Influencers Opinion

What is the best time for CA students to start classes? The answer is complicated

Note to readers: Each week through November 2019, a selection of our 101 California Influencers answers a question that is critical to California’s future. Topics include education, healthcare, environment, housing and economic growth.

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California Influencers this week answered the following question: How should we decide what is the best time for California students to start classes in the morning? Below are the Influencers’ answers in their entirety.

Start times should be determined locally to avoid unintended consequences

Connie Leyva - California State Senator (D-Chino)

We can all agree that our students need a sufficient amount of sleep and that sleep time is a significant and important factor in overall health, but improving sleep time for students requires more than just later start times. I believe that school start times should continue to be determined at the local level because it is inappropriate to say that a one-size-fits-all approach should guide all schools or all communities.

I remain concerned about the unintended consequences of forcing later start times, including the obvious effect it will have on working or single parent families and local transportation demands. As leaders, it is vital that we strive to minimize these unintended consequences.

If later start times are implemented at some point – in spite of the clear concerns by school leaders across California – it must be done in a thoughtful and equitable way that sets realistic expectations for local school districts and communities so that they can best meet the needs of the students and parents they serve.

“It’s time for us to bring school start times in line with science and public health needs”

Ling Ling Chang - California State Senator (R-Diamond Bar)

My top priority is ensuring that our students are healthy, safe, and ready to learn. Students have shared with me that they are taking on tougher classes and more activities in order to improve their chances for college admissions and many of the students I spoke with are often tired and overwhelmed. Their stories resonated with me. And the science is clear: sleep deprivation impacts brain development, can contribute to depression, trouble concentrating, and drowsy-driving accidents.

Unfortunately, students are getting less sleep and the CDC warns early secondary school start times are the primary cause of the adolescent sleep deprivation epidemic, affecting 2/3 of our nation’s teenagers. The American Academy of Pediatrics has also sounded the alarm on this.

Earlier this year, the California Legislature passed bipartisan legislation to support later school start times. After careful review of the science and community input, I supported the proposal when it came before me in the Senate. The measure would require the school day for middle and high school students to begin respectively no later than 8AM and 8:30AM.

Most teens have a biological tendency for late bedtimes, so getting to bed early is not a simple answer. Students deserve to show up for school healthy and ready. It’s time for us to bring school start times in line with science and public health needs.

“Late start times create hardship for families”

Vernon M. Billy - CEO and Executive Director of the California School Boards Association

No one opposes a good night’s sleep, however, plenty of Californians oppose unfunded, one-size-fits-all mandates that fail to respect parental decisions or consider the needs of local communities. Late start times create hardship for families since many working parents cannot adjust their schedules to suit the Legislature. Some families will continue dropping children off at school at the current time –potentially leaving these students without supervision. SB 328 would disproportionately affect low-income families and prevent many students from working after school or from caring for their siblings. Moreover, it could increase the need for childcare services in already cash-strapped families.

It’s important to note that the research on later school start times is inconclusive. A study published in the research journal SLEEP found that “… while there were immediate sleep benefits associated with a shift toward later school start times, few of these benefits were long-lasting” and identified no physical or mental health benefits from the later start times. Similarly, scientists from UC Davis’ Sleep Disorders Laboratory argue that advocates of later start times overstate the benefits. Late school start times are worth exploring, but those decisions should be made by local communities, not mandated from Sacramento.

“Start times can’t be mandated in ways that will create insurmountable burdens”

Myrna Castrejon - President and CEO of the California Charter Schools Association

As a mother, I know first-hand the demands our children face. My 9th grader is at school by 6:30 a.m. for daily marching band rehearsal. Between homework and rehearsals, he’s averaging between four to five hours of sleep, including weekends. I know that this isn’t sustainable.

As a charter advocate and an education policy practitioner, I am intimately familiar with the very real challenges that public schools face in planning their curriculum and the issues that many working parents would face with a later start time. Districts across California have experimented with later start times, but success has come only after deep community engagement that ultimately led to creating support for families that have no easy choices.

The state could adapt the lessons found in this pathway by providing incentives for districts and schools to modify their start times while providing the right supports and allowing flexibility when necessary. Start times can’t be mandated in ways that will create insurmountable burdens. Instead, start times should start with a conversation that provides flexibilities appropriate to each circumstance. We’re ready to be part of this conversation, I know my son and I would appreciate the extra sleep.

Pilot studies are needed to assess practical impacts of later start times

Janet Napolitano - University of California President

No doubt if it were up to kids when to ring the morning bell it would be much later – say about noon. I can’t blame them; I’m still not much of a morning person! However, deciding when to start school should be based on more than personal preference. A state mandate is not the way to go either. Instead, I’d like to see pilot studies on later start times conducted with willing school districts. That way we can collect data about the impacts of a time shift on childcare, family transportation schedules and after-school sports, among other things. As much as I sympathize with sleepy students, we must also carefully consider how the change would affect families and schools.

“Sleep deprivation is a serious problem”

Ted Lempert - President of Children Now

As the father of three daughters (ages 23, 20 and 17), I’ve seen firsthand the negative impact that too little sleep can have on a teenager for more mornings than I can count. Teenage brains are undergoing significant transformation and sleep deprivation is a serious problem. School leaders should try to ensure that start times don’t exacerbate the problem. At the same time, there needs to be a coordinated effort to encourage students to cut screen time; to help students navigate multiple school, family and often economic obligations; to encourage employers to provide flexibility for workers that need to drop off their child at school; and for policymakers to help families by ensuring there are supports, like accessible, quality child care for siblings. And, if the school start time legislation becomes law, then it will be critical that policymakers help address the resulting domino effect on family, school and community life.

Advance practical community-driven policy solutions

Rosie Arroyo - Chair of the Board of Hispanas Organized for Political Equality

It is encouraging to see that legislators are looking for innovative ways to address students’ social, emotional, and academic needs; however, as legislation is considered to improve learning conditions for students, we must evaluate policy from a holistic lens. We need to ensure that we support practical solutions, as one-size policy solutions may not always address the needs of all communities. What works for one community may not work for another. We need to understand what implementation will look like, especially at a time when school districts are facing significant fiscal challenges.

Will this result in diverting resources from academic priorities? Will schools have the resources to build the necessary infrastructure and resources to expand access to early care and afterschool programs to support students and parents? How will this impact the busing and transportation needs of students and families? As we look at policy solutions that address students’ needs, we need to engage the local community to understand better what their needs are and how such policy will impact them. Policies may have the best interest in meeting students’ needs; however, if they are not implemented well, equitably, and fairly they can have long-lasting adverse effects.

Is a good night’s sleep for kids a pipe dream?

Kim Belshe - Executive Director of First 5 LA

Parents have told us of the challenges they face getting their little ones to bed and then ready for daycare and preschool in the morning. One mom says she put her boys to bed in their school clothes so they could get extra sleep before the rush out the door to beat traffic. The struggle for a good night’s sleep is real. So are the struggles of parents who are taxiing their kids to drop offs and then having to face soul-crushing congestion on their way to work.

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, young children should sleep between 9 to 13 hours every 24 hours, including naps, on a regular basis to promote their health. Would a modified school start time help? The short answer is yes, as part of a broader solution that considers the effects later start times would have on parents in the workforce. We need to think about the needs of working parents as part of a comprehensive approach to help kids be the best can be in school. Regardless of how the Governor decides to act on this bill, government and business leaders alike need to think big to help our littlest Californians have the best start in life.

“Offering classes at times that best serve learners is important, but so too is using different modalities”

Eloy Oakley - California Community Colleges Chancellor

Today’s debate over what time middle schools and high schools should be required to start instruction should lead us to a wider conversation about whether education at all levels is evolving quickly enough to serve a public that increasingly embraces – and needs – nontraditional learning. Offering classes at times that best serve learners is important, but so too is using different modalities to reach students, especially adult learners without college credentials who find themselves stranded in low-wage jobs and struggling to provide for their families. At the beginning of this month, Calbright, the state’s new online community college, began enrolling students who face these types of challenges into three inaugural pathways, each cornerstone sectors of the California economy: general information technology (IT), cybersecurity and medical coding. The college will use a competency-based approach, which assess students previous learning and prioritizes mastery of skills over time logged in classes. And on-going, rolling enrollment will allows students to start at any time and progress at a flexible pace. More and more, students are signaling the desire to move beyond traditional learning approaches for a lifetime of skills acquisition, which is vital to success in the constantly evolving economy.

Dan Schnur, a veteran analyst and longtime participant in California politics, is director of the California Influencers series for McClatchy.
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