Emery: Delayed Starts Prioritize the Needs of Some Students Over Others


West High School in Salt Lake City. In the minority-majority Salt Lake City School District, there are concerns about later start times. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

By Nate Emery


This Utah State Legislative Session, State Representative Suzanne Harrison has introduced a bill that encourages school districts and charter schools to consider delaying high school start times. The bill cites the physical and mental health of students and improved educational outcomes as reasons to delay school starts until after 8:30. The Salt Lake City School Board has taken steps to examine the costs and benefits of starting later, including a listening tour earlier this year.

The goal of the listening tour was to create a space for students, parents, teachers and faculty to present their concerns before the school board. Based on their input, delayed starts are a stopgap solution to overarching problems. While the benefits of delayed starts are touted by school districts and the legislature, they are not worth the massive strain they would put on working families.

Studies have shown that there are advantages to school starting later in the morning. Starting school later than 8:30 a.m. may decrease tardiness and produce modest improvements to graduation rates. Other studies show that delayed starts decrease daytime sleepiness, allowing students to pay attention and learn more effectively. High school students who do not get enough sleep run a higher risk of obesity, hypertension and cardiovascular disease. Harrison’s bill highlights the fact that teenagers get their best sleep between 11 p.m. and 8 a.m., and that over 75% of students get less than eight hours of sleep on a typical night.

However, starting school later does not guarantee that students get more sleep. Starting school later will result in a later end time, pushing back extracurricular activities and homework that students have to do after school. A 2014 study found that high school teachers assign an average of three-and-a-half hours of homework per week, meaning that students taking five classes will have roughly 17.5 hours of homework per week. Delaying school start times without reducing the homework load will cause student to stay up later to finish their assignments, nullifying the benefit of starting later in the first place.

During a Salt Lake City School Board meeting on Jan. 21, several members of the board highlighted the shortcomings of its listening tour. Kristi Swett emphasized that while Salt Lake City is a minority-majority school district, few people of color were heard from. The meeting was also inaccessible to lower-income individuals with rigid work schedules. Yet these are exactly the type of families most challenged by delayed starts.

Nate Salazar, another board member, argued that working families often already have difficulty balancing competing schedules, pointing out that “our low-income and Hispanic families have the biggest barriers when it comes to making [delayed starts] a reality for our district and our community.” While state legislators claim to care about the youth, enacting this massive change without addressing — or even hearing — the concerns of marginalized communities shows that the needs of some children matter more than others.

I recently spoke to Sierra Trinchet, a teacher at Northwest Middle School in Rose Park, about the downsides of delayed starts. She highlighted alternative approaches the state could take to improve student health and academic success instead. She suggested the legislature could increase “funding to schools so we can reduce class sizes, improve training for teachers … and [make] school breakfasts and lunches healthier, more filling and actually free.”

Smaller classes and better-trained teachers are consistently linked to improved outcomes for students, with uncrowded classrooms allowing teachers to cater their lessons to individual learning styles. What might not be as obvious is the benefits that more nutritional lunches have on academic performances. A 2018 study found that schools partnered with nutritious lunch providers have higher average scores on end-of-year tests than schools that are not. Students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches see even greater benefits from the nutritious lunches.

While the desire to do more for Utah students is noble, the state would do better to invest more in education than fight for delayed starts. Academic success and student health are tied to smaller classes, teacher training and nutritious lunches. The debate has been centered on the health of students, but there hasn’t been enough opportunity for working families to express valid criticisms of the proposal. Harrison’s bill is well-meaning in theory, but in practice, it would do little to improve the health of Utah’s most vulnerable students.


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