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Will Utah follow California’s move to later school starts for middle and high schoolers?

In recent years, Utah educators, elected officials and parents have debated later school starts in school community council meetings, local school board meetings and the Utah Legislature. Thus far, only Logan City School District has made the switch.

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A West High School student walks into the Salt Lake City school early Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — California just became the first state in the nation to push back school start times for middle and high schoolers, a move backed by science and human nature.

Earlier this week, Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation that would phase in later school start times in secondary schools over three years. Some rural schools will be exempt, but at most others, middle schools would not start before 8 a.m. and high schools would start no earlier than 8:30 a.m.

In recent years, Utah educators, elected officials and parents have debated the issue in school community council meetings, local school board meetings and the Utah Legislature. Only Logan City School District has made the switch.

In Logan, middle school starts at 8:30 a.m. and high school starts at 8 a.m., which is only about 20 minutes later than the previous bell schedule.

“It wasn’t excessive, but it made that start time just a little more palatable for parents and teachers. Somehow that 8 o’clock number is just like this magic number that makes people feel a little bit better about it,” said Logan City School District spokeswoman Shana Longhurst.

Terry Shoemaker, executive director of the Utah School Superintendents Association, said many Utah school districts have considered a change, but the more they dug into it, they discovered a host of accompanying issues such as higher busing costs, scheduling conflicts for school activities and impacts on elementary school schedules.

“That means the younger kids are going to school earlier. Those younger kids sitting there in the dark at bus stops is not very appealing to mom and dad, right?” Shoemaker said.

On the other hand, there is a growing body of research regarding the mental health and academic benefits of teenagers getting more sleep, said Shoemaker, who is also associate executive director of the Utah School Boards Association.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “insufficient sleep is common among high school students and is associated with several health risks, such as being overweight, drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco and using drugs, as well as poor academic performance.”

Two out of 3 youths fail to get sufficient sleep, a proportion that has remained constant since 2007, according to the CDC’s 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Report.

Kathleen Kennedy, a member of the Salt Lake City Board of Education, is sold on the benefits and wants the school district to take a deeper dive surveying the school community on whether it would support such a change.

“That’s one of our main board goals, the social-emotional (health) of our students,” she said Tuesday during a study session on late school starts and three-tier busing.

While Logan City School District was able to make the change rather quickly, it serves roughly 5,555 students and was able to work with Cache School District to address busing issues related to the change. By comparison, roughly 23,000 students attend Salt Lake City schools.

It helps, too, Longhurst said, that many Logan high school students drive themselves to school, which mitigates busing costs.

While school districts may be able to purchase additional buses to accommodate later school starts, the bigger challenge in the current job market is finding bus drivers, said Jan Roberts, Salt Lake District’s business administrator.

“If you can’t find a driver to drive a bus, that bus is not going to go anywhere,” Roberts said.

When Park City School District crunched the numbers two years ago, preliminary estimates of moving to later start times exceeded $1.85 million. The costs included new buses, covered parking for additional buses, funding to operate and maintain the buses, and resources to hire more bus drivers.

Then there were logistical issue such as impacts on bell times at elementary schools and lining up extracurricular activity schedules with school districts on earlier bell schedules.

Scott Riding, managing partner of Y2 Analytics, which is working for the Salt Lake City School District as it continues to explore late starts in secondary schools, said many parents understand the benefits of late school starts for teenagers. Some parents say they would even be willing to pay more to facilitate such a change.

However, many households weigh the benefits against the “personal cost” of such a change, Riding said.

It is particularly difficult for parents of elementary school students to rationalize changing their children’s school schedules to accommodate older students, he said.

In households with two working parents, schedule changes are particularly difficult. Typically, parents of elementary school age children have less seniority at work and thus have less flexibility in their schedules, so they are less likely to want to make changes, he said.

In households where both parents work and teenagers are expected to care for younger siblings after school, a later release time for older students poses challenges, too, he said.

Some of those parents, during community meetings, literally threw up their hands and said “Help me out. I don’t know how to make this schedule work,” Riding said.

Riding said he is sensitive to parents’ concerns, but as he’s researched the issue, he’s yet to find any schools that have made the change that want to revert to earlier start times.

It is unclear how Salt Lake teachers feel about changing start times.

Board member Kristi Swett said input she’s received from elementary school teachers and staff “was so negative about any kind of change.”

In California, the state’s largest teachers’ union and California School Boards Association and the California Teachers Association both opposed later start times in secondary schools. When similar legislation passed in 2018, it was vetoed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine, in a letter, urged California Gov. Newsom to sign the legislation into law.

“In puberty a natural shift occurs in the timing of the body’s internal ‘circadian’ clock, causing most teens to experience a biological drive for a late-night bedtime. Therefore, early middle school and high school start times make it difficult for students to get the eight to 10 hours of nightly sleep that the (academy) recommends for optimal teen health.

“Simply going to bed earlier is not a realistic option for most teens. As a result, nearly 73 percent of high school students report getting fewer than eight hours of sleep on an average school night, increasing their risk of depressive symptoms, suicidal ideation and motor vehicle accidents,” the letter states.

According to the academy’s letter, failing to prioritize the health and safety of students puts them at a competitive disadvantage.

Salt Lake City’s school board plans to continue to study the issue, a move that Salt Lake board member Kennedy supports.

“I don’t want to wait for this really important thing that really benefits kids,” she said.

Correction: A previous version incorrectly identified California Gov. Gavin Newsom as a Republican. He is a Democrat.