early in the morning. This legislation will help local school districts recognize and use new information about the importance of sufficient sleep and the impact that school start times can have on adolescent health and performance."
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) expressed support for this bill in the 115th Congress. In a letter to Rep. Lofgren, its president, Ronald Chervin, MD, MS, wrote:
“On behalf of the board of directors of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), I am writing to express our strong support for the ‘ZZZ’s to A’s Act,’ which you have reintroduced in the U.S. House of Representatives… The AASM recommends that teenagers 13 to 18 years of age should sleep 8 to 10 hours on a regular basis to promote optimal health. However, CDC data show that 68.4 percent of high school students report sleeping 7 hours or less on school nights. Early middle school and high school start times work contrary to adolescent circadian physiology and truncate students’ sleep opportunity, resulting in chronic sleep loss. Studies show that short sleep in adolescents is associated with poor school performance, obesity, increased depressive symptoms, suicidal ideation and risk- taking behaviors. Insufficient sleep also is associated with an increased risk of motor vehicle accidents, which account for 35 percent of all deaths and 73 percent of deaths from unintentional injury in teenagers. Research suggests that later school start times are associated with longer weekday sleep durations, reduced vehicular accident rates, and reduced subjective daytime sleepiness. The AASM recently published a position statement encouraging primary academic institutions, school boards, parents, and policy makers to raise public awareness to promote a national standard of middle school and high school start times of 8:30 a.m. or later. Therefore, we support your bill to direct the Secretary of Education to conduct a study to determine the relationship between school start times and adolescent health, well-being, and performance.”
Those who oppose later school start times frequently cite parents’ work schedules, transportation logistics, and effects on extracurricular activities as reasons for their opposition. They point out that when school starts at 7:30am, most parents can see their teenagers off to school before going to work at 8:30am or 9:00am themselves; if schools change start times to 8:30am or later, parents won’t be able to drive their kids to school and still get to work on time. It might also mean that teens will have to get themselves up, prepare breakfast themselves, and head to school on their own.
From a logistics perspective, many school districts use the same buses for elementary school students as they do for high school students. Thus, if middle and high school start times were delayed, school districts would need to either also delay elementary schools’ start times or invest in hiring additional bus drivers to transport their students.
Finally, for students who participate in sports, music groups, service learning clubs, or other organizations, a later start time for their school day would push their extracurriculars to later in the day. This would make it difficult for students to participate in such activities and still have enough time to study, complete homework assignments, participate in social activities, and sleep at a reasonable hour.
A 2017 joint study between Harvard Medical School and the University of Surrey in the U.K. also cast doubts on whether later school start times would actually help teenagers get more sleep. The study, pushed in Scientific Reports, used a mathematical model factoring in whether people are naturally more of a morning or evening person, natural and artificial light’s effects on the body clock, and the typical time of an alarm clock, to predict the effects of delaying school start times. The model showed that delaying school start times wouldn’t help reduce sleep deprivation in the U.K.; however, it did lend some support to delaying school start in the U.S., where school start earlier than in the U.K.
Most importantly, however, the model suggested that an alternative to moving school start times in the U.K. is exposure to bright light during the day and turning the lights down in the evening and off at night. For very early start times, such as in some U.S. regions, the model indicated that any benefit gained from delaying school start times could be lost unless coupled with strict limits on the amount of evening artificial light consumption.
This legislation doesn’t have any cosponsors in the 116th Congress. Last Congress, it had 19 bipartisan cosponsors, including 18 Democrats and one Republican, and didn’t receive a committee vote.
Rep. Lofgren has been a longtime supporter of a later school start time. She first introduced the ZZZ’s to A’s Act in 1998, and has introduced subsequent versions consistently ever since.
Of Note: There is evidence that delayed school days help reduce tardiness, improve attendance and performance, and boost driving safety. Research has shown that many adolescents’ natural biological sleep pattern is to go to sleep and wake up at later times.
However, many high schools in the U.S. start before 7:30a.m. This seems to have some serious consequences for adolescents. For example, in 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) published a position statement recognizing “insufficient sleep in adolescents as a public health issue.” In that paper, the AAP recommended that middle and high schools aim for start times no earlier than 8:30a.m.
Similarly, in 2016, the American Medical Association (AMA) noted that while delayed school start times can be emotional and potentially stressful for school districts, families, and community members, “the health benefits for adolescents far outweigh any potential negative consequences."
Additionally, in the April 2017 issue of the Journal of Sleep Medicine, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) also expressed support for the no-earlier-than-8:30am standard. It explained, “early school start times make it difficult for adolescents to get sufficient sleep on school nights, and chronic sleep loss among teens is associated with [a] host of problems, including poor school performance, increased depressive symptoms, and motor vehicle accidents."
There’s also evidence that later school start times would benefit the economy. In August 2017, the RAND Corporation released an economic study showing that delaying schools’ start times, which would subsequently improve students’ academic performance and reduce car crash rates, would contribute $83 billion to the U.S. economy over 10 years.
Summary by Lorelei Yang
(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / South_agency)