Editorial: Starting school later is better

The Lawrence school board is right to start planning for moving back school start times for high school students. In fact, if the initial experiment works, the board should consider pushing back start times even later.

On Monday night, board members directed staff to begin planning for a high school start time of 8:30 a.m. beginning with the 2019-20 school year. Currently, classes start at 8:05 a.m.

There is ample research showing that teenagers need at least eight and up to 10 hours of sleep per night. Given the demands on their time — including homework, extracurricular activities and jobs — it is very difficult for students to get that extra time by going to sleep earlier. Thus, it makes the most sense to start school later.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that secondary school start times be 8:30 a.m. or later. The AASM said increased sleep fosters better student performance through optimal alertness in the classroom; reduced tardiness and absences; mental health and psychological well-being; and driving safety. AASM research shows that nearly 70 percent of teenagers get seven hours of sleep or less per night.

Board member Rick Ingram has advocated for later start times for years, citing research similar to the AASM’s that indicates increased sleep improves academic performance, attendance and graduation rates while reducing tardiness, teen vehicle accidents and sports injuries. Ingram wanted to push back start times to 9:30 or 10 a.m. and implement the later start this fall, but compromised with other board members on an extra 25 minutes.

In pushing for the 2019-20 school year, board president Shannon Kimball said the school district needed time to ensure the later schedule was implemented correctly.

The board’s decision was supported by a district survey that showed 69 percent of parents and 63 percent of staff supported making later start times a priority.

Board members expressed concerns that the later start times could conflict with parent work schedules and the schedules of high school students who provide after-school day care for younger siblings. They also worried that students will lose more class time to afternoon athletic events and that the later start times could affect student employment.

And because bus routes and schedules will have to be altered, the later start times for high school students are expected to increase transportation costs by about $100,000 per year.

But while such concerns warrant discussion, school decisions should be driven foremost by what’s best for students from an education standpoint. Given the significant research showing that increased sleep leads to better student performance, moving high school start times back is an experiment well worth undertaking.