Utah lawmakers express enthusiasm for later high school start times

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) The Salt Lake City Board of Education kicked off a listening tour Jan. 13, 2020 at Bryant Middle School to hear from students and parents about the possibility of implementing later school start times for the Salt Lake City school district high schools.

A resolution encouraging Utah’s local officials to consider later high school start times earned unanimous support from a legislative committee Monday following a hearing full of drowsy teenager anecdotes.

“Having a son that’s about as easy to kick start as a [Caterpillar] diesel, I can say with no uncertainty that a later start time would be more effective,” said Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, before voting in favor of the nonbinding position statement.

During the hearing, the resolution’s sponsor, Rep. Suzanne Harrison, also outlined serious and research-backed reasons for pushing back bell times for teenagers, whose circadian rhythms are different from those of children and adults. While adults tend to start winding down around 9 p.m., she testified, the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin is released about two hours later in teenagers — which is why their best rest happens between 11 p.m. and 8 a.m.

Forcing teens to rise before they’re fully rested can impact their ability to drive safely, their academic performance and even their mental health, she argued.

“In a state with one of the highest rates of youth suicide in the nation — and it is, in fact, the number one killer of kids ages 10 to 17 — I think this is an important public policy issue to consider in terms of helping our kids be healthier and even save lives,” Harrison, D-Draper, a physician, argued before the House Health and Human Services Committee.

Delaying start times has yielded improvements in academic performance in some school districts and has been linked to decreases in teen substance abuse, she added. And a host of medical organizations have spoken up to support later start times: The American Academy of Pediatrics and American Medical Association have recommended starting middle and high school classes no earlier than 8:30 a.m.

The move to a later schedule can create logistical challenges for school districts, Harrison acknowledged, but she said there are creative ways around these hurdles.

For instance, Anthony Godfrey, superintendent of the Jordan School District, testified that high schools under his jurisdiction recently launched a program giving students the option to sleep in later by signing up for one or two online classes.

The neighboring Salt Lake City School District is also considering whether to push its start time back for high schoolers.

“We appreciate this resolution because we feel as though it will help us continue this conversation, continue to work out how we can implement late start without repercussions to our families,” testified Katherine Kennedy, a member of the Salt Lake City Board of Education.

Todd Hougaard with the Utah PTA also spoke in support of the resolution, saying start times were one of the top priorities for young people surveyed recently during an annual student leadership conference. His own sons have struggled with their early classes, he said.

“We try and get them to bed earlier,” he said. “And even if they do, they don’t fall asleep, and then they still wake up late. And so we’ve definitely been seeing this issue at our home.”

Now that Harrison’s resolution has cleared committee, it will come before the full House for a vote.