Seriously, how is starting school at 8 AM still a thing?

ZzzZzz. Image credits: MC Quinn.

For years, researchers have argued that teens suffer from chronic sleep deprivation due to school starting at 8 AM. The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that middle and high schools start no earlier than 8:30 AM to give students the amount of sleep they need. Most sleep experts echo similar feelings, but policy makers argue that shifting school start times would simply be too expensive, mostly due to transportation costs, including rescheduling bus routes. Well, not only is that response cynical, it’s also wrong. A new report found that pushing start times to 8:30 AM would improve student performance, reduce drop-out rates, and save the US government up to $9 billion a year.

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“The significant economic benefits from simply delaying school start times to 8.30 a.m. would be felt in a matter of years, making this a win-win, both in terms of benefiting the public health of adolescents and doing so in a cost-effective manner,” study co-author Wendy Troxel said in a press release.

The study was carried out by RAND, an American nonprofit global policy think tank. In an accompanying article written for Slate, Drexler explains that over a decade, a nationwide move to 8:30 AM could contribute $83 billion to the U.S. economy. Even after two years, the savings would amount to $8.6 billion, which would already offset the initial costs.

In order to reach this conclusion, they developed a complex macro economic model analyzing the benefit-cost projections of the change, as well as the nationwide health impact on students and teachers. Here are the main findings of the study:

  • Moving the start time from 8 AM to 8:30 AM would have a significant positive health impact on the target population;
  • There would be costs associated with this shift, but they would be offset after only two years;
  • After a decade, savings would amount to $83 billion. After 15 years, savings would grow to $140 billion, with an average figure of $9.3 billion / year;
  • Car accidents associated with school transportation would likely decrease, as the drivers would be less tired themselves;
  • Just one hour of extra sleep increases high school graduation rates by 13.3 percent, and a later time would lead to students sleeping more.
  • Real savings would certainly be even higher, as the study didn’t even consider effects from insufficient sleep, such as higher suicide rates, increased obesity, and mental health issues — all of which are costly, but difficult to quantify precisely.

Needless to say, lack of sleep in teenagers is a major problem. In the short and medium term, it correlated with poor physical and mental health, concentration problems, as well as depression and suicidal thoughts. In the long run, lack of sleep often leads to memory and cognitive impairments and a reduced quality of life.

So if it’s better for the kids, it saves money and potentially even lives… why aren’t we doing it already?