Lawmakers like late start for classes

by Sophie Nieto-Munoz, New Jersey Monitor

Dan Cassino starts getting his son ready for school around 7 a.m., and they leave their Glen Ridge home at 8 to get to school before the bell rings at 8:30.

But next year, Cassino’s son is starting high school, where the first classes begin at 8 a.m., meaning they’ll have to get started even earlier to get to class on time.

“That half-hour difference is a big deal,” Cassino said. “That half-hour is more we could get, too, as parents. I don’t think we’re all just going to start heading to bed a half-hour earlier, so we’re just going to wind up with less sleep than we need.”

Cassino hopes the Legislature advances a new bill that would delay start times in high schools to 8:30 a.m., a bill its supporters say is a response to the teen mental health crisis experts say was aggravated during the pandemic.

The plan — sponsored by Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) and Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth) — would take effect at the start of the 2024-25 school year.

“When students are well-rested and eat nutritious meals, they’re better prepared to succeed in school,” Coughlin said in a statement. “Overwhelmingly the research and success stories out of other states’ school districts show that the benefits of later start times to students’ holistic well-being, in terms of both mental health and academic performance, easily outweigh the costs.”

The lawmakers cited a 2017 study linking sleep and mental health that found teens attending schools earlier in the morning are at higher risk of depression and anxiety. Teens’ circadian rhythm also naturally induces them to head to sleep later, so an early first period puts too much pressure on them, the two lawmakers said.

The New Jersey Education Association hasn’t taken a formal stance on the bill, but believes reforms that could be beneficial to students “is well worth considering and implementing,” said the teachers union’s spokesman, Steven Baker. There would have to be considerations to the structure of the school change, like busing and start times for middle and elementary school students, he said.

“Those changes would not happen in a vacuum. They would have a ripple effect in many areas,” Baker said.

It’s unclear whether this could be done solely through a bill, or if contracts with school employees and bus companies would have to be taken into account.

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