Salt Lake City’s high schools may start class later — but not until 2021

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) West High students conclude their classes on Monday, Jan. 13, 2020.

The plans to push start times back at Salt Lake City’s three high schools are still on the table — but it won’t happen until the fall of 2021 at the earliest.

The district school board voted Tuesday night that this coming school year would be too soon to make such a change. So members decided 4-2 to set 2021 as a “soft launch date” for the hoped-for scheduling updates.

"This is a big topic,” said board member Kristi Swett, “and I’m glad we’re taking our time and being thoughtful and careful.”

For months, the school board has been studying starting classes later in the morning at its high schools — West, East and Highland — with the hope of giving teenagers more time to sleep. They currently start at 7:45 a.m.

Members have drafted five possible plans that range from 15 minutes, 30 minutes and an hour difference. And they’ve appointed a task force to further study the issue. That group had asked for some direction on the timing for a shift and will now be charged with making their recommendation with the 2021-2022 school year in mind.

“Sooner is just not going to happen,” added board member Michael Nemelka. “We can’t do anything this year. It’s not fair. Teachers need their schedules now.”

The task force is expected to make a formal suggestion sometime this summer. The board also voted to have that group try to put the new start time “at or around 8:45 a.m.," according to the motion, including at middle schools, if possible.

“A year and a half or so gives us a good opportunity for implementing that,” said Nate Salazar, the board’s vice president.

Only one other district in the state has changed its start times to later in the morning — Logan City School District in northern Utah — which adjusted them in 2017 so its high school would begin at 8:45 a.m., 30 minutes later than before.

The idea behind pushing the first bell back is to give teenagers more time to sleep. Most research shows that later start times can reduce sleep deprivation, making students less likely to experience anxiety and depression. Districts nationally that have implemented the delayed starts have also reported improved academic and athletic performance, according to one study from the University of Washington.

However, changing the time at the high schools in Salt Lake City School District will require changes, too, to the schedules for 33 elementary and middle schools because of busing routes. The district calls that a “ripple effect” of the proposal.

Currently, most elementary and middle schools start between 7:45 a.m. and 8:40 a.m.

So far, during a listening tour on the issue, most parents have spoken in support. But some have raised concerns about whether it would impact high school students participating in sports or just push homework later into the night. Additionally, families that fall in lower income brackets or are minorities were less likely to back the idea. Many cited their jobs and child care as the biggest hurdles.

On Tuesday night, the board also voted to add more student and teacher voices to the task force studying the issue.

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