To improve mental health, some schools start later

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For many students at Upper Darby High School, it’s a welcome shift from last year when the school pushed its start time back by more than two hours — from a 7:30 a.m. start time to 9:45 a.m

One goal for the change: to ease strains on students that were more visible than ever coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The idea of later school start times, pushed by many over the years as a way to help adolescents get more sleep, is getting a new look as a way to address the mental health crisis affecting teens across the U.S.

For some schools, the pandemic allowed experimentation to try new schedules. Upper Darby, for one, initially considered later start times in 2019. Ultimately, it found a way to do it this year by using distance learning as a component of the school day.

During the pandemic, soaring numbers of high school students expressed persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, with girls and LGBTQ+ youth reporting the highest levels of poor mental health and suicide attempts. It doesn’t help that research suggests middle and high school students aren’t getting enough sleep.

Nationally, at least nine states are considering legislation related to school start times, up from four the previous year, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures. California in 2019 became the first and only state to dictate school start times.

It’s playing out at the local level, too. Large school systems including Denver, Philadelphia and Anchorage, Alaska, have been looking into later start times.

At Upper Darby High, all students are assigned asynchronous work in the morning that ties into their lessons for the day. But, ultimately, they can use the early morning hours as they see fit — they can meet with teachers during their morning office hours, sleep in longer or finish homework from the night before. Eventually, the work from the early morning window will need to get done, but it’s up to the students when it does.

Some students rise early and complete their homework. Others sleep in. Some usher siblings out the door to school. Some log on for extra help during teacher office hours in the morning.

After school — which still ends by 3 p.m. — they go to work, clubs, sports. They can decide whether they’ll do their homework that night, or wake up earlier in the morning to finish it, or study for an upcoming test, or sleep.

Principal Matthew Alloway said the new schedule has allowed “kids to go to school for exactly what they need.”

Critics have argued students have less instruction time in the new schedule. The original 80-minute periods have been shortened, but Alloway said that it’s not as if lectures always took up the full 80 minutes.

“It was sometimes a 60-minute concentrated instructional time. But then there was time to write. There was time to read. There was time to view a video,” he said.

Other challenges wrought by the pandemic — teacher shortages, for one — have also benefitted from the schedule change. Teachers can also take care of themselves and their families in the morning.

Administrators have more time to replace staffers who call out sick.