DREXELL HILL, Pa. (AP) — In the hours before he heads to Upper Darby High School, senior Khalid Dulat has time to say prayers, help his mother or prepare for track practice.
It’s a welcome change from last year for him and thousands of students at the school, which shifted its start time by more than two hours, from a 7:30 a.m. to 9:45 a.m. start time. One goal of the change: to ease strain on students, who have been more visible than ever since the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’ll be honest, I’ve been a lot happier in the morning,” Dulat said. “I was more positive and I came to school more smiling than, you know, reluctantly getting out of bed and things like that at 7:30.”
The idea of starting school later, pushed by many over the years as a way to help teens get more sleep, is getting a new look as a way to address the mental health crisis affecting teenagers in the U.S.
For some schools, the pandemic has allowed experimentation to try out new schedules. Upper Darby, for example, originally considered later start times in 2019. It ended up finding a way to do it this year by using distance learning as a component of the school day.
As students first returned to full-time, many were dealing with mental health and behavioral issues, said Upper Darby Superintendent Daniel McGarry. Officials saw a breakdown in students respecting the authority of teachers in the classroom.
“We’ve had a lot of these things that we’ve come up against and we’re still working our way through them; we are in a much better place,” McGarry said. “I think our kids feel better. They are not 100% better.” But, he said, much of the social anxiety that students experience after being in an online school is gone.
During the pandemic, increasing numbers of high school students express persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, with girls and LGBTQ+ youth reporting the highest rates of poor mental health and suicide attempts. It doesn’t help that research shows middle and high school students aren’t getting enough sleep.
“These mental health challenges are already going to happen and then, with the lack of sleep, they’re much worse,” said Orpheus Buxton, director of the Collaborative Sleep, Health and Society Laboratory at Penn State University. “It’s the same with decision making, suicidal thoughts, those things.”
The reasons why high schools start so early—many of them start their day before 7:30 a.m.—are “lost in the sands of history”, said Buxton. But now he said “Everything is at stake in this: traffic light schemes, bus timetables and the work of adults.”
Nationally, at least nine states are considering legislation related to school start times, compared with four the previous year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. California in 2019 became the first and only state to dictate school start times.
Large school systems, including Denver, Philadelphia and Anchorage, Alaska, are considering later start times.
Innovation may be needed to create a new schedule.
At Upper Darby High, the school day technically still begins at 7:30 a.m., with students assigned coursework to be done remotely that ties into their lessons for the day. But they can use the early morning hours as they see fit – they can meet with teachers during office hours, sleep or finish other homework. Eventually, the work assigned for the early morning must be done, but when is up to the students.
“I think more sleep definitely helps,” Elise Olmsted, Jr. “I would be more irritable throughout the day, especially later because I have a lot of things to do after school. It’s just going to make it harder for me to get through the day.”
The school day still ends by 3pm
Fatima Afrani, a freshman, said that when she gets home, she usually relaxes, then helps her mother or does her homework.
“If I’m tired, I go to sleep, which wasn’t something I was able to do last year. Last year I just had to do my homework because there was no option to do it later.” she said. “And so I liked that if I’m tired, I can listen to my body and just let myself sleep.”
Principal Matthew Alloway said educators have noticed fewer students sleeping in class. The new schedule also allowed “children go to school for exactly what they need”, he said. About 400 of the school’s 4,250 students attend only through virtual learning, an option it offers to compete with online schools.
Critics say students have less time to study in the new schedule. The original 80-minute periods have been shortened, but Alloway said lectures have not always taken up the full 80 minutes.
“Sometimes it was 60 minutes of concentrated study time. But then there was time to write. There was time to read. I had time to watch a video,” he said.
Other challenges posed by the pandemic — such as teacher shortages — have also benefited from the schedule change, administrators said. Teachers can take care of themselves and their families in the morning. Administrators have more time to fill in for employees who call in sick.
Dulat, an Upper Darby senior, said even if the students don’t see the effects every day, there is a big positive impact.
“These are such small changes in our daily lives that we don’t notice them,” he added. “But they slowly start to add up and we actually see the difference in our own lives.”