Is the School Bus Really Preventing Your Teen From Getting Enough Sleep?

CC BY 2.0. Chris Waits

Parents are divided on the topic of school start times. Some want kids to sleep in. Others want to get moving early.

When I was in my senior year of high school, I left the house at 7 a.m. to catch the bus. We didn’t reach the school until 8:30 because of the many detours and a long stopover at another school. It amounted to nearly three hours a day on a bus. In a pre-Internet era, I used that time to read, study, listen to music, and visit with friends, so it was not an entire waste of time. Back then, I didn’t question why I had to spend so much time on the bus, but more recently I’ve learned that it all comes down to cost and efficiency.

There was a time when bus companies transported kids separately to elementary, middle, and high schools, but when increasing numbers of families started moving to suburban areas in the 1960s and energy prices rose sharply in 1973, bus companies were forced to change their strategy. They began consolidating routes so that a single bus could pick up kids attending multiple different schools, but this meant that schools had to stagger start times to accommodate earlier student arrivals, sometimes prior to 8 a.m.

The result? High school students usually got picked up and dropped off first, because “nobody wanted first-graders huddling in the pre-dawn darkness” (City Lab). This wouldn’t be a problem if high schoolers weren’t a notoriously sleepy bunch.

In an article for City Lab, titled “Suburban Sprawl Stole Your Kids’ Sleep,” Mimi Kirk describes a surge of public interest in starting school later, in order to accommodate teenagers’ need for more sleep. Research has shown that kids in high school should be getting nine hours of sleep per night, but we all know that’s a rare occurrence!

When teens do meet that nine-hour target, however, rates of car accidents, criminal activity, alcohol abuse, and mood disorders drop, and school marks and attendance go up. One interesting paper from the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project found that delaying school start times by one hour for middle and upper grades “delivered an extra $17,500 in lifetime earnings per student because of better academic performance.”

As a result, some parent groups are pushing for later start times for schools. Terra Ziporyn-Snider, director of a non-profit called Start School Later, argues that pushing school start times ahead would help economically-disadvantaged kids, many of whom have no recourse for getting to school if they miss the bus. She says it will cut down on the rampant use of stimulants to deal with anxiety and fatigue, as well as eating disorders.

Not everyone agrees with Ziporyn-Snider’s viewpoint, including myself. The big question, of course, is whether or not teens would actually go to bed any earlier (or even at the same time as they do now) if they knew they didn’t have to get up so early. I’m inclined to think not, and suspect that pushing school start times ahead would be an incentive for teens to stay up later. If this whole debate is about an extra hour of sleep, then wouldn’t it make more sense to eke it out on the evening end of things?

While the benefits of sleep for teenagers are undeniable, later start times are complicated for younger children, who tend to learn best in the early morning, and for families who’d have to figure out interim childcare. It would automatically push all after-school activities (extra-curricular sports and lessons, dinner, homework, cleanup, bedtime, etc.) into the later hours of the afternoon and evening, which makes it harder to get up in the morning. Then the cycle repeats itself.

The idea of having additional buses on the roads, both from a congestion and pollution perspective, is unappealing. While consolidation of routes may be inconvenient for sleep-deprived teenagers, it does make for cleaner air and frees up a significant amount of money for school boards to use for other activities. (It costs an estimated $1,950/student to accommodate an extra hour of sleep.)

As Kirk points out, a more expensive but sustainable solution is to plan neighborhoods with better sidewalks and pedestrian crossings and traffic lights. When schools are within walking distance, then buses are no longer part of the equation. Kids can get themselves to and from school in a reasonable amount of time, but that also requires parents to allow their kids the freedom to walk or bike independently.

It’s a complicated issue, and one that will, no doubt, continue to rile many parents in coming years whose homes are not located near schools. But I do think that their energy would be better spent advocating for their children to go to sleep earlier than fighting the school board for later start times.