What Time Should School Start? We Asked Teachers

By Hayley Hardison — July 13, 2022 6 min read
Educators with strings tied to each of the clock hands and pulling them in different directions.
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What time do you think school should start?

Beginning this fall, California high schools can no longer begin before 8:30 a.m., and middle schools can’t begin before 8 a.m. That’s due to a 2019 law intended to curb student sleep deprivation.

But both proponents and opponents of this policy cite reasons that have long fueled debates about school schedules.

Supporters of later school start times, particularly for adolescents, point to research emphasizing the importance of student sleep cycles and schedules in academic outcomes. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends middle and high schools start school at or after 8:30 a.m.

“Starting high school later has been shown to reduce teenage depression and car accidents and contribute to higher test scores. That’s partly because teenagers get their most productive, rapid-eye-movement sleep in the early morning hours,” wrote Education Week reporter Alyson Klein in a 2020 article.

Opponents of later or altered school start times often name logistical challenges, such as bus driver shortages, increased traffic when commuting during rush hour, or preserving afternoon time for athletics and extracurricular activities. Many of those points surfaced in a 2020 Education Week article reporter Mark Lieberman wrote about the barriers to restructuring school schedules.

In a LinkedIn poll, we asked our followers to weigh in on the most important factor to consider when setting school start times. Half of the 1,700 respondents said student sleep schedules should be prioritized when choosing K-12 start times, while only 8 percent pointed to after-school activities and sports as needing to be prioritized in these decisions.

(Our poll is based on a convenience sample, not a nationally representative one, so the results aren’t definitive. But the strong response about sleep schedules suggests it’s tapped into a real concern among educators.)

Educators shared their perspectives on school start times on EdWeek’s social media channels.

Student sleep schedules

Educators who support delayed start times pointed to both research on the topic as well as firsthand experiences seeing students thrive with more sleep.

"[B]rain research supports this every time! Teens need 9-10 hrs of sleep every night, infants require the most at 16-20 hrs. Most are not getting anywhere close to that. That same Research also supports elementary age kids needing less sleep than teens and therefore start times of school should be flipped with younger kids starting the earliest of the day. So why do [schools] not follow the research & flip start times??? ...”

Wendy Sohm

“Being a teacher and a coach, I would much rather schools allow their students to get at least 9 hours of sleep a night. A good determining factor for student success is getting enough sleep. Also, student-athletes are more prone to injury the less sleep they get. We can’t preach for kids to learn to have balance in their lives yet not give them the tools to have balance.”

Travis Chisholm

But some educators questioned that logic, noting that later start times wouldn’t matter if students stay up later as a result.

“It doesn’t matter if school starts at 7, 10 or noon when students stay up gaming or on their phones until dawn - an extremely common occurrence where I teach.”

Tammie Anne

“The biggest concern for me is the high likelihood that teenagers will use later start times to compensate for later bedtimes. ...”

Arthur Kinyanjui

Commuting, traffic, and bus routes

Though some educators think student sleep schedules are paramount when examining school start times, others pointed to the logistical problems that affect student and teacher commutes, such as traffic or bus driver shortages.

“We have almost 100k students & 150 schools in my district. Some students ride the city buses to get to school, but the rest are provided by the district. We only have so many buses though which is why moving the start times becomes difficult for us. Last year we had 3 buses that ran 6 routes for my school. Kids would sit at school for an hour & 15 minutes after dismissal waiting for the bus to come get them.”

Alyssa James

"[I]n my district, high school start times were moved to 9:00, which meant that elementary times had to go earlier in order to share buses. We now start at 7:30, kids arrive at 7:10. Middle schools start at 8:15. One bus can do three runs. It sucks that the buses dictate our schedule, but we have a shortage of drivers, caused by a shortage of funding from the state.”

Liesl Mitchell Scheffel

“My school went from an 8:00AM to 8:30 start time and the biggest effect was that students/parents got caught in worse rush hour traffic causing increased student tardiness. Most adolescents aren’t getting any more sleep—they’re just going to bed a half an hour later.”

Milton Alan Turner

Athletics and extracurricular activities

The flip side of delaying start times is seeing later dismissals, which could hinder students’ abilities to get to after-school jobs or sports practices. Some students will have to leave early to accommodate these extracurriculars, and student-athletes couldstill miss out on sleep due to late practices.

“We actually had more tardies and absences since going to the later start time. Kids are skipping school so they can work because we got out so late.”

Matt Hammons

“My [elementary] schooler, a casual athlete, now has sports practice from 7:15 to 9 p.m. bc the high schoolers use the field later. My middle schooler won’t get out until 5:15 if they stay after for extra help. How are they supposed to get the extra sleep if everything is pushed to the evenings and the [elementary] bus boards at 7:25 a.m.???”

Sarah Ruff Petri

“I have students that say they were having athletic practice or games until 9:30 or 10:00pm. Our middle school starts at 7:15am. While I don’t want to cater to the minority (student athletes), our current schedule does make it impossible for some to get sufficient sleep for their developmental stage. Even moving to an 8:00am start time might help.”

Christy Overall

After-school care

Parents who once relied on their older children to look after their younger siblings will now need to find after-school care if schedules are staggered for these students.

“We did this also! They switched elementary and high school start times. Now elementary start at 7:15 and high school start time is 8:20. The high school kids are still tired and have tons of tardies. But we also have heard the effects on after school jobs and problems with high school kids no longer home before younger siblings who they used to watch after school.”

Traci Manieri Vedros

“In our community many families depend on the older siblings to get home first to get the younger ones off the bus and supervise until parents get home. The time change in our community has resulted in increased needs for after school care in addition to before school care for working parents.”

Kimberly A. Barritt

Effects on teachers

Some teachers see immediate benefits from later start times, giving them more time to plan lessons and take part in professional development.

“I’m an educator and I can tell you that putting teenager sleep schedules first would actually give us teacher PD/planning time.”

Antoinette L. M.

But others feel they might ultimately lose out because they won’t be able to take advantage of getting out early to accommodate appointments and errands.

"[I]t’s a lost hour - you don’t get it back. Teacher absences are up because they can’t get those 4pm appointments anymore and have to miss school. It’s not all sleep utopia. ...”

Rita Rouvalis Chapman

“Ugh, sucks for the teachers now you get out when the Doctor offices and banks are closed so get those sub plans ready.”

Christy Holcomb

“My school shifted to a later start time this year. I didn’t observe (and no data was collected) any radical shift in my students. They were still staying up until all hours of the night on their phones, and were sleep-deprived in the mornings. Meanwhile, teachers were shifted into heavier traffic in the mornings (meaning they had to stick to their old commute time in order to avoid getting stuck in jams), and heavier traffic in the afternoons. This meant an extension of the teacher workday by 2-3 hours in some cases. Not the panacea it was expected to be.”

Sarah Cushman

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