Opinion: Daylight Savings and early school start times hurt students

(Remains/Getty Images)

By Katherine Nitz

March 19, 2024

The clocks might change when we switch to daylight savings time, but our bodies don’t seem to care. While I love later sunsets as much as anyone, the hidden costs not only of daylight savings, but of far too early school start times, take a toll on all of us. Just an hour of sleep lost for adults results in a higher chance of car accidents. Imagine the consequences for our newly minted teen drivers. Our teenagers are suffering from a completely preventable epidemic: chronic sleep deprivation. The mental and physical health consequences are serious, heartbreaking and yet utterly avoidable. 

Seven years ago, I began advocating for healthy school start times. My ‘aha!’ moment came after a typical, chaotic morning rush to get my son to school before the detested pre-dawn bell rang, announcing his impending tardiness. This particular dark and cold mid-winter morning had an extra layer of tension. We were all just tired – and it was nowhere near Friday, let alone June. As a parent PTSA volunteer, I had been working with our Safe Routes school committee to get street lights installed to make walking to school safer, and was frustrated by a steady stream of roadblocks. 

After my middle- and high school-aged kids mercifully got to school with a few minutes to spare, it felt downright leisurely to walk my elementary-aged child to the bus stop. Just 20 minutes later, the sun was beginning to illuminate a new day. It occurred to me that I had never walked my children to that bus stop in complete darkness, even in the depths of winter, at 7:30 am. 

A lightbulb went off! I had heard in passing about all the research on optimal school learning hours. Even a 20 minute delay in start time meant never having to walk to school in the dark. Excitedly, I went off to research and was simply astounded by the breadth and depth of the scientific studies over decades on optimal learning times. Surely starting school 20 minutes later would be an easier lift than navigating multiple municipalities and bureaucracies to install street lights.         

The benefits to starting school later went far beyond safety – every aspect of their physical and mental health would improve: decreased depression rates and suicide attempts; lower rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease; better attendance and graduation rates; improved academic and athletic performance, and; drastic declines in drowsy driving accidents.

I learned that when adolescents reach puberty, their hormones change and the delay of the release of melatonin makes it very difficult for the average teen to fall asleep before 11pm

What’s more, the early morning REM sleep is required for emotional regulation and memory consolidation. In other words, teens need that early morning sleep in order to learn effectively. Every major medical organization, including the CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics, has a position paper recommending that secondary school start no earlier than 8:30. California and Florida have both passed state laws mandating start times that align with adolescent biology. This bipartisan issue is the single most beneficial policy change that has the potential to help every single student in Michigan. 

Student mental health and academic recovery cannot be truly improved without first addressing chronic sleep deprivation. Our current school structure is hurting our kids every single day. So why have school districts and other state legislators been slow to adopt this unquestioningly beneficial policy change with the potential to help every single student? 

The short answer: logistics and inertia. While transportation and athletics are often blamed, districts across the country have overcome these same challenges. At the state and national level, delaying school start times has a significant financial benefit as well (even using a conservative approach, Michigan stands to gain over $1B after five years). 

The true cost of change must factor in the hidden cost of the status quo. The bus driver shortage might be alleviated if drivers didn’t have to start work before 5 a.m. Child care concerns might actually improve for working parents who are already inconvenienced by their elementary school’s later start time. The teachers who may complain about ending their work day later might enjoy greater job satisfaction when teaching students who are awake and alert for class.

Humans are startlingly good at adaptation despite our innate fear of change. Let’s set our kids up for success – and make pre-dawn sleep-deprived start times a distant memory. Communities, as well as students, will not only adjust, but thrive

We need to follow the long trail of evidenced-based science and optimize student learning by starting secondary school no earlier than 8:30 a.m. While every parent knows that young kids rise earlier, no one wants young children waiting in the cold and dark for a bus – that is why no school should start before 8 a.m. If covid taught us nothing else, it’s that we can adjust long-entrenched systems in order to protect the health of our students and educators. It’s time we make our student’s mental and physical health and safety a priority. It’s time for change. 

Sign our petition to set all Michigan students up for success!

Author

  • Katherine Nitz

    Katherine Nitz has been advocating for public education at the local and state level for as part of the non profit organization Start School Later. As a mom of four, she is dedicated to improving the mental and physical health and safety of all students by implementing health school start times to align with CDC guidelines, putting an end to chronic sleep deprivation and setting students up for success. For more information, contact [email protected] and sign our petition!

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