California’s “Late Start” Mandate For Middle and High Schools Offers Mental Health Benefits

For high school students, start times can be difficult to face. Thanks to a new California law, however, students will have a bit more time to catch some much needed Z’s. Signed back in October 2021, Senate Bill 328 demands that no middle schools can begin earlier than 8:00 a.m., and no high schools can start earlier than 8:30 a.m.

The law exempts rural school districts in the state, but includes all other schools for the 2022-23 academic year. The idea behind the mandate is that school start times — which can average between 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. in the U.S., according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) — affect a student’s ability to earn an adequate amount of sleep.

That lack of rest then prevents students from staying awake and paying attention during school hours, impacting the amount of learning and studying able to be accomplished. With added sleep, students could be more productive and healthy. Advocates expressed hope that later start times will also help to bring down teen suicides and car accidents.

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Though opponents of the bill say the later start times will create conflicts in bus schedules, the overall benefits the mandate could bring might outweigh any negatives. Certainly, mental health and a lack of rest have become extreme obstacles to students.

A study published in the journal Annals of Human Biology found that of 1,113 university students ages 16 to 25, over half (55%) experienced excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS). Those students were twice as likely to have depression or experience moderate-to-severe stress levels. The study also found EDS was more prevalent among females.

University of Mato Grosso, Brazil faculty member and the study’s lead author, Dr. Paulo Rodrigues, explained those sleep disorders led to several impacts on a student’s academic life. “These include failures in attention and perception, high absenteeism rate, and sometimes dropping out of the course,” he said.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that children ages six to 12 receive at least nine to 12 hours of sleep a night, while children ages 13 to 18 get eight to 10 hours. Pushed starts would force children to go to bed later, helping them to align with their biological sleep patterns.

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Adding to that lack of sleep students experience was a complete disruption of the school system due to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a Pew Research Center study, 37% of high school students at private and public schools reported their mental health, which includes stress, anxiety, and depression, was not good during the pandemic.

While California is the first state to mandate a ruling like this, it appears other states could be right behind them. New Jersey is one of several exploring possibilities for later start times. Speaking to ABC News, pediatrician Dr. Bert Mandelbaum expressed enthusiasm over the potential ruling, explaining recent events have made this a necessity.

“I think we’re at the right time that people are willing to listen and do the right thing for kids. I think the pandemic heightened everyone’s awareness of the mental health needs,” Mandelbaum said. School districts in Philadelphia and Denver have also taken the steps towards pushing back times, with former Philadelphia superintendent William Hite citing the need for “stability.”