State Legislature approves later start times for California middle, high school students

September 14, 2019

A California bill would require middle schools to start no earlier than 8 a.m. and high schools to start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. to address health issues related to teen sleep deprivation.

After former Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill last year that proposed starting middle and high school times later to give teens more time to sleep, the bill’s author started working to bring it back again this year.

Although the bill originally banned both middle and high schools from starting before 8:30 a.m., Sen. Anthony Portantino, D-San Fernando Valley, agreed to amendments in May that would allow middle schools to start at 8 a.m. while keeping high school start times at 8:30 a.m., to give districts more flexibility in scheduling buses. The bill exempts rural districts because of bus scheduling challenges. Start times would exclude “zero periods,” which are optional courses offered by some schools before the regular school day begins. The implementation period has also been stretched to three years to give districts time to prepare for the changes.

With these amendments, SB 328, known as the later school start bill, passed the State Legislature on Sept. 13.  It is now for Gov. Gavin Newsom to decide whether to sign or veto the measure.

Portantino has said he was optimistic of the governor’s support. If signed into law, it would make California the first state in the country to mandate later start times for middle and high school students,  he said. 

Portantino said the bill has received more bipartisan support this year than it had previously and more research has come out since then bolstering findings that when teens sleep longer they’re healthier, perform better in school and are less prone to depression or suicidal thoughts. 

“I am optimistic that science will win out over politics,” he said.

It would go into effect in July 2022, for the 2022-23 school year.

Research is mixed, however, on whether imposing later school start times will result in students getting more sleep, according to a Legislative staff analysis. Although some studies have shown that later school start times do result in students sleeping longer, another showed that sleep time was longer the first year after implementation, but that students stayed up later the following year, adjusting to their later morning wake-up times.

Currently, about one-fifth of California’s schools already start later than 8 a.m. for middle school and 8:30 a.m. for high school, as proposed in the bill, according to the Legislative staff analysis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends a later start time for adolescents and teenagers, found in 2011-12 that the average start time for middle and high schools in California was 8:07 a.m., with 31.2 percent starting before 8 a.m., 47.6 percent starting between 8 and 8:30 a.m. and 21.2 percent starting after 8:30 a.m.

In his veto, Brown said that school start times were best decided by individual school boards, citing his strong support for local control. Portantino said he hasn’t discussed the bill yet with Newsom.

Carol Kocivar, legislative advocate for the California PTA, which strongly supports the bill, noted that Newsom has young children and “is very sensitive to the needs of children.” She said she expects he will consider what is best for children.

The American Academy of Pediatrics also supports the bill, along with four school districts and several other child advocacy and medical groups. But the bill has drawn strong opposition from the California Teachers Association, California School Boards Association, transportation agencies and several school districts, which argue the proposed state mandate could negatively affect before- and after-school programs, sports, union contracts, working parents and bus schedules.

Oakland Unified is among the districts opposing the bill. “Oakland USD is supportive of the bill’s overall goal to improve learning conditions for students,” wrote Aimee Eng, board president of Oakland Unified, in a letter opposing the bill. “However, ultimately it is the governing boards in local communities and governance teams in local educational agencies who are best-suited to make these decisions, with the input of students, families, teachers, staff and community stakeholders.”

Kocivar said the overriding reason parents are pushing so hard to pass this is because research shows later school times are better for teens’ health and safety, as well as for their school attendance and performance. This is because their biological clocks change when they enter adolescence, making it more difficult for them to go to sleep early in the evening and harder to get up early in the morning.

“We took a really close look at this and asked the most important question: ‘What is best for our kids?’” Kocivar said. “The answer is absolutely clear. This affects every teenager in California, regardless of what zip code they live in.”

Although some school districts have already taken a position on the bill, others — including West Contra Costa Unified in the Bay Area — are just starting to discuss it. Currently, none of the district’s middle schools start before 8 a.m., but most of its high schools do.

At a meeting last Wednesday, West Contra Costa school board members Mister Phillips and Stephanie Hernandez-Jarvis said they support the bill based on the scientific research showing it would benefit students. Phillips said arguments against the bill appear to be motivated by convenience for parents, bus schedulers or school administrators rather than students’ well-being. Hernandez-Jarvis, who is a former transitional kindergarten teacher, said students need to sleep longer.

“I see that as a teacher,” she said. “The first hour, they’re sleepy.”

The bill does not set a minimum start time for elementary schools. Some opponents argue that starting school later for middle and high school students could force districts to start elementary schools even earlier to accommodate staggered bus schedules. Claudia Burgos, director of legislative affairs for the Alameda Contra Costa Transit District, told the West Contra Costa school board that the organization’s board of directors opposes the bill because it would have to add more buses to cover the routes which would increase costs from $2 million to $3 million.

“We work really closely with all school districts to stagger school bell times and do coordinating,” she said. “On any given morning, one bus and operator will pick up kids and drop them off at school number one, then school number two, then turn around and pick up commuters and take them to San Francisco.” Changing school start times would likely disrupt this schedule, requiring more than the 73 buses the agency currently uses to provide service, she said.

West Contra Costa board member Consuelo Lara said she accompanied some students and a district PTA representative to Sacramento when they spoke to legislators advocating for passage of the bill. She said the students argued effectively about how it would affect their daily lives and she understands the research regarding its health benefits. However, Lara also said she was considering arguments against it by school administrators throughout the state who say it could force extracurricular activities to start later and extend into the evening.

“For me, I’m really torn,” she said. “I want to give it some more evaluation and do some more study and come up with something that seems logical to me.”

Portantino said districts will have ample time to iron out details related to busing and after-school activities. Now that the bill has made it this far, he said “I think they’re starting to realize it might happen.”

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