On the first day of school after the summer break, senior Anika Bose walked to her 8:45 a.m. class at Santa Clara’s Adrian Wilcox High School with a spring in her step and a fresh cup of Starbucks. In her first year, when school started at 7:30, she wouldn’t have had time to grab that cup.
Over the past year, her school day and the school days of most of the state’s 2.6 million middle and high school students have moved a little later. This is because the state passed a law that was the first of its kind in the country and was meant to help students stay awake in class. The 2019 law that says high schools can’t start before 8:30 and middle schools can’t start before 8 just went into effect this summer, but most schools have already made the change.
How have things been going? Bose can now sleep in past 7:30 a.m. and has time to make lunch for herself and her younger brother before school starts. But because she gets out of school later, she said she could barely see the ball by the end of her golf team practices and was often up past midnight doing her homework.
“No matter what time you wake up in high school, you’ll be tired,” said Bose, who is 17 and also the Wilcox student body president. “At least I have time to grab a cup of coffee before class now.”
California has become a place where movement can be tested. Academics and health groups have been pushing for this for decades, citing research that shows teens and young adults need more sleep and tend to become night owls who sleep later in the day.
“Studies have shown over and over again that teens get more sleep when school starts later, which is good for their physical and mental health, academic performance, and other things,” said Elinore Boeke, a spokeswoman for Start School Later, a national nonprofit that co-sponsored the California law. “Student-athletes have quicker reactions and get hurt less often. When kids eat breakfast, they are more likely to be happy and ready to learn in the first period.
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But the effort to move the first school bell has been met with pushback, just like the similar-sounding debate over whether or not to expand or end Daylight Saving Time and its annoying biannual clock switch that maximizes afternoon daylight in the spring and fall at the expense of morning sunlight.
Teacher unions and school boards were against the California law because they were worried about how it would affect adults’ work schedules and family needs, as well as after-school sports and jobs. They also said that the decision should be up to each district.
An earlier version of the bill didn’t make it through the Legislature, and in 2018, former Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed another. With help from the California State PTA, Gov. Gavin Newsom finally signed the bill into law.
Joy Wake, the director of advocacy for Start School Later in California, said that schools and districts all over the country have been starting classes later for decades without any problems, and she doesn’t know of any that went back to earlier starts.
“At first, change is upsetting, but that change and upheaval are only temporary,” said Wake. “But the benefits to the student’s physical and mental health will last longer.”
A senior at Wilcox High, Aiara Reyes, might not agree. She said that the change has made her more stressed out, not less.
She said, “It’s harder to relax after school if it’s dark when you get home and you have a lot of work to do.” “And if you waste time, it makes it harder to do your homework, which can make you feel very stressed.”
The law still lets schools offer “zero period” classes that start before the regular school day. These classes are often chosen so that students can play sports or go to work after school, but not all schools offer them. And the law doesn’t say what it means by “rural school districts,” so it doesn’t apply to them.
Troy Flint, a spokesman for the California School Boards Association, said that it’s not clear how many districts are following the law, but those that have changed are trying to make sure there aren’t too many problems.
“As expected, the new schedules will be hard for students who have part-time jobs, take care of their younger siblings, play sports, and do other things outside of school,” Flint said.
Last year, the Palo Alto Unified School District moved the first middle school class to 8:30 a.m. and the first high school class to 9 a.m. This fall, the district did not see a need to make any changes to the start times.
“Even though there were worries, it went pretty well,” said Superintendent Don Austin. “This year, we’ll start at the same time.”
Superintendent Eric Volta of the Liberty Union High School District, which serves Brentwood and Oakley, said that coordinating their shared school bus network with the elementary schools was the hardest part of starting school later.
Volta said, “We think we have that figured out now.” So far, he said, there hasn’t been a noticeable change in attendance or test scores, and students have mixed feelings about school starting 15 minutes later at 8:30 and ending at 3:20.
“Some love it,” Volta said, “some say it doesn’t matter.”
When Wilcox High switched to the new time last year, it moved the end of the school day to 4:20 p.m. from 2:30 or 3 p.m. Many students, especially athletes, were upset about this. Paul Rosa, who coaches football and is in charge of athletics, said that kids didn’t get home until 7 p.m. And because outdoor games that don’t have lights can’t be moved to later times, student-athletes missed more classes.
This year, the school made some changes to the schedule, and most days now end between 3:50 and 4 p.m. Rosa said that was a good sign, but the number of students who play sports has gone down because they are afraid missing class will hurt their grades.
“The school and district staff are doing everything we can to find a balance and solve these problems,” said Kristin Gonzalez, the principal of Wilcox.
Gonzalez said, “We want to do what is best for the students.”
Kids who work are also hurt by the later dismissal times. Sahil Kumawat, a senior who works as a coach at Lifetime Tennis, doesn’t know how much longer he’ll be able to keep working after school without letting his grades slip.
Kumawat, who is 17, said, “By the time my shift starts, I’ll be tired, but I still have to work for four hours.” “I’ll probably have to quit soon or work only on weekends. But I can’t work and go to school at the same time.”