for many American teens, high school means desperately trying to understand algebra or chemistry in the 7 a.m., fighting off the urge to use your books, or your neighbor, as a pillow. But things might look better for kids in California.
On July 1, a state law went into effect preventing most high school students from having to start class before 8:30 a.m. — the first state law of its kind. Other states, including New York and New Jersey, are considering similar measures for teens, who naturally want to go to bed and wake up later than adults.
According to Beth Ann Malow, a neurologist and sleep expert at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, that’s a good thing. “We know that when children sleep more, they are healthier. They are more alert at school. Their physical health, including their weight, their risk of diabetes, as well as their mental health, how they feel emotionally – all improve when they sleep more.”
It’s a matter of circadian rhythms, the 24-hour patterns that regulate our biological cycles, explains Phil Gehrman, a clinical psychologist specializing in sleep at the University of Pennsylvania. “As we hit puberty, our rhythms start to shift later on,” he says. “They slow down for about two to three hours on average.”
Plus, teens need slightly more sleep than adults: eight or nine hours to seven or eight for adults, Malow says.
Aside from the sleep deprivation, early class times may not be conducive to learning. Given the circadian rhythms, the students’ energy is “higher now at 9 a.m., 10 a.m. and they really aren’t awake until 8 a.m.,” Malow says.
University of California, Berkeley, sleep expert Matthew Walker went even further this summer in an interview with NPR. “Asking a teenager to be awake and trying to take in information at 8:30 a.m. is in some ways like asking an adult to wake up at 4 a.m. with a good grace, a good mood, a positive attitude. mood and learn information efficiently.”
But the law, signed in 2019 by Governor Gavin Newsom, also has its detractors. While the California State Parent Teacher Association (PTA) supports it, several other school associations, including the California Teachers Association (CTA) union, oppose it.
Lower-income students in particular could be hurt by the bill, the CTA said in a statement to the Los Angeles Times, especially those whose parents “don’t have the opportunity to start their workday later…We know from experience that many of these parents will drop their children off at school at the same time as they are now, regardless of supervision.”
Then there are concerns about the consequences for after-school activities. “It’s very hard for students to get out of school late,” Allison Dana, a Bay Area high school student, told Teen Vogue. She struggles to get to an after-school internship in time and has to choose between sports with conflicting practices.
Finally, there are questions about bus transportation in states considering such measures. Given the limited number of vehicles a district has, schools may need to stagger schedules between elementary, middle, and high school students. And while it makes sense to get the youngest kids to school as early as possible, “from a circadian rhythm perspective,” “nobody wants fifth-graders to get up at the bus stop when it’s pitch dark for much of the year.” , says Gehrman.
“In theory it sounds like, ‘Oh, yeah. What’s the problem?’ But it can be very complicated, and the complexity for one family is different than the complexity for another,” he adds.
But from a purely health-oriented perspective, Gehrman, like Malow, believes that laws like California’s are a good idea. “In teens, the strong associations are often with mental health, depression, in particular, anxiety, increased substance use,” he says.
“The way I think about it,” he says, is that an early start time “just creates this general vulnerability to different mental health issues. And so, depending on what else is going on in your life, or what other biological vulnerabilities you might have, the circadian rhythm problems amplify other problems that may be going on.
That can be a particular problem at a time when students are experiencing a deterioration in mental health. A CDC survey published in March found that 37.1% of high school students “experienced poor mental health” during the pandemic, with 44.2% having “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” and 19.9 % “seriously considered committing suicide”. Such concerns were already on the rise before the pandemic, the agency said.
“The problem was already emerging for several reasons, many of which we don’t really know. But the pandemic just put it on steroids,” Gehrman says. “Anything we can do right now to reduce mental health risk in teens is such a high priority.”
As a school counselor at the Fresno Unified school district and a parent of high school students herself, Anita Hernandez has witnessed the changes firsthand. She says the law “didn’t really solve the problem” [of sleep deprivation]”Because for those parents who still have to go to work at eight, we still have to wake our kids early,” she says, given the limited or non-existent bussing. And managing mentorship, sports and other after-school activities has become more difficult given the limited free time in the afternoon.
As for student response, Hernandez says, it’s been a mixed bag.
Her son Lucas Hernandez, an 11th-grader at Clovis East High School in Clovis, California, usually started school at 7:40 a.m. last year; this year it is 8:30 am. “I like the later start because I’m not a morning person,” he says. Marching band and homework keep him up late, he says, so the chance to sleep in “will benefit me personally.”
But “surprisingly, a lot of people I know say they don’t like it,” he says, because they get out of school at 3:15 PM instead of 2:40 PM — like Dana, they miss the earlier departure.
His brother, Aiden, who is in ninth grade at Patino High School in nearby Fresno, now starts school at 9:00 am and is one of those who get frustrated with the later afternoons. Still, he says, if he had the power to change things back, he probably wouldn’t: “I like sleeping in.”