It goes without saying that when students are well rested, they are healthier, happier and ready to learn. Kern County school districts recognize the importance of maximizing student sleep and do not dispute the finding of numerous studies on its impacts.
However, mandating that our middle and high schools push back their start times, as is proposed by Senate Bill 328, only addresses a fraction of the issue at hand and fails to recognize the negative and disproportionate safety, fiscal and family impacts of imposing a one‐size‐fits-all approach.
In a state as large, geographically and socio‐economically diverse as ours, this is a decision that should only be made by locally elected school district trustees — informed by input from parents, teachers and other stakeholders — who know and understand the needs of their students and community.
Researchers Ian Campbell and Irwin Feinberg at the University of California, Davis and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledge that school start times are just one factor that influences how much sleep students receive. Decreasing evening and night time exposure to light, limiting the use of electronic devices in the evening, parental influence and the need for health care professionals to educate families about the importance of adequate sleep are also identified as important behavioral influences. In short, the issue that SB 328 seeks to improve is far more nuanced than simply adjusting the school day.
The bill would impose a hardship on too many Kern County families, with a disproportionate share of the burden landing on those students whose socio‐economic status is already a significant educational barrier. Enacting SB 328 ignores and minimizes the realities of students who need to work after school to help support their families or provide care for younger siblings. The bill has the potential to increase the need for childcare and forces working parents who do not have the privilege of adjusting their work schedules to conform to a policy idea promoted by people unfamiliar with their daily work requirements and economic struggles.
In communities like ours, SB 328 would likely not result in students getting more sleep. Most parents lack the flexibility to adjust their work schedules to accommodate a later school start time, particularly laborers, service industry employees, and commuters. Many parents also have children of different ages who potentially could attend schools with different start times.
Furthermore, schools are mandated to have a set number of instructional hours. Beginning the school day later would therefore require the school day to end later. This would directly impact family time, homework, after school sports and other extracurricular activities. In essence, the bill’s intended purpose would be mitigated because students would likely go to bed later to keep up.
Aside from the burden that enacting SB 328 would have on local families, home‐to‐school transportation would also be negatively impacted. The ability of school districts to manage and maximize the efficient use of their bus fleet to serve all students is contingent upon being able to stagger school start times. Additional buses and drivers would be necessary to meet local needs if the range of available school start times is reduced. What’s more, the bill does not provide funding to cover the associated costs.
Gov. Jerry Brown rightfully vetoed a similar bill last year citing its misalignment with the principle of local control and indicating these types of decisions are best made by elected school district trustees who are in the best position to know and understand the needs of their constituents. Let’s hope Gov. Gavin Newsom is of the same mind.
Mary Barlow is the Kern County Superintendent of Schools.