Research suggests that a later start time for classes, especially with middle school and high school students, provides numerous benefits that are worth considering. Kids in these age groups experience improved academic performance, better health, and have fewer absences compared to those who have an earlier start. That’s the reasoning behind the decision that many districts have when starting after 8 am.
There are also some advantages to consider when getting an earlier start to the day with school. It gives older teens an opportunity to earn money at an after-school job. There is more time for activities as well, and there could be some monetary benefits available to the districts that adopt such a policy.
A perfect answer doesn’t exist when looking at the idea of an early school start time. What each district can do is evaluate the pros and cons of this idea to decide if it is an option that meets the needs of their families.
List of the Pros of Early School Start Times
1. An early school start time can cut transportation costs.
School districts that decide to adopt an early start time can save up to 30% on their transportation costs. The earlier beginning to the day provides more flexibility when staggering start times throughout the district, so there are drivers that can run more than one route at a time in the morning and after school.
When the Lubbock Independent School District switches to start times that began before 8 am at some campuses, their estimated savings totaled more than $1 million in 2017. Suffolk Public Schools went with a 7:25 am start time for their district and are saving almost $700,000 per year.
2. Students spend less time on the bus.
When a school opts to go with an early start time, then students are spending less time sitting in traffic as they head to class. That means there is less time on the bus for kids that live in large, urban districts. This advantage shortens the day by 30 minutes or more for some children, allowing them to have enough time to get through their morning routine efficiently while having some extra room after school to pursue activities. It can even result in a shorter ride because routes can become more direct.
3. It may be better for the schedules of some parents.
If younger grades in the K-12 spectrum have earlier start times, then there are some specific advantages that parents may experience with this shift. It could eliminate the need to pay for morning childcare as they get ready for work because a drop-off at the school could occur instead. After school, the daycare will pick up the students so that parents can retrieve their children in the evening after work. When there is a long commute involved for the family, this advantage can be what sells the idea of starting earlier.
4. School districts can share resources more readily throughout the community.
One of the most significant problems that school districts face each year is the need to share buses on all three educational levels: elementary, middle, and high school. When you try to find a solution that gets kids to school while maintaining these resources means that there is an age group that must get an earlier start time to their day. Most districts shift that responsibility to the younger elementary students since they tend to get up earlier anyway.
By giving the grade schools the earlier start, there are typically enough resources throughout the district to help everyone get to school on time.
5. An earlier start to the day allows for more time in the afternoon for activities.
When you look at the schedule of the typical adult, most people do not go to work for eight hours to then come home to put in another four hours of work at another job. Throw in some homework and team practices, and you’ll see how busy kids are these days. Sports schedules can be adjusted sometimes, although the winter months make that a challenge in the northern geographic areas. Kids can still thrive with an earlier start, especially at a younger age. It all depends on how willing the community is going to be when working with the district to provide supports for everyone.
6. Most schools in the United States are already following this schedule.
Information supplied by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that 93% of high schools and 83% of middle schools already start before 8:30 am. Most schools in 42 different states report that they’re starting before that time as well, with some geographic areas reporting a 100% rate for early school start times. No schools in Wyoming, Montana, or Hawaii start later than 8:30 in the morning.
List of the Cons of Early School Start Times
1. There are numerous health consequences that can happen with this decision.
The evidence against having an early school start time is so compelling that numerous organizations have released statements that encourage school districts to transition to later times. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Psychological Association, the American Sleep Association, and the American Medical Association all suggest that schools shouldn’t start until at least 8:30 am each day.
With the exception of earlier grades, sleep disturbances begin to occur when there is an earlier start time for school. This issue impacts the ability of a child to learn and stay focused in the classroom.
2. It throws middle school students under the bus.
There a problem moving other grade levels to earlier start times to accommodate the needed later beginning that high schools need because 5-8 graders experience the biological changes that create a later shift in the sleep cycle. Forcing them to start earlier so that the high school can begin later creates the potential for several behavioral issues in the future. Sleep disturbances that occur during this critical time of development may be linked to substance abuse problems in the future.
Older teens and adults struggle to fall asleep after 11 pm and or wake up before 8 am. When you force them into an earlier start time, then a school district forces kids to learn and function during their lowest levels of alertness for the day.
3. An early start time will force children to walk to their bus stop in the dark.
When you start the school day early in the winter, then young students are going to be at their bus stop in the dark. There could be issues sending them home in the dark if they were to wait until later as well. There isn’t a happy medium here unless parents provide transportation, or the school days can be shorter. That’s why an early start time is not always an idea that parents are comfortable with implementing.
Starting early doesn’t solve the problem that some students face a long bus ride either. They’ll need to get up even earlier to get ready for classes. Even with a 9 am start, some students might need to get on the bus by 8 am, which means getting up around 7 am to get prepared for the day.
4. It may not benefit the working schedule of some parents.
Having an early start time for students, especially young children, means that some parents may need to pay more in daycare expenses. If a child goes to school before 8 am in the morning, then they might spend an extra hour or two at their provider because their class gets out earlier in the day. When 40% of families in the average school district are always living paycheck-to-paycheck with little in savings, asking them to make another financial commitment to help the district out is often viewed as an unreasonable request.
5. An earlier start means kids have more free time in the afternoon.
Juvenile justice experts prefer a later starting time for school because it limits the amount of free time that students have in the afternoon. The most common time for criminal conduct in the teenage demographics is the period that happens between the final bell and the start of dinner at home. By reducing the amount of free time that is available during this period, there is a possibility that it will also limit the impulsive choices that can cause some older kids to get in some trouble.
6. This schedule interferes with the schedule of rural communities.
Rural school districts that adopt an early start to the school day may interfere with the chore schedule that some farms follow. Older students often help with the work in these areas, so an expectation of getting on the bus early might take them away from milking, feeding, and the other daily duties that are necessary. Students in this situation would be getting up even earlier to do the work, which means they’d have even more problems focusing on their work compared to their counterparts.
It would also create a homework issue in rural communities. Many students do their assignments on the bus as a way to free up time in their schedule, which means the efforts may not be at their best.
7. An early start to the school day could impact young teachers too.
The average person between the ages of 12-25 will need between 8-10 hours of sleep each night to maximize their learning opportunities. That means there will be young teachers who are starting their careers that will face the same challenges as their students with an early schedule. If students struggle to focus and learn because they’re losing out on their final cycles of REM sleep, then teachers are going to find it a challenge to be effective at their job too.
When people in this age demographic get more sleep each night, then there are reduced levels of tardiness, truancy, and dropping out. It also means there are fewer car crashes because teens and younger adults have better psychomotor performance when they get enough sleep each night.
8. It reduces the risk of a metabolic disorder.
Students who receive enough sleep each night have a reduced risk of obesity. There are also fewer eating disorders associated with a later start time to the school day. That means a school district can support a child’s future health, including their risk for diabetes development, by allowing them to get a later start to their day. Although there is no guarantee that parents won’t let their kids stay up even later with this schedule, there is no way to control individual households. What the board can do is create an environment where everyone who wants to experience a successful learning situation can have it. An earlier start doesn’t usually make that happen.
9. Test scores are higher at schools that start later in the morning.
When one compares the test scores of students that go to school early compared to those who begin their classes one hour later, the effect on test scores is something to consider. There was a 1% improvement in the reading scores. Mathematics test results were nearly 2% higher, with the effect most significant for kids at the upper end of the learning spectrum. That means older kids can see a natural improvement in their grades by letting them have a later start to the day. At the very least, schools should look at this issue so that they can schedule testing at an appropriate time during the day.
Are Early School Start Times a Good Idea?
There are some clear benefits to consider when looking at the pros and cons of early school start times. Unfortunately, it seems that many of the advantages tend to favor only the youngest students in the K-12 spectrum. Once kids reach puberty, their circadian rhythms make it challenging to send them to bed late enough where they can get enough rest to function properly the next day.
Being able to share resources throughout a district can help to save money. The answer to better grades, fewer student absences, and more classroom engagement might be to add more money to transportation so that everyone can have a later starting time.
Research suggests that a later start time is the better option, but that schedule conflicts with the career requirements of many parents. These are the reasons why this debate has waged on for over 30 years, and it is an issue that is not likely to see an answer spring forth for quite some time.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.