Opinion: School Start Times Too Early


Photo by Arnav T.

Students arrive to school tired due to early start times, making learning difficult

Transitioning from elementary to middle school comes with a plethora of changes, but some of the most notable are the increased workload and a much earlier start time. Combined, these factors can significantly impede a healthy sleep schedule. So what’s the big deal here? Not only does a lack of sleep pose increased health risks, but it also affects learning and mental health, two things which should be of crucial importance for schools, and yet with school districts determining when kids wake up, they contribute to this problem.

Recognizing Our Problem

Longfellow Middle School begins at 7:30 a.m., and not many people love this. Waking up early, to put it simply, is awful.

Besides our personal issues with hearing our alarm clocks at such an early hour, almost every medical publication or doctor agrees that lack of sleep isn’t great for your health. For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends middle and high schools begin their day at 8:30; very few schools actually adhere to this suggestion.

In addition, it’s widely suggested by both the National Sleep Foundation and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine for teenagers to get between 8-10 hours of sleep. Longfellow itself starts an hour before the suggested time. Considering commute times and morning routines, it’s not unlikely the majority of a school population wakes up at 6:30 or earlier. To even get the median amount of recommended resting time, 9 hours, it would be necessary to fall asleep at 9:30, which is quite difficult to achieve.

With teenagers undergoing “a developmental stage of cognitive maturation,” they need quite a bit more sleep for both their physical growth and brain development, yet seem to get less or equal amounts compared to their grown counterparts.

Health Risks of Poor Sleep

Sleep deprivation can cause serious health issues for anyone, with most people seeing major changes in their well-being after just missing a few consistent hours of sleep. Missing the crucial hours of repair and growth can have minor and major side effects. Of these, the former, according to NCBI, include: a variety of somatic issues such as pain, weakness, fatigue, increased stress sensitivity, reduced quality of life, emotional distress, worsening mental health issues, and cognition problems. Wow, that’s a lot of problems. In fact, sleep deprivation can have more symptoms than some viruses or infections.

However, prolonged sleep deprivation is even more detrimental, causing life-altering symptoms. Not only will teenagers have both mental and physical growth problems with poor sleep schedules, but according to John Hopkins Medicine, sleep also aids in preventing depression and drug abuse. Another large impact is the role of sleep on memory and problem solving, which is severely impeded by a lack of sleep, according to UPenn Chronobiology and Sleep Institute. With so many possible risks and associated health issues, it’s surprising sleep is one of the least respected health factors; hardly anyone gives it proper attention, and that’s something that needs to be changed.

Academic Effects of Low Sleep

According to sleepfoundation.org, “Countless studies have shown that early school start times are associated with students getting less sleep, negatively affecting student academic performance. Students with less sleep have difficulty paying attention in class and are likely to have lower grades.”

Learning also becomes more difficult; according to UPenn’s Chronobiology institute, “…staying up all night to study is one of the worst things students can do for their grades. In October of 2019, two MIT professors found a correlation between sleep and test scores: The fewer students slept during the semester, the worse their scores.”

With that being said, studies have shown that sleep actually provides a large role in learning, memorizing, retaining, and recalling information. All of these are affected by sleep scheduling but are also all crucial abilities in order to be successful in class.

In addition to learning being harder when tired, students will likely also face irritability and fatigue with such a destructive sleep schedule, which can result in increased bullying, fighting, and depression.

Other Contributing Factors of Low Sleep Time

Besides school start times, the quality of sleep students get is impacted by several other factors. The largest of these factors is when students fall asleep, but this is quite a complicated thing to calculate. From after-school responsibilities to homework and studying, students have quite a bit to worry about, and these often lead to late nights of work.

Once you add in extracurricular activities, things start to get out of hand. For example, one student who reports doing Science Olympiad also says that they often get to sleep at 12:30 due to their profuse workload.

“Teens experience a natural shift in circadian rhythm,” says Laura Sterni, M.D. in a John Hopkins publication. With this being said, teens are more likely to not be able to fall asleep until 11:00 p.m.

Circadian Rhythm/Science Behind Sleep

It’s surprising how simple the science behind sleep scheduling can be, yet not many people know how much they could improve their health by properly scheduling their sleep. Naturally, your body wants to sleep in synchronization with something called a circadian rhythm.

Stemming from the Latin words “circa diem,” meaning “around a day.” your circadian rhythm is a natural 24-hour cycle used to optimize body functions, says sleepfoundation.org. You can imagine your circadian rhythm acting as a natural clock, and it’s quite important, as it tells your body to eat, controls your body temperature, and more. Evolutionarily, all types of organisms rely on this internal clock, and its most important job is its role in sleep cycles. With your circadian rhythm causing you to become tired at a fixed time, it determines when a healthy time to go to sleep and wake up is; disrupting it can cause cognitive and behavioral issues, including weakened memories.

Proposed Solutions and Why It’s Hard to Fix

One obvious solution to this problem is to push start times back, which should work in helping adolescents get more sleep but also comes with a myriad of other issues. The usual argument against pushing back start times for middle schoolers is scheduling for buses. Primary, middle, and high school students all rely on the same buses, so they must be able to stagger the different runs. I propose that high schools start earlier while making middle schools start later. Currently, McLean High School starts 40 minutes after Longfellow.

The National Sleep Foundation says that high school-aged teens (ages 14-17) need an hour less sleep on average than those who are ages 6-13. Specifically, high schoolers need 8-10 hours of sleep, while the younger students, including middle schoolers, need 9-11 hours.

It seems more logical to have middle school start later than high school.  Not only do they need more sleep, they wouldn’t have to jump from a 9:00 a.m. start time to a 7:30 a.m. one. With the health of our students on the line, we believe this change is not only a good idea but quite necessary.


Sleep deprivation is long-lasting and very hard to fix or recover from, and with a plethora of short and long-term consequences, the destruction of our youth’s health shouldn’t continue. Even though we might have to make drastic changes to fix this detrimental issue, this problem is of critical importance.  Sleep deprivation has too many negative effects, and middle school students are particularly susceptible to sleep issues. Science and students agree upon it: middle schools start too early for our own good.