All of my high-school memories, even the best ones, are tinged with exhaustion: the full-body ache of dragging myself into bed at midnight at the end of a long day of school and homework, the terror of staring down traffic lights in the hope they’d change as I raced to arrive by our 7:10 AM start time. My friends and I talked incessantly about how tired we were, and our parents talked about it, too, but no one ever seemed to float the idea that we should be making a change. It was just the way things were.
Research has shown that early school start times (7:30 a.m., for example) don’t square with adolescents’ sleep needs, and that later ones have positive effects on mental and physical health, as well as academic performance. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have even urged policymakers to move toward later start times—scientists tend to recommend pushing the bell to 8:30 a.m.—for middle and high-school students. Still, many school districts have been mired in years-long debates over the issue.
Early start times first came about in the latter half of the 20th century, when suburban schools decided to stagger their schedules so that the same fleet of buses could serve all students, dropping off high-school students earliest. Urban schools then adopted those start-time hours, and extracurricular activities oriented themselves around this scheme, according to Terra Ziporyn, the executive director of the nonprofit Start School Later. Some policymakers have begun to rethink that custom: School districts in at least 21 states have later start times this year than they did last year with the intention of giving students more time to sleep, and schools in at least 45 states have delayed their start times in recent years. Lawmakers in California recently introduced a first-of-its-kind bill that would ban start times earlier than 8:30 AM; after failing to receive enough votes, it was shelved for next year.