The benefits — and challenges — of changing Ohio schools’ start times 

By: - February 19, 2020 1:00 am

School buses for Sandusky City Schools. Photo from Sandusky City Schools website.

There are consequences to being athletic in the largest school district in Ohio.

The Switzerland of Ohio Local School District, located in Southeast Ohio’s Monroe, Belmont and Noble counties, covers 546 square miles almost half the size of Rhode Island. 

On a Tuesday earlier this season, the Monroe Central High School Seminoles got out of school at 3:15 p.m. and headed north for a basketball game. It’s an hour and 10 minute drive to Buckeye Local High School up Route 7, which follows the Ohio River.

The junior varsity team played first at 6 p.m. and the varsity game followed. Monroe Central made the trip worth it by recording a 62-46 victory. Then it was another 70 minute drive back to school. 

Already late into the evening, students then had to make their way home, eat dinner and try to get through their school work. The Switzerland district handbook estimates that high school students have an average of an hour to 75 minutes of homework to complete per evening.

Schedules like this make health experts and school officials worry about adolescents suffering from sleep deprivation. After a long day, they’re up early in the morning to start all over again.

Monroe Central students do have one advantage over many other teens in Ohio, however: their school day begins at 8:30 a.m. 

What might an extra hour of sleep do for Ohio’s high school students?

For those who drive, it could mean being rested enough to safely get to school. For others, preventing sleepiness could mean reducing their likeliness to suffer from anxiety and depression. 

They may even be more likely to graduate. 

Those are the findings of the largest pediatrics association in the United States, which for years has recommended that the country’s schools push back their start times. 

A Cleveland lawmaker is now pushing for that change. Ohio Sen. Sandra Williams, a Democrat, has introduced Senate Bill 218, which would prohibit any school in Ohio from starting its day earlier than 8:30 a.m. 

State Sen. Sandra Williams, D-Cleveland.

The rule, if signed into law, would apply to all Ohio school districts, community schools, STEM schools and college-prep boarding schools.

California approved a similar law last fall, with the earliest start time set at 8 a.m. The public school district in Cincinnati is instituting later start times after a survey of local parents and educators expressed support for the idea. While the benefits of change are numerous, there are just as many objections to consider, from busing to activity schedules. 

Health groups: teens are sleep deprived 

It could be homework keeping an older student awake. Maybe it’s a school project, a job, a practice or even their cell phone. 

Whatever it is, many teenagers suffer from sleep deprivation, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has reported. 

One issue is that an adolescent’s sleep cycle shifts to being several hours later after hitting puberty, according to the AAP. Their natural inclination to stay up later, when combined with an early start time to the following day, can be a problematic mixture. 

In first announcing support for pushing back school times in 2014, AAP cited polling statistics that found that nearly 9-in-10 high school students do not get the recommended 8.5-9.5 hours of sleep on school nights.

A student rising at 6 a.m. would have to go to bed at 9:30 p.m. to hit the 8.5 hour mark. Besides being impractical (they may have a job or participate in an evening extra-curricular activity), the student’s sleep cycle likely makes this early bedtime a near impossibility. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is also on the later start times bandwagon. The CDC encourages parents to set regular bedtimes for kids and consider enacting a “media curfew” for video games and cell phones to encourage good sleep habits. 

The issues with pushing back start times

The topic of school times is a controversial ripple effect changing the time has many consequences to the families involved. 

Many school districts currently stagger their buildings’ start times by grades. As one notable example, Columbus City Schools has a districtwide start time of 7:30 a.m. for middle and high schools, and 9 a.m. for elementary schools. 

Williams said one main reason for this is because of busing; drivers can pick up older students first, drop them off to high school, then make a second round for younger students attending at a later time.

State Sen. Andrew Brenner, R-Powell, noted there may be districts that take issue with the state removing their “local control” to set their own school hours. 

“I actually don’t disagree with your bill,” Brenner said at its first Education Committee hearing last week. How though, he asked Williams, would she respond to critics from any of the hundreds of school districts throughout the state?

There are two solutions to this, Williams suggested. Districts could choose to merely shift their schedules back, starting the high schools at 8:30 a.m. and the elementaries later. Or, they could keep the times equal and drop students off at a building early. She noted her bill only requires that classes start at a given time, but does not specify when students can arrive at the building. 

Switzerland of Ohio already does this. Associate Supt. Cyndi Brill said the district’s bus schedule drops children off in waves, with some arriving to school early and others closer to the actual start times. The earliest time a student gets on a bus is around 7 a.m., Brill said — much later than at other large school districts.

All have something to look forward to when they arrive.

“Breakfast is ready for them in the morning,” Brill said, adding this is a way to ensure they have a healthy meal and are focused for their first classes.

There are still many things to be worked out or considered. Sen. Louis Blessing, R-Colerain Twp., wondered how parents with early work schedules would be able navigate a later start time for their kids. 

State Sen. Stephen Huffman, R-Tipp City, believes later school times will negatively affect students who work on farms.

Sen. Steve Huffman, R-Tipp City, worried about effects the bill might have on rural students who work on local farms. 

“If you push (school) back an hour, they can’t get to work,” he said. They can’t get the beans in, they can’t get the corn in and there’s only so much daylight in the fall.”

Huffman also suggested the early start times teach students “life skills” of waking up and getting somewhere on time. 

Sen. William Coley, R-Liberty Twp., also mentioned the perspective of rural students.

“This is why I never like omnipotent, we-know-everything-in-Columbus bills,” he said. “In rural Ohio, 8:30 in the morning, they’re starting to think about lunch because they’ve been up doing stuff early in the day.”

Asked by Sen. Theresa Gavarone, R-Bowling Green, about the effects on sports and activity schedules, Williams said her goal would be to work with legislators on crafting a policy that would make school times the most effective for Ohio students.

The challenges can be solved, Williams said, pointing to school districts who have already shifted to later start times.

“I think the system can be worked out,” Williams said. “From the school districts who have accepted or adopted an 8:30 start time they have not seen any problems based on the calls that my staff has made to those school districts.”

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Tyler Buchanan
Tyler Buchanan

Tyler Buchanan is an award-winning journalist who has covered Ohio politics and government for the past decade. A Bellevue native and graduate of Bowling Green State University, he most recently spent 6 1/2 years as a reporter and editor of The Athens Messenger and Vinton-Jackson Courier newspapers. He is a member of the BG News Alumni Society Board and was a 2019 fellow in the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism.