Sleep Issue for High-Schoolers Won't Rest

(By Julie Zhu)
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By Jay Mathews
Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Sept. 4 column ["Early Bedtimes Work, Too, for Sleep-Deprived Teens"], from a parent opposed to later high school start times, brought a flood of letters and messages, more than I have received in recent memory on any issue. The vote was 47 for a later opening bell and four opposed.

I begin with a response from the organization promoting the change in Fairfax County, and then a sampling of other views today and in future columns.

Dear Extra Credit:

Changing Fairfax County high school start times is critical to the mental, physical and academic health of teenagers. With the current start times, the vast majority of teenagers are not getting enough sleep on school nights. Students, families and the community are suffering for it. Kids sleep in class, load up on caffeine and drive drowsy, get sick more often and miss more school. Teenagers most get in trouble during the long, unsupervised afternoons.

Our organization, SLEEP, has been advocating for reasonable bell schedules for all students K-12 for more than four years, and Fairfax schools are close to finding a way to fix this longtime problem.

Change is difficult, but it is worthwhile and achievable. With later start times, students sleep more. This is a fact, established in jurisdictions that have made the change.

The School Board's most recent Transportation Task Force agreed overwhelmingly that its recommended bell schedule would be a major improvement to our students, families and community. Although the details need to be refined, we are moving forward. Fairfax school staff members have done a great job in producing a first cut. We are confident that a few more changes can make this a money-saver and have reasonable start times for all students.

Contrary to myth, the seemingly simple get to bed earlier approach doesn't work. Sleep researchers across the world agree that teenagers' biorhythms are different, and on a later cycle, than that of adults and younger children. That makes it difficult or impossible for the average teenager to fall asleep in time to get a full night's rest before waking at 6:30 a.m. or before. (In Fairfax, some must wake before 5 a.m. to catch the bus.)

More sleep leads to improved physical and mental health and safety. Relationships with parents and friends improve. Students have time for breakfast and for extra curricular activities.

Can this be done in Fairfax County? Yes. Fear of disruptions have preceded bell time schedule changes in almost every locality. We're not inventing the wheel. It's been done before and with great success. Bell schedules similar to what have been proposed in Fairfax have been implemented elsewhere with minimal disruption.

Other jurisdictions feared there would be a high cost but found they were able to transport students with the same number of buses and drivers. Some have even saved on delivery time, meaning less time on buses for students.

It's time to set aside excuses for not providing bell schedules that serve the best interests of our students and continue the hard work of developing an implementation plan that will work for Fairfax County.

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