California Law Could Change Everything For The Start School Later Movement


A landmark school start time bill crossed a major hurdle this week, passing out of the California Assembly’s Education Committee with bi-partisan support. Already passed by the state senate, this bill stands to make California the first U.S. state to ensure that middle and high schools start at times that allow for healthy sleep.

Introduced by Senator Anthony J. Portantino, the bill, SB328, would prevent middle and high schools from starting the regular school day before 8:30 a.m. Requiring teenagers to be in class any earlier is unhealthy and counterproductive, according to a growing number of health organizations, including the the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), American Medical Association (AMA) and, most recently, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM).

“This makes a big statement to children, parents, and the education community that more and more legislators are using sound and definitive research to put the best interests of our students first,” said Portantino. “School districts around the country that have moved teenage school start times later have seen measurable, positive results for student achievement and student public health.”

To date, the bill has received support from the The American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Sleep Medicine, California Federation of Teachers, California Sleep Society, California State PTA, Children’s Hospital Boston, Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, East Area Progressive Democrats, Educate. Advocate, Fresno Unified School District, High School Parent Engagement Group, Keck Hospital of USC, Los Angeles County Office of Education, Loyola University Maryland, Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford, Manhattan Beach Unified School District, Pasadena Unified School District, Stanford University School of Medicine, Seattle Children’s Hospital, Start School Later, Stony Brook Medicine Program of Public Health, South Pasadena Unified School District, University of Washington – Department of Biology, and numerous individuals.

Lisa Lewis

WHY LOCAL DISTRICTS NEED STATE HELP

No one at the hearing disputed the research showing the benefits of later school start times for student sleep, health, safety, and equity. What was an issue, however, was the importance of local control. In particular, opponents of the bill cited the pushback that many school leaders face when they try to move bell times ― in any direction. This pushback includes fears and speculations about how bell time change might complicate parent or teacher schedules ― or possibly cost districts money.

Ironically, these fears and speculations, every one of which has been proven either unfounded or surmountable in the hundreds of districts that have delayed bell times, are exactly why a mandate from the state is so important, note proponents of the bill. They also show why leaving this public health decision in the hands of local school boards may come at the expense of student welfare.

“I think a lot of us in recent weeks and months have spent a lot of time defending science,” said assembly member Todd Gloria. “I feel like it would be inconsistent of me to suddenly now ignore this bill or not support it.” Noting that all change, even good change, is hard, he reminded the committee that at times it was necessary for the state to help local districts protect basic rights. He said he doubted that schools would have implemented protections for LGBTQ youth or fully inclusive programs for female athletes if not mandated by the state.

Gloria added that although some schools started at 7 a.m. or even earlier, the average middle and high school starting time in California was currently 8:07 a.m., making it unlikely that moving bells just 23 minutes later would pose insurmountable obstacles. “I have to believe that people will adjust,” he said, adding that setting a clear expectation for local schools about what it means to run schools at safe, healthy hours is the right thing to do “if the science is there, and we believe that this is the right thing for the kids.”

Assemblymember Shirley N. Weber, who also supported the bill, recalled that the research about the need to start school later was presented to her as a school board member 20 years ago. That experience taught her that asking for public opinion polls on evidence-based changes can keep communities from implementing beneficial changes proven to work.

“The worst school board meeting I ever had in my life was around school start time,” she recalled. “This meeting went on forever, and there was no one satisfied in the end. Whether it was earlier or later, there was always someone inconvenienced, somebody’s job that didn’t fit in, somebody’s childcare that didn’t fit in – it didn’t matter.”

Whether the change was earlier or later, Weber continued, everyone was complaining because “change is hard.” And yet in the end everything adjusted. She remembers wishing that a requirement about when to start and end it would have prevented hours of agony.

HELPING COMMUNITIES ADJUST

Portantino explained that setting a minimum standard for school hours was very different than telling districts exactly how to run their schools. Clearly that had to be determined on a local level, depending on local values, conditions, budgets, topography, and more.

Assembly member Tony Thurmond, who supported the bill, also emphasized the importance of ensuring a smooth transition to healthier hours – particularly the importance of hearing from parents, teachers, and other community members whose lives could be impacted. He suggested that the same parent surveys that sometimes end up blocking change could be revised and re-administered to assess real and perceived hardships among stakeholders so that they can be addressed.

Such an approach ― along with education of communities about sleep science and giving them sufficient adjustment time ― is consistent with best practices for delaying school start times. Portantino said that this approach is built into the legislation, which does not go effect until July 2020, giving school communities time for any necessary adjustments.

In the end, ensuring healthy, evidence-based school hours is a matter of protecting student health, safety, and equity, said Dr. Irena Keller, an adjunct professor of child and adolescent development at San Jose State University and co-chair of Start School Later California, which helped develop the bill. “These start times are backed by decades of research and will benefit our students, our communities, and our state.”

Portantino agreed, emphasizing that ensuring school hours that give students a chance for healthy sleep is fundamentally a public health issue, with huge potential to improve the health and safety of teenagers from all social strata: “We know that sleep deprivation increases suicidal thoughts and behaviors in teenagers. We know it increases impulsivity that leads to suicide … The number one killer of teens is car accidents. The No. 1 killer of teens is suicide. Anything we can do to address the depression rate and the incidences of suicide we should.”

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