Fairfax school board approves new proposals for later high school start times

Fairfax County high schools may begin classes as late 9:15 in the morning under one of the proposals the school board will offer for community discussion in upcoming months.

Researchers from Children’s National Medical Center presented the Fairfax County school board with six options for alternative bell schedules Wednesday as part of an ongoing effort by the school system to help teens get more sleep. Some high school students begin boarding school buses as early as 5:45 in the morning, which school board member Ted Velkoff (At Large) described as “inhumane.”

Daniel Lewin, who helped lead the year-long study for Fairfax, said that 67 percent of teens in Fairfax schools would benefit from the new proposals which could delay the first classes of the day between one and almost two hours later than the current start time of 7:20.

Judith Owens, director of sleep medicine at Children’s said teens need more than eight hours of sleep and that data has shown that more than half of Fairfax seniors get only six hours of rest a night. Owens said that the changes are necessary for health reasons.

“The status quo is unequivocally detrimental to students,” Owens said.

Fairfax County school board members approved four options for discussion within the community, with high school start times pushed back between 7:50 to 9:15. The four options range in cost from $2.8 million to $7.6 million mostly in new bus purchases.

Velkoff said that the board should be conscious of the cost of each plan as the administration has battled with county officials over funding needs. Velkoff excoriated one of the options, that the board ultimately did not approve, that would have cost $12 million.

“Two or three million is a stretch as it is,” Velkoff said. “Twelve million? Seriously? Seriously?”

School board member Megan McLaughlin (Braddock) described the process of winnowing options for consideration as “the Goldilocks challenge.”

“What’s too early? What’s too late?And what’s just right?” McLaughlin said, noting that she hoped the schools would adopt a hybrid of the alternatives. Some board members questioned whether the latest option, 9:15 a.m., would interfere with after school activities and extracurriculars.

School board member Sandy Evans (Mason), a longtime proponent of later start times, said that she was disappointed that all of the new proposals delay the rollout until fall 2015. Evans suggested that the administration more closely examine school bus schedules as many teens at every Fairfax high school are dropped off at 6:45 a.m., 35 minutes before classes begin. School board member Dan Storck (Mount Vernon) described the practice as “truly unacceptable,” because it results in students losing sleep by arriving at school too early.

Superintendent Karen Garza said that overall she fully supports the school board’s efforts to push back high school start times.

“There is a growing amount of research and literature about this issue,” Garza said. “I know the easiest thing in the world is to do nothing. I know not everyone will be happy with a change. But I do think it’s very important that we do it right.”

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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