UPDATE: Senate Bill 328 failed on the Assembly floor on Friday, Sept. 15, with 26 votes in favor, 30 against and 23 no votes recorded. State Assemblyman Marc Berman, who represents Palo Alto, voted in support. The author of the bill, state Sen. Anthony Portantino, said he would bring the bill back in January.
A state bill that would require all California secondary schools to start the day no earlier than 8:30 a.m. has gathered a mix of support and opposition in Palo Alto, a community with as much heightened concern about the connection between sleep and youth well-being as it has about school-commute safety.
Senate Bill 328, which was introduced by State Sen. Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge), is up for a vote on the Assembly floor this week. It passed the Senate in May with 25 votes in favor and 13 against. If the Assembly supports the bill, it would next go to the governor's desk.
In Palo Alto, the bill would have the most drastic effects on Jordan and Terman middle schools, which currently start the day at 8:10 a.m. JLS Middle School and Palo Alto High School start at 8:15 a.m. and Gunn High School begins at 8:25 a.m. The bill would not affect the high schools' optional early morning zero period, which begins at 7:10 a.m. at Paly and 7:20 a.m. at Gunn.
While many in the community endorse the intent of Senate Bill 328 — to allow teenagers to get more sleep to improve their physical and mental health — they argue that the impact on traffic as well as pedestrians' and bicyclists' safety in a commute-heavy city will ultimately be more detrimental.
The legislation is based on recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that 8:30 a.m. is the optimal school-start time to support teenagers' physical and mental well-being. These same recommendations drove the Palo Alto school district to eliminate academic classes during zero period at Gunn in 2015. Both high schools shifted to later overall start times several years ago.
Research shows that adolescents who don't get enough sleep often experience physical and mental health problems, an increased risk of automobile accidents and a decline in academic performance, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The American Academy of Pediatrics, Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford, Stanford University School of Medicine and California State PTA, among other education and health organizations, support the proposed legislation.
The California Teachers Association and California School Boards Association, however, have come out against the legislation. In a statement, the school-board association said that school start times "should remain a matter of local decision making." It opposes the bill unless it's amended.
Locally, neither the Palo Alto school district's parent-teacher association, teachers union nor school board have taken a formal position.
Some school leaders, however, have expressed individual support for the bill.
School board Vice President Ken Dauber, who was a vocal supporter for eliminating academic classes during zero period, said that "getting students more sleep is probably the single biggest thing we could do to improve their well-being, their academic performance, their overall health."
Paly Principal Kim Diorio told the Weekly that the research is solid on adolescent sleep and that the importance of that outweighs any traffic problems.
"It's so clear when you go into a class at 8:15 in the morning ... the energy level of the students and their affect. We have kids falling asleep," she said. "I just think they're going to be in a better position to learn if you start a little bit later."
She said the greatest impact at the schools would be on athletics and extracurriculars at the end of the day. A bell schedule committee at Paly is already considering a later start time but is waiting to see what happens with the legislation before proceeding. She said a survey indicated strong student and parent support for a later start time at Paly. Fewer staff members are in favor, however, given it could make commutes more difficult for those who don't live in or near Palo Alto, Diorio said.
Gunn Principal Kathie Laurence has not taken a position on the bill but voiced concern about how after-school activities could be affected.
Superintendent Max McGee supports the move toward later start times, but said he opposes the bill given it would take away local control and did not study the impact on traffic.
The city of Palo Alto has also expressed opposition to the bill. In an Aug. 18 letter to Portantino, Mayor Greg Scharff requested that SB328 become a two-year bill — to return in 2018 — to allow more time to consider implications for traffic.
Scharff also proposed an amendment that would allow local school boards to request a waiver "if a school district demonstrates that significant impacts to school-commute safety and congestion will result." (The bill, as proposed, does offer waivers to rural school districts to delay implementation.)
Palo Alto's peak commute time starts at 8:30 a.m., Scharff wrote, and the city is concerned that the bill would cause the large numbers of students who bike and walk to school "to compete with an increased level of auto traffic.
"This additional traffic creates a safety issue; it also creates traffic delays. These delays will require students to rise earlier to get to school on time — defeating the very goal of this bill," Scharff wrote.
School board President Terry Godfrey also wrote as an individual to the Assembly in August, requesting time for more analysis on the bill's impact on school-commute safety. She and McGee said they support the city's proposed amendment.
In an interview, Godfrey noted the work that has been done in Palo Alto to move to later start times to improve student well-being, including a sleep study she oversaw as PTA president in 2010. She hopes the bill can be revised with considerations about traffic.
Penny Ellson, who led Palo Alto's Safe Routes to School group for many years, also supports the city's amendment. She said she agrees with the research on adolescent sleep but worries about already exacerbated rush-hour traffic in the neighborhoods near Palo Alto's middle and high schools and the effect the bill could have on start times that have been carefully staggered to minimize congestion. She speculated that parents who have to get to work would still drop their children off earlier, minimizing the benefits of the bill.
State Assemblyman Marc Berman, who represents Palo Alto, told the Weekly on Thursday morning that he had not yet decided how he would vote on the bill. His office inquired of Portantino's whether traffic studies had been conducted, but Berman said he is not aware that any were.
"In an ideal world, the author would have taken more time and would have done more research on the traffic impact," Berman said.
The evidence for the link between sleep and teenage mental health, as well as the support of local medical institutions, is, however, "persuasive."
"Youth mental health is a critically important issue to me and is something that I'll be thinking of when I figure out whether or not I'm going to vote yes," Berman said.
If the Assembly does not vote on the bill by this Friday, Sept. 15, it will automatically become a two-year bill and can be proposed again in 2018.
If approved, the bill would take effect in July 2020.