COVID-19 and School Start Times
As we see some light at the end of the tunnel with the U.S. advancing the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, we also are seeing many school districts having students return to in-person or hybrid learning. The debate around what time school should start has always been a point of discussion for sleep professionals, physicians and parents.
AAST, in support of and alignment with Start School Later Inc., has advocated that schools require no child of any age to be in class before 8 a.m. and no adolescent be in class before 8:30 a.m.
AAST Marketing Manager Hannah Durnas recently had the opportunity to further explore this topic, as well as how the pandemic has changed the recommendations and future thinking with Terra Ziporyn Snider, PhD, executive director and co-founder of Start School Later Inc.
Before the pandemic, what was the recommendation for school start times by Start School Later (SSL)?
SSL’s recommendation from its very beginning has been that no child of any age should be required to attend school at unsafe, unhealthy hours. Based on current research, that means we recommend that schools require no child of any age to be in class before 8 a.m. and no adolescent before 8:30 a.m. That latter position reflects the overwhelming consensus of research, including recommendations by the American Pediatrics Association, American Medical Association and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
We also recommend that any comprehensive assessment of factors involved in setting school schedules should include a rigorous examination of the impact of school start times on elementary students. While there is an overwhelmingly clear evidence base for the harm of early start times across multiple domains in middle/high school students (e.g., depression, academic failure, lower graduation rates and increased motor vehicle crashes), existing evidence is still too limited to determine the impact of any particular bell time on the sleep of elementary school students.
We strongly encourage more research about the impact of school hours on younger children, particularly more impact studies in districts that move middle and high school start times later by moving elementary start times earlier (the so-called “flip” strategy). At the same time, the lack of studies of elementary students should not serve as an automatic deterrent to implementing a measure (i.e., a later middle/high school start time) that we already know significantly reduces significant and active harm. Finally, we urge school districts to consider start time strategies that are likely to achieve equity for all students of every age, recognizing that this will require some degree of compromise among all stakeholders.
Has the pandemic changed SSL’s recommendations for school start times?
If yes, how so? In short, no. In fact, if anything, the pandemic has provided even more evidence that starting school no earlier than 8:30 a.m. is better for adolescents. COVID-19 school shutdowns have provided an unprecedented, population wide experiment confirming what sleep researchers already predicted about how teenagers would sleep when allowed to do what their bodies need, rather than constrained by artificial school schedules.
Shortly after virtual schooling began last spring, families told us their lives were transformed because their teenagers no longer had to wake at dawn or deprive themselves of sleep to attend class. Subsequent survey data have borne out these observations, showing that although virtual school and COVID-19 are taking a predictable toll on mental health, the increased and better-timed sleep during the pandemic have helped compensate for these challenges in many adolescents.
To view the full interview, read the 2021 Q2 issue of A2Zzz.