Why should California dictate a later start of school day?

It appears that the California Legislature was busy during the waning days of the 2019 legislative year. The Legislature sent Gov. Gavin Newsom a total of 1,042 bills this year. More than 70 percent of these bills landed on Newsom’s desk when lawmakers adjourned last month. One wonders what lawmakers did the other 11 months.
When the legal deadline to act had ended, Newsom had largely given the legislators what they wanted, which is tradition set by his long-serving predecessor, Jerry Brown. Our state legislators confuse creating bills with solving problems and progress. More bills simply equate to more bureaucracy and generally more taxes for all of us.
One of the last bills signed by Newson, on Oct. 19, was Senate Bill 328. This bill adds Section 46148 to the Education Code relating to school start times for pupil attendance. The bill requires that by July 1, 2022, the school day for middle schools and high schools — including charter schools — begins no earlier than 8 a.m. and 8:30 a.m., respectively. The bill also requires that school districts post specific information on its internet website concerning research on the impact of sleep deprivation affecting adolescents. It seems students have voiced about not getting enough sleep.
Nobody should argue against children getting adequate sleep. The real question should be why aren’t they? It’s puzzling. Available statistics show that among middle school students, 57.8 percent report insufficient sleep with nearly 12 percent reporting sleeping fewer than six hours a night. It’s even worse for high school students, where 72.7 percent reported insufficient sleep with about 20 percent claiming to sleep fewer than six hours a night. Really, less than six hours a night? That sounds a bit hard to believe. Why not go to bed earlier?
Well, science argues that going to bed earlier is not the answer. Why? Because science says that when young people begin puberty, their biological clocks shift. So, they typically become sleepy later (as late as 11 p.m.) so they need to sleep later to get the recommended 8-10 hours of sleep each night. That all sounds believable, but what is disrupting children from getting the recommended sleep they require? Something seems to be missing from this scientific explanation.
One source of complaint is too much homework. It may be surprising to learn that elementary school children now are getting homework. The amount of homework for students varies from 10-20 minutes for first- and second-graders and progresses up to 120 minutes for 12th graders and sometimes more. But even that amount of homework doesn’t seem too far out of range.
If students get out of school between 3-3:30 p.m., why can’t they go home and complete their homework before dinner time? Chances are, most students delay homework until near bedtime. Yet they probably find plenty of time for “texting” and playing video games. Maybe lack of time management is the beginning of the problem.
Sports is another distraction that normally requires time after school. No denying that sports activities are a huge priority in this country. Many students and their parents live around participation in sports or related activities. A later end of the school day would extend the quit time for these activities which normally begin after the regular school day. A later quit time may benefit some parents and not others.
Another potential cause for sleepy kids at school is the impact of “zero period” classes. Zero period classes are offered by many high schools, junior high and middle schools. Classes offered during zero period usually fall into three categories: elective extracurricular classes (e.g. music, art); advanced placement courses offering college-level curricula (e.g. physics); and, remedial classes. Some classes only are offered as zero period classes. Zero period classes meet before the start of the regular school day and begin about an hour before first period, often at 7 a.m. but sometimes as early as 6:30 a.m.
If the scientific evidence is correct that many teens don’t get adequate sleep, why would schools have zero period classes starting that early? Are teens taking zero period classes more motivated to rise wearily or are they being bullied to get up early?
Lest we forget, the reason schools began to start earlier was to accommodate parent work schedules. Most schools started later until the 1970s and 1980s. The earlier start time became necessary to more closely align with parents’ work schedules. This became increasingly important as more women entered the workforce in the latter part of the 20th century. Earlier start times were desired to accommodate working parents who needed to have a safe place for their children after both parents left for work. Has the need for this earlier start time diminished, or is it being ignored?
There clearly is something missing from the explanation of why adolescents report not getting enough sleep. Are parents even aware what time their children begin homework or go to be to sleep versus lying awake “texting,” watching TV or playing video games? Supposedly, we have scientific studies that prove children need more sleep, but who sponsored those studies? Are there hidden agendas?
Maybe the answer that explains why student don’t get enough sleep is much simpler. If children “dawdle” away time after school instead of attacking homework, time management could be part of the problem. If parents let their children text, watch TV and play video games in their room instead of completing homework, that could be part of the problem.
And what about the lack of physical activity? Many kids do not get enough rigorous physical activity to keep them healthy and alert. It is a proven fact that physical activity, instead of sitting and resting will cut your risk of feeling tired nearly in half. Physical activity gives kids more energy throughout the day and helps them to stay focused.
Maybe the key to reducing feeling of sleep deprivation is as simple as monitoring use of technology, managing how children use their free time, and requiring more physical activity. Either way, why not let local school districts and parents manage their own school hours and the actions of their children? It hardly seems necessary to have the California Legislature pass laws mandating something that should and could be managed locally by parents and school districts.
We need to be concerned about young people who report being sleep-deprived, but we must ensure that we have identified the true causes for this manifestation and not allow unnecessary governmental interference into our lives.
Ed Hansen is a Navy Vietnam veteran and graduate of Reedley College and California State University. He retired from the Treasury Department with 35 years of service. He’s a published author on Amazon and winner of “Freedom Foundation at Valley Forge Award” for writing. He enjoys personal writing of poetry and short stories, reading nonfiction material, and gold prospecting as a hobby.