Later Fairfax Bell Would Sink Swimmers, Some Say

Start times might change for all Fairfax students. Giving students more sleep time makes them less anxious and more productive, research says.
Start times might change for all Fairfax students. Giving students more sleep time makes them less anxious and more productive, research says. (By Michael Temchine For The Washington Post)
By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 9, 2009

A proposal to push back Fairfax County high school start times and give teenagers more opportunity to sleep is sounding alarms for hundreds of parents, students and school staff members, who worry that the extra rest isn't worth the scheduling headaches it would cause.

School officials are still studying the implications of the plan, which would reroute buses and change start times for all 169,000 Fairfax students. But the potential for sweeping change already is causing anxiety for many parents who juggle complicated work schedules and day-care arrangements and for students who are loaded up with after-school jobs and activities.

Many Fairfax teachers and support staff also are worried that the schedule change could put them in rush-hour traffic or disrupt their after-school routines.

"Are the benefits of better sleep worth it? Or does it impose too much of a cost?" asked Lorraine S. Monaco, a mother from the Hayfield Farm community. She is trying to slow momentum for what is known as the "sleep initiative" with a Web site called WAKE Fairfax, for Worried About Keeping Extra-curriculars.

Another group, Save Our Sport, has formed to represent swim- and dive-team families who oppose the plan because they fear it would jeopardize their ability to secure county-operated pools for practices and meets.

Advocates of the later high school start are asking the community to be flexible and consider the potential benefits that research has identified, including healthier, less-stressed and higher-performing teenagers. They caution that many people are jumping to conclusions and drawing worst-case scenarios before details are known about how after-school activities would be redesigned.

"We recognize that it's a big collaborative project, but it will pay big dividends," said Phyllis Payne, co-founder of the parent-led group SLEEP, for Start Later for Excellence in Education Proposal. The group has worked for five years to change the schedule. More than 8,000 people have signed a petition to support the cause.

Several earlier proposals suggested that a schedule change would carry a multimillion-dollar price tag. But this winter, the school system offered a more efficient, no-cost plan.

Most high schools in Fairfax start at 7:20 a.m.; most middle schools start between 7:20 and 8:05 a.m.; and most elementary schools start between 8 and 9:15 a.m.

Under the proposal, the start time for most high schools would move to 8:30 a.m. Elementary schools would start between 7:50 and 9:25 a.m., and most middle schools would start at 9:40 a.m.

Several U.S. school systems have pushed back high school start times in recent years, including Arlington County, which opted in 2000 to start at 8:15 a.m. instead of 7:30. Anne Arundel County and Montgomery County schools considered the issue but decided a change would be too costly or disruptive.

William Curran, director of athletics and activities for Fairfax schools, is looking at how logistics would have to be reworked for dozens of sports teams and more than 300 recognized after-school clubs. He said the proposal represents "a wholesale change in the way we do business."

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