As schools closed and schedules changed, the pandemic offered an opportunity to see what happens when students get to sleep late. This unusual experiment confirmed what many scientists, pediatricians, and parents already knew — that when adolescents sleep later, they sleep better and they feel better. Despite strong and growing evidence supporting the importance of adolescent sleep, this week the Philadelphia School District proposed that most middle and high school students start school earlier, in some cases as much as two hours earlier.
This change is meant to address transportation staffing issues. In reality, it is an ineffective solution to a long-standing problem that jeopardizes student well-being. To support student health, the School District needs to keep school start times at 8:30 or later for adolescents and explore other solutions to solve the transportation crisis.
Long-standing shortages of school bus drivers have been worsened by the pandemic, and the district said the new start times will simplify bus schedules and reduce students’ time spent in transit. But shifting school start times to address the driver shortage endangers our adolescents’ health and ability to learn. Experts widely recommend that middle and high school students start classes at 8:30 a.m. or later. The adolescent brain is biologically wired to sleep late. Schedules that align with these natural needs promote better sleep, which leads to numerous other benefits including improved health, psychological well-being, attention and concentration, academic performance, and driving safety.
Studies of adolescent sleep patterns during COVID-19 only confirmed the benefits of a natural sleep schedule. During the pandemic, teen sleep schedules shifted so they went to bed and typically woke up at least an hour later. As a result, they slept more overall, reported better quality of sleep, and felt less sleepy during the daytime.
While the proposed shift in school schedule is ill-advised at any time, now is the worst time to consider a policy that would negatively impact our youth’s health. After a year of loss and tragedy, the mental health of our nation’s adolescents is worsening. Mental-health related emergency room visits are up and adolescents are showing increased suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts in response to COVID-19 stressors. Student mental health should be our School District’s top priority. The proposal to shift student schedules shows shockingly little regard for their health and well-being at a time when we should be making extraordinary efforts to help students cope.
No doubt, there is a very real logistical problem facing School District leadership: Kids need to get to school. The School District’s implied argument in moving school start times is that the cost of recruiting and retaining bus drivers is too high. Indeed, the cost of transportation is often an argument used against delayed school start times. However, the economic benefits of school start times at 8:30 a.m. and later have been shown to outweigh the costs in as few as two years. The proposed solution of shifting school start times earlier may actually worsen the district’s economic security in the near future.
Instead of pursuing a solution to the transportation shortage that negatively impacts student health, perhaps this is an opportunity to improve student well-being. School bus drivers are a daily point of contact for our children. They protect them on the journey to and from school and the bus provides group socialization and interaction. Districts could better incentivize drivers’ work and reimagine the bus as an extension of the school day to support the social-emotional learning critical to academic success, such as by training drivers to notice and reinforce students showing pro-social behaviors like kindness.
This is an opportunity for the Philadelphia School District to lead the nation by creatively solving the school transportation problem. Let’s hope district leadership follows the well-established guidance of experts and prioritizes the health needs of students as the conversation on start times and transportation evolves. We can do better than making sure students just “get to school on time.”
Amy Janke is an associate professor of psychology at University of the Sciences.