Nearly three years after the Fairfax County School Board voted against a proposal to accommodate later high school start times, a School Board with many new faces is preparing to take a second bite of the “teen sleep deprivation” apple.
Thursday night, the 12-member board was slated to vote on a resolution to develop a goal of pushing Fairfax County’s 7:20 a.m. high school start time back by one hour or more.
The debate is likely to go on for several months and stir emotions among students, parents, teachers and administrators. Bus drivers and coaches might have a thing or two to say, as well.
Legitimate cases can be made on both sides.
In 2009, school system staff said the cost of shifting bus schedules to allow for later start times would add millions of dollars to the annual operating budget. For a school system that’s already turning couch cushions over to find spare change, that’s not an insignificant issue.
Nor is the fact Fairfax County’s current schedule bodes well for after-school sports and extracurricular activities that now wrap up well before Northern Virginia’s evening rush hour kicks into high gear. A 90-minute shift would almost certainly require thousands of high school students to navigate their way home on traffic-choked roads, long after the sun has gone down.
Proponents counter the purported savings in sticking with the status quo is overblown and “millions” could become “thousands” by simply flipping the elementary and high school bus schedules. They’re also quick to point out the primary reason for attending school is learning, something the current schedule works against.
Several national studies, including a 2010 report published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, found a strong correlation between later school start times and improved attendance, increased daytime alertness and decreased student-reported depression.
Among other things, the Rhode Island-based study found that:
ź The percentage of students getting fewer than seven hours of sleep per night dropped by 79.4 percent;
ź Students reporting at least eight hours of sleep per night increased from 16.4 percent at the start of the study to 54.7 percent after two months;
ź The percentage of students who reported feeling at least somewhat unhappy or depressed dropped from 65.8 percent to 45.1 percent;
ź The percentage of students who reported feeling annoyed or irritated throughout the day also dropped, from 84 to 62.6 percent;
ź Reports of visiting a health center for fatigue-related symptoms decreased from 15.3 percent to 4.6 percent.
In a school system with about 60,000 high school students, those numbers should open some eyes and be a significant part of the School Board’s discussion in the weeks and months ahead.
If the pistons in most teenage brains don’t begin firing until after 9 a.m., it makes little sense to start the race at 7:20 a.m. Several neighboring school systems, including Arlington and Loudoun, seem to have figured this out without compromising bus schedules, sports practices and drama club rehearsals.
In the end, changing school start times is not the only piece of the puzzle — kids must develop better time-management skills and parents have to play a greater role in removing late night distractions. But adding 80 to 100 minutes to a 16-year-old’s morning makes sense on many levels.
Going forward, the School Board’s priority should be to corral all the facts, review them in an impartial way, and present them to the community at large, which should be the final arbiter.
Fairfax County’s students deserve the best informed thinking on this, and having all the facts in hand is the best place to start.