Delaying school start times could reduce student fatigue

(NewsNation) — With test scores dropping in math and English across the country, school districts are looking for solutions to help students better perform, including providing an environment in which they can better focus on their studies.

One area where schools are choosing to make changes is the time they start each day, providing students with a little more time to sleep before they start the school day.

While the goal is better performance from well-rested students, the evidence is unclear at this point.

But the reviews so far are in strong favor, at least in Amherst, Massachusetts, where students have consistently said they prefer the later start time. It was first implemented as part of remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Superintendent Michael Morris, and the district decided to keep it.

“So when we came back in person, we didn’t feel like we could honestly go back to the old start time, right? We got so much feedback about it from students,” Morris said.

School officials conferred with the community and found enthusiasm for later start times. They decided they would pursue it broadly in order to improve student well-being.

Beginning in the fall of 2021, they shifted the district’s start times so students in middle school and high school would be able to sleep in a while longer before heading to school in the morning.

Instead of starting at 7:45 a.m., classes began at around 9 a.m. This also shifted the school day at the other end, with students being dismissed around 3:35 pm instead of 2 p.m. As part of adjusting the wider district’s start times, elementary school schedules also shifted to start slightly earlier.

The student newspaper at an Amherst high school interviewed students about how they felt following the change.

“I get more sleep and wake up later,” one senior told the paper. “It feels like I have more energy throughout the day.”

A junior offered similar thoughts. “In the morning it helps to be able to wake up later and get more sleep,” he said. “And I enjoy waking up with the sun in the sky.”

School officials in Amherst ran a survey, which while unscientific, showed that the community generally supported the later start times.

Seventy percent of staff who responded said students were more alert during the first two periods of the school day compared to how they were before. Almost 80% of students surveyed said the new start time is good or great, and around the same percentage of parents or caregivers agreed.

Overall, around 55% of staff, 64% of students and 82% of parents and caregivers said continuing the schedule is in the best interest of the school community.

Research conducted last year at the University of Minnesota found that delaying school start times from 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. was associated with less tardiness and daytime school sleepiness.

“Insufficient sleep among adolescents may affect driving safety, academic performance, mental health, school attendance, body weight, and weight-related behaviors,” said University of Minnesota Ph.D. candidate Katie Berry, who led the research.

“Early high school start times are a key contributor to insufficient sleep among adolescents, but, importantly, school start times are modifiable,” Berry continued. “Evidence shows that delaying high school start times is both a feasible and effective approach to increasing teens’ sleep duration.”

Delaying start times is becoming a more popular school policy. This fall, the state of California is implementing a law that makes it so that high schools can’t begin before 8:30 a.m. and middle schools can’t start before 8 a.m.

But there may also be downsides to pushing the school day further into the afternoon.

Over half of surveyed students who participated in after-school activities — like playing sports or holding a part-time job — reported that the later start time impacted their ability to engage in these activities.

“And some of it’s not just number of hours a day, some of it’s just fatigue, right? At the end of the day, they’re more tired, whereas in the old schedule they’re more tired in the morning,” Morris said.

Meanwhile, some surveyed elementary teachers expressed concern that the earlier start times reduced their morning prep time and some middle and high school teachers worried that students would have decreased time for extra help after school.