Share on Pinterest
As classes moved online and school schedules were adjusted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of students found they got a lot more sleep than in previous years. blackCAT/Getty Images
  • The COVID-19 pandemic changed the way schools held classes, with many students taking courses online.
  • Online coursework meant that many students were able to sleep later and get more sleep.
  • Experts say puberty pushes our internal clock an hour or two ahead, and late start times are more in sync with this.
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. to allow students enough time to sleep.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, schools began to change the way children were educated in an attempt to limit social interactions and slow the spread of the virus.

Methods varied across the country, ranging from continued in-person instruction to coursework being conducted entirely online. Many schools also used hybrid instruction, with a combination of on-campus and online teaching.

With these changes in teaching, there also came a great deal of variation in class schedules. Some students continued to have planned interactions with their teachers, while others were able to create their own study times.

According to a new study in the journal Sleep, one result of this new way of conducting school was that students who were engaged in remote learning got a lot more sleep.

In fact, those who were doing their schooling online without live classes or scheduled teacher interactions woke up later and got the most sleep, the study authors said.

On the other hand, those who attended in-person classes woke the earliest and got the least sleep.

To study the relationship between schooling patterns and sleep, the researchers recruited students in grades 6 to 12 through social media between October 14 and November 26, 2020.

The study participants were placed into one of three groups: in-person, online/synchronous (live classes and teacher interactions), or online/asynchronous (online with no live classes or teacher interactions).

In total, 5,245 children participated.

With in-person instruction, 20.4 percent of middle schoolers and 37.2 percent of high schoolers reported getting enough sleep.

Among those taking synchronous online instruction, 38.7 percent of middle schoolers and 56.9 percent of high schoolers got sufficient sleep.

However, those students who did asynchronous online classes fared the best. Over 62 percent of middle school students and more than 81 percent of high school students said they got enough sleep.

Later school start times were found to be an important factor in whether students got more sleep. Also, even when students had the same start time, students doing online learning got more sleep than in-person learners.

For middle school students, a start time of 8:30 to 9:00 a.m. resulted in most children getting adequate sleep.

For high school students, a start time of 8:00 to 8:29 a.m. or later led to more students getting enough sleep. Further, with in-person instruction, a start time of 9:00 a.m. was necessary for 50 percent of students to get sufficient sleep.

The lead author of the study, Lisa J. Meltzer, PhD, said that sleep affects every aspect of children’s health and well-being.

“When children and adolescents don’t get enough sleep,” she said, “we see negative outcomes in terms of physical health (e.g., accidents/injuries, hypertension, obesity) and mental health (e.g., negative mood, increased behavior problems).

“In addition, when students don’t get enough sleep, they are more likely to have issues with paying attention, short-term memory, processing new information, and getting their homework done.”

However, Meltzer said that the early start times that schools generally set are not always the best for children.

She explained that, during puberty, our internal clock is naturally delayed by 1 to 2 hours. This means that adolescents can’t fall asleep early, and they need later waking times.

When school start times are too early, this significantly restricts the window of sleep opportunity, said Meltzer, so teens don’t get enough sleep.

Meltzer said she supports the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics to start school days no earlier than 8:30 a.m. for middle and high school students.

This recommendation is also backed by many other major medical and educational groups, she said.

Mary-Jon Ludy, PhD, chair of the department of public & allied health at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, who was not involved in the study, also supports this recommendation.

“I also believe that the importance of good sleep habits — adequate hours, consistent schedule, technology break before bed — should be a regular part of communication between schools and caregivers, teachers and students, caregivers and children,” said Ludy.

The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that parents get involved in setting bedtimes and supervising their child’s sleep practices, including social networking and electronic media use in the bedroom.

They further suggest that parents check in with their children about their sleep patterns and advise them about the risks of using caffeine and other stimulants, as well as the risks of drowsy driving.