Fairfax School Board wants to change school start time

Fairfax County decided Thursday to establish a goal of pushing back start times for high schoolers to after 8 a.m. so teenagers can get more sleep.

The School Board voted 10 to 2 Thursday night to ask Superintendent Jack D. Dale to report back in June on how other school systems, including Arlington’s and Loudoun’s, have succeeded in creating later-starting school days.

The board’s action was the first step in a process expected to go on for perhaps a year and explore a variety of options.

Most high schools in Fairfax start at 7:20 a.m., with bleary-eyed students getting picked up by their school buses as early as 5:45 a.m. In Arlington, the high school start time is nearly an hour later, and in Loudoun most high schools begin at 9 a.m.

“It’s important for the physical and mental health of our adolescent students,” said School Board member Sandy Evans (Mason), who sponsored the resolution and was a co-founder of the advocacy group Sleep, which led previous efforts to shift start times.

Evans cited research indicating sleep deprivation contributes to such problems as depression, obesity and poor academic performance. In a county survey, two-thirds of students reported getting seven hours or less of sleep on school nights.

“We’ve had concerns about this issue for many years,” Evans said. “The big question is how to do this, how can we accomplish this.”

She said the board would look forward to extensive community engagement on the issue.

Previous proposals for change have run aground amid concerns about the costs and complexities of reordering a system that transports 110,000 students along 6,500 routes and uses 1,500 buses.

At Thursday’s meeting, board member Ted Velkoff (At Large) offered an unsuccessful amendment that would have approached the problem of students getting sufficient sleep more broadly and looked more widely for solutions.

Board Chairwoman Jane Strauss (Dranesville) noted that the change would be difficult. “If it was easy, we would have done it 20 years ago,” she said.

The board’s vote in part reflected the results of the last School Board election, which brought in six new members.

Board member Pat Hynes (Hunter Mill) said that she has heard stories from parents who worry as they send their half-asleep children off to school “stumbling around” in the dark. “There are serious safety issues,” she said.

Board member Megan McLaughlin (Braddock) said that a 2009 proposal to push back start times an hour in Fairfax was ill-fated because it was overly disruptive. Still, she said, “it doesn’t mean it can’t be achieved. It just means it was a flawed proposal.”

The board also voted to cut two days off the end of the school year, giving the system’s approximately 177,000 students an early start to summer vacation. The last day will be Friday, June 15, instead of Tuesday, June 19. The change was made because the system used only one of its three snow days this year, a spokesman said.

Donna St. George writes about education, with an emphasis on Montgomery County schools.
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