Don’t hit the snooze button just yet.
Earlier this month, Fairfax County school officials announced the hiring of Children’s National Medical Center, a research firm, to create a plan for implementing later start times at Fairfax County’s 27 high schools.
If the subject sounds familiar, it should. Fairfax school officials been kicking the idea of a later high school bell schedule for more than a decade and, given the hiring of a new research firm, the debate will likely rage well into 2014.
During the next eight months, Children’s National Medical Center’s Division of Sleep Medicine will gather input from parents, students, educators and administrators before making a recommendation.
Whatever conclusion they reach, the hope here is that it’s firm and final. Fairfax has invested far too much time, energy and money on an issue that should have been resolved 10 or 15 years ago.
In past years, 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 struggling to replace faulty heating units and repair leaky roofs, that’s not an insignificant issue.
Nor is the fact that Fairfax County’s current schedule for after-school sports and extracurricular activities wraps 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 most costs related to a new bell schedule would be negated 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.
It’s worth noting that the vast majority of school systems that border Fairfax — Loudoun, Prince William and Arlington among them — start classes at least an hour later than Fairfax.
Calls for later start times have become increasingly common around the country over the past decade. Studies have shown that adolescents typically need more sleep than younger students, and that lack of sleep makes it difficult for them to learn and even compromises their mental and physical health. According to the National Sleep Foundation, teenagers need more than nine hours of sleep per night, but usually get less than seven.
In a school system with about 60,000 high school students, those numbers should open some eyes and be a significant part of the Children’s National Medical Center’s research in the coming months.
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. Most neighboring school systems seem to have figured this out without compromising sports contests, band 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.