Fairfax officials to hear progress report on study of teen sleep and high school start times

A group of researchers from Children’s National Medical Center will present a progress report Monday to the Fairfax County School Board on a study commissioned by the administration to implement later high school start times.

The $143,000 study, which commenced in April, is examining the cost, logistics and feasibility of altering the bell schedule in Fairfax, where some teenagers board buses beginning at 5:45 a.m. and classes start at 7:20 a.m.

In fall 2013, the school board experimented with a program that allows seniors to drop their first class of the day, as long as they don’t need that course to graduate. Before the first month of school had ended, more than 650 students had signed up.

During Monday’s work session, the school board will hear from hospital officials on the study, known as the Action Plan and Blueprint for Change.

The researchers have collected data from 88 other school districts, reviewed Fairfax schools reports on transportation and held more than 45 meetings with community members to gather information for the study.

The report’s early conclusion is that community members “generally believe that change can be accomplished.”

According to scientists and physicians, teenagers need more than eight hours of sleep a night for improved health and development. Judith Owens, director of sleep medicine at the hospital, told The Washington Post in September that studies have shown that a lack of sleep has been tied to health risks including obesity, hypertension and strokes.

“We know that insufficient sleep is likely to result in mood changes, and kids report more depression and suicidal ideation if they are not receiving sufficient sleep,” she said.

So far, the study has examined nine options to push back start times for high school students. According to the local advocacy group Start Later for Excellence in Education Proposal, or SLEEP, 72 of 95 counties in Virginia start high school classes at or after 8 a.m.

Fairfax is not alone in its efforts. In Maryland, Montgomery County schools have proposed shifting start times from 7:25 to 8:15 a.m. In Anne Arundel County, where high school starts at 7:17 a.m., school officials created a task force in December to investigate a similar move. Loudoun County, Va., high school classes start at 9 a.m.

The hospital researchers plan to present the Fairfax board with a draft proposal for implementation by April. It’s unclear whether a change would be made before school begins in September.

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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