Fairfax County high schools could start up from 30 minutes to almost two hours later under proposals considered by the School Board to give teens extra sleep.
After deliberating over possible plans presented Wednesday by a sleep research team, the School Board decided to take four scenarios to the community for discussion over the next two months.
In April 2013, the school system contracted the research team to develop plans to shift high school start times to 8 a.m. or later, as opposed to the current 7:20 a.m. morning bell. Buses pick up some high school students as early as 5:45 a.m. to make it to school on time.
Teens will not benefit from extra shuteye before the 2015-16 school year. Due to the tight budget and concerns over rushing the planning process, the School Board decided against pursuing any scheduling changes for this September.
The time line moving forward will be to host town hall meetings in the eight school clusters across the county to solicit input from community members. Then the research team presents their final recommendation and report in July, and the School Board would vote on a scheduling change in September.
Yet even with the options narrowed to four, the school system has many factors to consider.
First, there are the different iterations of high school start times. Three of the plans shift high schools about an hour later, while the fourth and most radical would see high schools starting at 9:15 a.m.
Middle and elementary schools are affected as well. Two of the proposals move middle school schedules later to accommodate later high school start times, while two move the middle school schedules earlier, to the 7:20 a.m. start time currently used by high schools. Timing for elementary schools could also see slight shifts, about 10-15 minutes earlier than their current 8-9:20 a.m. starts.
“What we’re looking at here is the Goldilocks challenge,” said School Board member Megan McLaughlin (Braddock). “What is too early? What is too late? Can we find what is just right?”
Varying costs also add a wrinkle. The estimated price tags of the four plans range from $2.8-$7.6 million. The expenses come from new buses that will need to be purchased and new bus drivers that will need to be hired to make the schedule changes workable.
Dr. Judy Owens, co-director of the research team, advised against pursuing the cheapest but also most radical plan, which would see high schools starting almost two hours later than they do now. While she acknowledged that the amount of extra sleep students get each night is directly correlated to how much later school starts, such a plan has been rejected by the Fairfax County School Board before due to its negative impact on after school activities.
“From a biological perspective, that is absolutely the best option,” Owens said. “But there would be very loud voices set against it.”
Both researchers and school officials acknowledged that after hearing community opinions and fine-tuning the options, the final recommendation could likely be a hybrid of several of the proposals.
“This is an evolutionary process,” Superintendent Karen Garza said. “The model that is recommended in the end could look radically different than what we’re looking at today.”