Maintaining an adequate sleep schedule has long been considered an essential personal health component for people of all ages. A relatively new idea, however, is that delaying high school start times – by upwards of an hour in some cases – gives teenagers the opportunity to log more shut-eye and aligns more effectively with the biological changes going on inside their bodies. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, children ages 13 to 18 years need eight to 10 hours of sleep each night and are not ready for bed until later based on alterations to their circadian rhythm – the internal process that regulates sleep-wake cycle.
While adjusting high school start times seems to make sense in theory, one aspect that appears unaccounted for is the effect on athletics and activities. Postponing the school day even one hour imposes various strains on administrators, coaches, parents and students alike.
Some existing studies have given a positive outlook to later start times. Increased final grades, decreased tardiness and absenteeism and a reduction in achievement gap relative to socioeconomic background are all benefits that have surfaced in certain instances. However, there remains one sizable caveat for success: students must uphold their end by hitting the hay on time.
Bruce Whitesides, who is in his sixth year with later high school start times as district athletic director of the Columbia (Missouri) Public Schools, believes this to be one of the major pitfalls for the three high schools under his leadership.
“There are probably six or seven counselors at each school and every one of them says, ‘they’re not getting any extra sleep, they’re just staying up two hours later,’” he said.
Whitesides’ high schools are in session from 9:05 a.m. to 4:05 p.m. during the week while the six middle schools in the district go from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., presenting parents with considerable dilemmas when coordinating transportation, meals and general family bonding time.
“The kids aren’t really able to get home to spend time with their families,” he said. “Meals have to be eaten in shifts because they never get to have dinner together, and parents barely even get to see their high school kids unless they actually go to the game or practice they have that day. And that takes time away from any younger siblings.”
Scheduling road games is another major issue. All three Columbia high schools are among the top two enrollment classifications in the Missouri State High School Activities Association and must travel significant distances to compete against comparable schools. Consequently, several hours in transit results in both early dismissal from school and a late arrival when returning home.
“All the kids started missing class time – especially in the fall – and that becomes problematic,” said Whitesides. “St. Louis, Kansas City, Springfield – wherever – it’s not an easy trip to get kids there. And if you are doing a trip like that in the middle of the week, it’s extremely tough to get kids back at a decent time.”
One of those common destinations for Columbia – Springfield – is beginning to explore switching to a later start time. Josh Scott, Springfield Public Schools district athletic director, said that with his teams having made several trips to Columbia, he has witnessed only marginal side effects derived from the issue, but has heard rumblings from his coaches, nonetheless.
“I think the concern is always ‘what time do we get home?’” said Scott. “Getting home an hour later doesn’t sound like that big of a deal, but when you’re traveling the distances we travel just for a conference game, that can be a big impact on kids.”
In fact, the issue became so big for some former opponents that they stopped putting Columbia schools on their schedules.
“We did have to work with some schools from St. Louis and Kansas City that didn’t want to come and play us because we would have to start our games at around 5:00. They’re used to playing at 4:00, so they didn’t want to schedule us because they just didn’t want to get home so late. You kind of get a feel for who you can schedule and who you can’t because some of them will dig their heels in.” Steve Amaro, an assistant principal, athletic director, teacher and tennis coach at Freedom High School in Oakley, California, foresees similar problems arising beginning in 2022, when California will become the first state to mandate a high school start time of 8:30 a.m. or later across the board.
“Maybe you’re not looking for schools that are three hours away anymore,” said Amaro. “Maybe it can only be ones that are an hour away now; maybe your nonleague schedules aren’t as packed.”
As one might expect, Whitesides listed students’ missed class time as the top parental complaint, a problem for which Amaro has already started to explore solutions.
“One of the things we’ve thrown around as an idea is putting the athletes into elective courses at the end of the day,” Amaro said. “If you’ve already recognized your athletes as sophomores, juniors and seniors, maybe they could have a physical education course or elective at the end of the day to where they aren’t missing as many core minutes.”
Outdoor sports without lighted facilities, such as Amaro’s tennis team at Freedom and Whitesides’ softball and golf programs, stand even more to lose – namely, daylight.
“If we go to St. Louis or Kansas City, there are a number of high schools that don’t have lights for softball,” said Whitesides. “So those games are dictated by how much daylight there is by that point in the season. There’s not much daylight for boys golf either. It creates some challenges when you start in late February and don’t get out of school until 4:05.”
Troubleshooting limited facility spaces and cramped practices schedules requires a fair amount of brainstorming as well.
For instance, all three Columbia high schools have freshmen, junior varsity (JV) and varsity football programs and must also share their respective fields with teams from the six middle schools. Thankfully, Whitesides, a 20-year veteran of athletic administration, is up to the challenge of finding time for all of them to be on the gridiron.
“We try to play like a doubleheader on Monday with freshmen and JV, but other schools don’t have freshmen available so it’s a combination kind of deal. Maybe you get two quarters of freshmen playing each other after the JVs play. Then, the middle schoolers get their time on Thursday nights.”
“That’s always an issue with how many gyms or fields you have and how late practices go and who should go late, and so forth,” said Lisa Myran-Schutte, athletic/activities director at Pine Island (Minnesota) High School, which currently features a traditional start time. “So now, instead of having practices going even later, do we have them go early? And then that kind of defeats the purpose of the whole idea to move back.”
As Myran-Schutte mentions, taking advantage of the expanded early-morning window is a tempting, yet somewhat contradictory practice option.
“We see that in some schools already,” said Amaro. “We didn’t do it this year, but I know there have been previous years where we’ve had practices from 6:00 to 8:00 in the morning, and they’ve worked. I think we’ll see more of it, but I think it will somewhat depend on whether the coach is an on-campus or off-campus coach.”
Whitesides said the marching bands most commonly utilize the available time before school rather than athletic programs. However, if those band members also play a sport that practices after school, it can create a very long day, which has drawn the ire of parents.
“This issue can become very muddled for parents, especially those who have kids in the band,” said Whitesides. “They want their kids to participate, but they don’t want them to be out 12 hours a day.”
Cutting down practice times from the traditional two hours to an hour and a half is another potential solution, though presenting the idea to certain coaches could require some finesse.
“It’s a matter of convincing the coaches that if we’re going to cut, our practice plans need to be well planned out and not have much dead time to them,” said Amaro. “So, if you say it’s going to be an hour and a half, it better be a worthy hour and a half.”
“I don’t know that the response would be as accepting, especially from the more veteran coaches,” Myran-Schutte said. “You might face – ‘well, I’ve always had a two-hour practice’ – depending on how they’re set in their ways.”
While he stated he is not a supporter of late start times, Whitesides pointed to communication and the quality of his coaches as the reasons things run smoothly in Columbia.
“There is a lot of communication going on with everyone making sure things align for scheduling and the like,” he said. “Our coaches are pretty well-versed with this and we’re extremely lucky to have some really great coaches who do the right things. Our kids definitely prosper from it.”
Nate Perry is coordinator of media relations at the National Federation of State High School Associations.