We’ve all seen children, often very young children, hunched over from heavy book backpacks, shuffling along sidewalks just an hour or two after sunrise on their way to school.
They look like zombies, and that’s because California’s public schools often begin their classes so early in the morning that many of them have had much less sleep than their still-growing bodies demand.
Sleep deprivation among children and adolescents is a public health calamity, as medical and scientific authorities have repeatedly warned.
A state legislative staff report last year highlighted those warnings this way: “The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association (AMA) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are among the organizations and experts that have reported on the harm being done to the physical and emotional health of adolescents due to the sleep deprivation caused by such developmentally-misaligned school hours.
“Similarly, researchers report that academic success and school attendance is greatly improved by later starting school days. The recommendation made the American Academy of Pediatrics – and supported by the AMA, CDC, and others – states that no middle or high school should begin before 8:30 a.m. Other organizations add that no elementary school should begin before 8 a.m.”
The report was on Senate Bill 328, which would have directed school districts, with few exceptions, not to start middle and high school classes before 8:30.
The unanimous medical support for later school start times helped the bill’s author, Sen. Anthony Portantino, a Democrat from La Canada Flintridge, overcome opposition from powerful groups, including the California Teachers Association and the California School Boards Association.
Why the opposition? Early classes are more convenient for teachers, allowing them to go home and tend to their own families’ needs. Many parents also like early start times because they can get their kids hustled off to school in time for adults to get to their own jobs.
But what’s convenient for adults is damaging to their children, and their usual argument – that kids should just go to bed earlier – conflicts with scientific evidence that adolescents’ circadian rhythms aren’t geared to earlier bedtimes.
The result is that kids who need at least eight hours of sleep each night are getting six or even fewer and their sleep-deprived brains aren’t ready to learn early in the morning.
Senate Bill 328 made it all the way to then-Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk last year, only to be vetoed.
“This is a one-size-fits-all approach that’s opposed by teachers and school boards,” Brown said in his veto message. “Several schools have already moved to later start times. Others prefer beginning the school day earlier. These are the types of decisions best handled in the local community.”
It was a strange comment from someone who regularly castigated climate change skeptics for ignoring scientific evidence. But Brown was never a paragon of rhetorical consistency.
Portantino has reintroduced his bill this year with the same number, SB 328. It faces its first hearing this week in the Senate Education Committee and indications are that its opponents, particularly the California Teachers Association, are taking no chances that Brown’s successor, Gavin Newsom, would sign the measure.
They want to strangle it quickly and are putting pressure on senators who voted for SB 328 last year, particularly three Democratic members of the Education Committee, to reverse themselves.
One of them is the committee chairwoman, Connie Leyva.