Less than one-third of students in Fairfax County public schools reported getting eight hours of sleep or more on an average school night in a recently released Fairfax County Youth Survey, while 17.9 percent reported getting five hours or less.
At least nine hours of sleep is recommended for teenagers, according to Dr. Judy Owens, the director of sleep medicine at the Children’s National Medical Center research firm. Less than 10 percent of students reported getting at least that much sleep, according to the study. The survey, conducted during the 2012-13 school year, compiled results from more than 35,000 eighth, 10th and 12th grade students from Fairfax County public schools.
School Board member Sandy Evans believes the results support an issue already being considered in the county: pushing back high school start times. Evans has long been a proponent of such a change, and co-founded of the Fairfax County initiative dubbed SLEEP - or Start Later for Excellence in Education Proposal - in 1994.
“The vast majority of our students are going to school sleep-deprived every school day,” said Evans.
In April, the school system contracted Owens’s firm to research and develop proposals for high school start times after 8 a.m. Most public high schools in Fairfax County currently start their school days between 7:20 and 7:30 a.m.
However, Owens, working as co-director of Smart School Start, the team developing the report for the county, sees limits in using the statistics from the youth survey in support of later high school start times.
“The numbers give you pause, but that only goes so far in convincing people this is the right thing to do,” Owens said. “I think the numbers are important, but I think human beings are very good at rationalizing what they want to rationalize.”
And so people see survey results showing less than 6 percent of high school sophomores and less than 3 percent of sophomores reported getting more than nine hours of sleep per night. Then they ask Owens, “Can’t students just go to to bed earlier?”
“But if you do the math, and an average high school student is supposed to get about nine hours of sleep and is supposed to get up by 5 a.m., they’d have to go to bed by 8 p.m.,” Owens said. “And of course that’s not going to happen.”
Owens sees community engagement as key to boosting the public profile of the project. While developing its proposals for the School Board, the Smart School Start team is also holding meetings with stakeholders and the public to provide information, answer questions and receive input.
On Wednesday night, Owens spoke to more than 70 people - including 10 students - at the McLean Community Center as part of an informational meeting sponsored by the McLean Citizens Association. She presented data from other school districts who switched to later start times, and also went over potential obstacles to making a change, including cost, transportation issues, disrupted after-school activities and more.
The team plans to have a draft report and hold town hall meeting in late November and early December. It is scheduled to present its final report to the School Board in January.