Five years ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a landmark report recommending that middle and high schools start class no earlier than 8:30 a.m. to allow students to get healthy sleep. It said starting the school day too early is contributing to 87% of America’s high-school students being chronically sleep-deprived, undermining their health and their ability to learn.
It was soon joined by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Medical Association and just about every other credible medical science organization in calling for schools to start later. The CDC found that 93% of high schools and 83% of middle schools start before 8:30 a.m.
The problem, according to the nation’s doctors specializing in childhood health, is that teenagers need 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep a night — but their biological rhythms make it difficult for them to fall asleep before 11 p.m. Starting school later would improve teenagers’ mental and physical health and their performance in school.
Additional studies have confirmed the science and found many other reasons to address this problem. Last year, the AAA Foundation estimated that more than a quarter of drowsy-driving-related car crashes involve drivers 16 to 19 years old. A Brookings Institution report found a significant increase in test scores with later middle and high school start times.
New Jersey reacted quickly, but then slowed to a crawl on the issue.
Two months after the breakthrough pediatric report in 2014, state Sen. Richard Codey introduced legislation to require the state Department of Education to study the potential benefits of starting the school day later. The Essex County Democrat also wanted to encourage schools to voluntarily test later start times as a pilot program.
A year later, the state authorized a feasibility study of the benefits of starting school later. When the Study Group on Later Start Times finally reported in 2017, it merely recommended later start times — avoiding even taking a position on a pilot program.
Now, another two years later and five since Codey’s proposal, the Legislature has passed and Gov. Phil Murphy has signed into law a bill establishing a four-year pilot program … to study the impact of implementing later start times across New Jersey high schools. Five schools will be chosen among those applying for the program, with at least one each from the northern, southern and central regions of the state.
So after five years the state is back to Codey’s proposal, which has been turned in to a four-year excuse to do nothing.
School districts needn’t and shouldn’t wait for the state’s help or direction. They can do what’s best for their students now by joining the 15 percent of New Jersey middle and high schools that already start their day at 8:30 a.m. or later.
One is the Dennis Township grade school system, which changed schedules in 2014 so that all students start at 8:30 a.m. Afterward, the superintendent said the change had reduced absenteeism and lateness, and teachers reported students were more alert and ready to learn.
At the rate New Jersey is going, it will be one of the last states to act according to the overwhelming medical science on scheduling schools for the benefit of their students.