School days are incompatible with parents’ work day, and kids are not getting enough sleep

Insider | By Kelly Burch | September 27, 2023

  • Many schools in the US operate from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
  • The schedule is historic but doesn’t meet the needs of many families today.
  • Experts say the schedule hasn’t changed because it’s so entrenched.

Liz Fuller-Wright, a New Jersey mom, said her sons’ school schedules were “completely incompatible” with full-time work.

“I can’t schedule late afternoon meetings, I can’t participate in the end-of-day socialization around the watercooler that is so vital for supporting work relationships, plus I have to put in a third or fourth shift after the boys are in bed when I can finally focus again,” said Fuller-Wright, whose boys are 4 and 7.

It’s a frustration that’s common for many American parents. The stereotypical workday stretches from 9 to 5, while the typical school day runs from 8 to 3. That leaves many working parents with a conundrum that many people recognize, but few institutions have been able to change.

The history of the 8 to 3 school day

The 8 to 3 school schedule emerged alongside public education in the mid to late 1800s. Alex Anderson-Kahl, a school psychologist in Columbia, Missouri, who founded the blog Healing Little Hearts, noted that back then, mothers were typically thought to be homemakers, while children were needed to work around the home and in businesses in the afternoons.

Anderson-Kahl said that within that scenario, free time after school had a lot of potential.

“This could foster a sense of responsibility and community involvement,” he said.

The gap between when the school day ends and when the work day finishes, however, simply doesn’t work for many modern families. Twenty-three percent of US kids live with one parent and no other adult. If that parent works in the afternoon, childcare can be hard to come by. In addition, both parents work in more than 63% of two-parent houses.

In those cases, parents often turn to after-school programs, which can be expensive and difficult to access, Anderson-Kahl says. About 10 million kids participate in after-school programs, and nearly 20 million would participate if the programs were available. Yet, the programs can be hardest to find in rural and low-income areas.

“The misalignment between school end times and typical work end times can place additional stress on families, especially those with limited resources,” Anderson-Kahl said.

There’s a biological reason school should start later

In addition to the logistical argument for a longer or later-starting school day, there’s a biological imperative, too. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends middle and high schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. so students can get the recommended eight to nine hours of sleep.

Yet three-quarters of schools in the US start before that time. When you add in factors like homework time and extracurriculars, “adequate sleep a virtual impossibility,” said Bobby Morgan, a New Jersey middle-school vice principal and educational consultant.

Getting enough sleep can be particularly tough for students who live a long way from school, he added.

Change in education — including the school day — is very hard

The 8 to 3 school day has never been ideal, and yet systemic change has been hard to come by. Morgan says that reflects a bigger issue within education.

“This conversation connects to a larger consideration: Why is it so hard for schools to change?” he said.

Too often, school boards and state departments of education don’t involve stakeholders such as parents and teachers in their policy decisions, Morgan says. Although progress might be slow, he says parents should continue to advocate for policies that work for their families.

“The work of change is hard, yet despite these challenges, progress can be made by fostering collaboration among stakeholders, greater accountability, and engaging in ongoing dialogue about the need for greater equity and access in education,” he said.

Until that happens, the burden of coping with outdated school hours is expected to continue to fall on parents like Fuller-Wright.

“Those of us working full-time jobs will still have to work full-time hours while cobbling together childcare,” she said.

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