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Plans to push back high school start times moved forward on Friday when the county school system announced the hiring of Children’s National Medical Center, a research firm, to study and create a plan for implementing the time shift.

The announcement follows several discussions by the school board on pursuing later high school start times, which culminated in a vote April 12, 2012. At that time, the board voted to set a goal of starting high school days no earlier than 8 a.m.

Most Fairfax County public high schools begin their school days between 7:20 and 7:30 a.m. About 75 percent of the state’s public high schools, however, begin the day at or after 8 a.m., according to school board members.

During the next eight months, Children’s National Medical Center’s Division of Sleep Medicine will study and develop a plan to delay high school start times. The consultant said it will partner with Fairfax County Public Schools while seeking input from parents, students, educators, administrators and other community stakeholders in developing its recommendations.

Town hall and community meetings are planned for this fall and winter. Additionally, the consultant has established an online portal for community feedback and updates at www.smartschoolstart.org. Children’s National Medical Center also has set up a Facebook and Twitter feed: Facebook.com/smartschoolstart and @smartschoolstrt.

“We know that delaying high school start times increases total sleep time and positively impacts academic achievement and school attendance,” Director of Sleep Medicine Judith Owens wrote in a statement released by Children’s National Medical Center. Owens will be leading this study. “There are also documented mental and physical health benefits for students that include reductions in rates of depression and fewer drowsy driving crashes.”

For nearly a decade, the parent-led group SLEEP (Start Later for Excellence in Education Proposal) advocated for later start times. The group was formed in January 2004 by Fairfax resident Phyllis Payne and now-School Board member Sandy Evans (Mason District).

“The partnership between the school system and Children’s National Medical Center looks promising, but it’s going to take the active engagement of the community to express their support to the school board and the administration to make it happen,” Payne said. “A change to high school start times will benefit the health, well-being, and performance of our children and SLEEP is pleased to see that health and policy experts will be working with stakeholders to find workable solutions to improve public health, safety, and the quality of life in Fairfax.”

hhobbs@fairfaxtimes.com