California bill requiring later school start times is a victory for public health

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If you went to high school in the United States, you are probably familiar with being sleep deprived. We’ve all experienced the struggle to get out of bed, or the inability to keep our eyes open in class. But this is far from an uncommon issue. In fact, one study by the National Sleep Foundation found that only 15% of teens get enough sleep (between eight and 10 hours) on school nights.

This should be alarming, because sleep deprivation isn’t just about being tired. Sleep is a key component of health, just as important as diet or exercise. When we don’t get enough sleep, we make ourselves much more vulnerable to a whole slew of health problems. Sleep deprivation reduces focus and memory capacity, increases irritability and interferes with your appetite. That’s not to mention the potentially lethal effect of combining sleep deprivation with driving: Being sleep deprived is equivalent to having a blood alcohol content of .08% — that’s above the legal limit. As a result, drowsy driving causes more than 100,000 car crashes per year. When we see reports that a vast majority of our adolescent population is chronically sleep deprived, we should be extremely worried.

Like many other high school students, I was extraordinarily sleep-deprived on a regular basis. And like many other high school students, the response of my teachers when my classmates and I would fall asleep in class was always the same: “What time did you go to bed last night?”

But the research is in: actually, it’s not about the time I went to bed last night —  it’s about the time I have to get up and go to school. To understand this, we first have to understand some biology, building on research conducted by sleep scientists since the 1980s. Sleep cycles, or circadian rhythms, shift forward about an hour during adolescence — making us unable to fall asleep as early as we did before, often not until 11:00 p.m. or later.

Given that the average start time for public middle and high schools in the U.S. is 8:03 a.m., it’s easy to see that the primary obstacle to adequate sleep for U.S. teenagers is the school system. If you have to get up before 7:00 a.m. just to get to school, and were physically unable to fall asleep until after 11:00 p.m. the previous night, then of course you didn’t get enough sleep!

In this scenario, there are two solutions that could allow you to get the recommended amount of sleep growing teenagers need. One, you could change your circadian rhythm — but that’s impossible. Or two, change educational policy so that school starts later, allowing you to sleep for longer and get your much-needed rest. This is why the American Academy of Pediatrics now officially recommends that middle and high schools start school days no earlier than 8:30 a.m.

Clearly, we can’t fight biology. We need to ensure that our schools respect the needs of students, and this includes their needs for sleep. This is why I was overjoyed to hear that California has codified those needs into law. On Oct.13, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed SB 328, landmark legislation that will require middle schools to start at 8:00 a.m. or later and high schools to start at 8:30 a.m. or later. This means that starting in the 2022-23 school year, millions of students throughout the state will no longer be battling their own biology simply to attend school.

It’s important to note that California is far from the first to implement such a policy. In fact, we should feel confident about taking this step, because time after time, starting school later has been proven to combat the effects of sleep deprivation. When tried in Seattle, starting school later extended sleep by 34 minutes, improving grades and reducing absences and tardiness. One high school in Wyoming was able to reduce car crashes involving teenage drivers by 70%. The University of Minnesota and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have shown that later school start times are correlated with lower rates of substance abuse and depression. Plus, it’s not as if school is supposed to start as early as it currently does — before the 1970s, most schools didn’t start until 8:30 a.m. or later, and education still functioned perfectly well. The upcoming shift for California schools simply follows what the science and data tells us. Starting school later will be hugely beneficial for our students.

While school start times, and educational policies in general, are often framed as administrative issues — it’s crucial that we view the passage of SB 328 for what it really is: a massive victory for public health. For example,  if we found out that 85% of our students were facing acute hunger, lacked access to clean water, or were facing unsanitary conditions as a result of the educational system, we would (rightly!) want to do something about it — even if it meant huge organizational change. Sleep deprivation is no different. Across the country, students are facing a health crisis that demands action in the form of later school start times.

That’s why I’m proud of California for passing SB 328, and why I urge other states to pass similar legislation. In other words, if you’ll excuse the pun: Finally, California has truly woken up.

Isabel Cholbi is a sophomore studying political economy with a minor in Spanish. She has worked to advocate for later school start times in the San Bernardino City Unified School District. She is currently a writer and editor for the Berkeley Political Review.