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California becomes first state to move back school start times

Students in Sacramento, Calif., boarded a school bus before dawn, but a new state law — that officially went into effect on July 1, 2022 — will now require that public high schools begin classes no earlier than 8:30 a.m. and that middle schools start no earlier than 8 a.m.MAX WHITTAKER/NYT

Go ahead and hit that snooze button one more time.

High school and middle school classes in California will start later than ever when the school year begins this fall. That means that students (and the parents who get them to school) can look forward to a little extra sleep.

In 2019, California legislators passed a first-of-its-kind law requiring that all public high schools begin classes no earlier than 8:30 a.m. and that middle schools start no earlier than 8 a.m. The law officially went into effect on July 1.

Teenagers not only need as much as 10 hours of sleep each day, but shifts in their biological rhythms also make them become sleepy later. “Asking a teenager to be awake and trying to absorb information at 8:30 in the morning in some ways is like asking an adult to wake up at 4 o’clock in the morning,” Matthew Walker, a University of California, Berkeley, neuroscience professor, told NPR.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the average public high school start time was 8 a.m. nationwide and 8:04 a.m. in California. In some pockets of the Golden State, the switch to virtual learning resulted in classes beginning later, but now those delayed start times are becoming mandatory and widespread. (There are some exceptions: The new law doesn’t apply to rural communities or optional class periods called “zero periods,” which start before the regular school sessions.)

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Experts say that chronic sleep deprivation among teenagers has been linked to worse academic performance and mental and physical health problems, as well as substance abuse and drowsy driving. Because of the litany of public health risks, the American Academy of Pediatrics has called for school to start no earlier than 8:30 a.m., as even 60 extra minutes of sleep per night can have major benefits in staving off long-term health issues.

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“The effects of that one hour is something they will be feeling as 40-year-old adults,” said Dr. Sumit Bhargava, a clinical associate professor of pediatrics at Stanford University. “When you give them the gift of increased sleep time, it is the biggest bang for the buck that you can think about.”

Lisa L. Lewis, who advocated for California’s law and recently published a book called “The Sleep-Deprived Teen,” said that places that have already pushed back school start times have seen positive results.

When Seattle’s public school district shifted its start time in 2016, students got about half an hour more sleep per night. And in a Denver-area suburb, high schoolers slept about 45 minutes longer on average.

Other states, including New York and New Jersey, are now considering similar legislation.

“This is a public health issue,” Lewis said. “As of now, California is the only one, but we are often a bellwether for other states.”