Salt Lake City is going to start classes an hour later so high schoolers can sleep in

The district’s new schedule will start in the fall.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jane Erickson hangs a welcome back banner with help from Lavell and Olivia Manavahe as students return to Highland High School in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021. Starting next fall, the start time for the high school will be pushed back an hour to let students sleep in longer.

Salt Lake City high schoolers can plan on hitting “snooze” a few extra times in the morning starting this fall.

When the new academic year begins in August, all three traditional high schools in the Salt Lake City School District — East, West and Highland — will push their start times back by an hour. And district officials say their hope is that students take advantage of the new schedule to get a little more sleep.

“That’s a pretty significant gain, so I’m happy with that,” said Arundhati Oommen, a junior at West High and a student member of the district’s board of education.

After more than a year of studying the issue, the board voted unanimously Tuesday night to finally move forward with the new late-start model. Classes at the high schools, as well as the nontraditional Horizonte Instruction and Training Center, will start at 8:45 a.m. And the school day will end a bit later, at 3 p.m., to make up the difference.

Currently — even with many taking online classes during the pandemic — the high schools in the capital district start at 7:45 a.m. The district also believes more students will return in-person in the fall, as vaccines are more available.

With the landmark change, though, Salt Lake City now becomes the first in the county to start school later, a move that is taking hold across the nation and is strongly recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

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. Jordan School District has an online program where some high schoolers can come to class at 9 a.m.; but it’s optional.

Most every other school in the state starts before 8 a.m.

Salt Lake City’s school board President Melissa Ford said the move was a balancing act. The district wanted to change the start time enough to make a difference in sleep for high school students. But it didn’t want to push the time that classes ended too far into the evening and disrupt sports or after-school jobs or have kids doing homework at late hours.

It considered changes ranging from 15 minutes, 30 minutes and an hour difference from the time the first bell rings. And it conducted a listening tour where parents could weigh in. Most agreed with the board that a later start was better.

One mom had joked that it has been “sheer hell” trying to get her sleepy twin boys at West High out of bed at 6 a.m. each day. A dad pointed to his 15-year-old daughter, saying he thinks she’d do better in geography if she was not trying to understand the complexity of international borders so early in the morning.

Another mom said her teenager has anxiety and believes getting more rest would “make a big difference” for her mental health.

Most research shows that later start times can reduce sleep deprivation in high school students, making them less likely to experience anxiety and depression. Those nationally that have implemented the delayed starts have also reported improved academic and athletic performance, according to one often cited study from the University of Washington.

California passed a law in 2019 requiring that its high schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. And after Seattle School District in Washington pushed back its start time by 55 minutes, it found by studying student sleep patterns that kids were getting more sleep and there was a 4.5% increase in grades. Punctuality and attendance also increased.

Another study, which came out of Utah’s Brigham Young University this week, found that teens have been getting more sleep during the pandemic, with many classes across the country remaining online. Most Salt Lake City high schoolers only recently returned to the classroom in person this spring after starting the academic year entirely virtual (the only district in Utah to do so).

The research showed that while many students haven’t enjoyed distance learning, they’ve benefitted from being able to wake up a little later — just in time to log on, without having to run out early to catch a bus and get to school on time. More have gotten closer to the 10 hours of sleep they need.

Teens, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, need more sleep than kids under age 10 because of how their brains are developing.

And changing the time at the high schools in 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 some time between 7:45 a.m. and 8:40 a.m.

With the plan, all middle schools would be moved to 8 a.m. starts, ending at 2:15 p.m. And elementary schools would be assigned a start time at either 8 a.m. or 8:45 a.m., ending at 2:15 p.m. or 3 p.m. Those have not all been determined yet.

Board member Jenny Sika, who represents many west side schools in Salt Lake City, said she has some concern about elementary students getting out far earlier than high school students. Many families where both parents work, she noted, rely on their high school kids to pick up their younger siblings after school. She worries it could create a long wait time for those youngest students.

“In our community, this is an issue,” she said.

Currently, to address that, some elementary schools in the district already extend their days out to 4 p.m. so staff are there to supervise kids who might need it. Rebecca Pittam, the interim executive director of school leadership, said that could continue next year, as well, with the new schedules at any school that wants to do so.

The board has previously commissioned Y2 Analytics, a Utah-based market research firm, to study the idea of changing school start times. Most parents — 80% — supported the idea.

But families that fall in lower income brackets or are from communities of color were less likely to back the idea. Sika said she hopes that the approved plan is a good compromise and can work for everyone in the district.

There has also been some concern that high schoolers might stay up later to get homework done if they’re getting out of school later. But research has not shown that to be the case. In Seattle schools, kids typically went to bed at the same time as before the schedules changed. And they were able to get more sleep in the morning.

Ronnie Stroud, who is 15 and a junior at West High, has previously told The Salt Lake Tribune that she likes the plans. She usually falls asleep at 11 p.m. and said it’s difficult to wake up at 6 a.m. to get ready for class.

“It’s hard to wake your brain up,” she said. “I’m usually late to school and miss out on the first few minutes of classes.”

West High has already tested late-starts on Mondays with school beginning at 9:30 a.m. Stroud said that has made a noticeable difference with her attention and success.

Under the new late-start plan, those 9:30 a.m. Mondays will be dropped. Every weekday will start at 8:45 a.m. and Fridays will be an early-out day, said Jeremy Chatterton, the principal of Highland High, who chaired the committee looking into late-start in the district.

“I think this makes the most sense for our schools,” he added.

The district’s board of education said that with pushing back the start times at high schools, it plans to add an “accountability measure” to make sure it’s beneficial. It will look at whether grades improved and survey students on their mental health after a year of pressing “snooze.”