Sleep Issue for High-Schoolers Won't Rest

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.

It can be done. It should be done. Our kids, families and community have waited long enough.

Sandy Evans

Phyllis Payne

Terry Tuley

Start Later Fairfax

County for Excellence

in Education Proposal (SLEEP)

Fairfax County

Dear Extra Credit:

I have a simple solution: Just switch the start times of elementary school children with high school students. Elementary children tend naturally to be early risers and are easier to get to bed early.

Such a schedule change would not cause any disruption in busing. It might even remove the burden many families face with young children in before-school day care because their school day starts so late. High-schoolers are capable of being home when their parents leave for work and of getting themselves to the bus stop.

Edith Mazur


Dear Extra Credit:

I am indifferent to a later start time but have no issues with the current time.

I am sure there will be a disruption to the Fairfax County school transportation schedule and to working parents, so a change should be pursued cautiously. High school students are facing adulthood and their work or advanced study life, which might be even more demanding.

I have read the reports of "experts" on the advantage of the later start time and will say only that when my son has to make early morning football practice, he is in bed by 9 p.m. He usually goes to bed early because the coach expects players to be well-rested.

It comes down to discipline and motivation to get well rested. My experience makes me question the experts and whether their testing/reports are slanted.

A. Dutton


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