Fairfax County School Board members expressed optimism and disappointment Monday after hearing a report from sleep experts on possibly pushing back high school start times.
During a work session, board members said that they supported the work of experts from Children’s National Medical Center examining the feasibility for later start times in a study commissioned by the administration last April. But several board members said they were disappointed by the slow progress of the study and questioned whether any changes to the bell schedule could be made before September.
“On the board’s part, there is some disappointment that we’re not further along,” said Ryan McElveen (At Large). “Pushing it back much further gives us some problems.”
Board chair Ilryong Moon (At Large) noted during the meeting that any plans to implement a change could have significant implications for next year’s budget as the administration faces a projected $130 million shortfall.
Superintendent Karen Garza said that she believed several bell schedule alterations under consideration may make the changes possible for next year, including a gradual implementation.
“There are a variety of options,” Garza said. “A phase-in certainly would have lesser affect on the system and a much lower cost for us.”
Students in Fairfax board buses as early as 5:45 a.m. to attend their first classes of the day at 7:20 a.m. The school board is seeking to move back the first bell to at least 8 a.m.
The scientists from Children’s said that any additional sleep would be beneficial for Fairfax teenagers.
“There’s a whole host of health issues,” said sleep expert Daniel Lewin, noting that extra rest is tied to better cardiovascular health, metabolism and neurocognitive function.
Judith Owens, director of sleep medicine at Children’s, said that after the bell schedules were pushed back in Wilton, Conn., the sports teams saw performance improve dramatically.
Owens also noted that even when the start times were moved back, teens did not stay up later at night.
“It’s truly a myth,” Owens said, noting that if the first bell of the day is pushed back an hour, then teenagers on average get one extra hour of sleep. Owens said that in April, the experts from Children’s will return to offer the school board three of four scenarios to change start times.
School Board member Megan McLaughlin (Braddock) said that as the mother of three boys in Fairfax schools, she sees firsthand the negative affects of lack of sleep on growing children.
“Our students’ ability to perform at their best is compromised,” McLaughlin said. “This current bell schedule we have is harmful.”
McLaughlin urged her colleagues and the experts from Children’s to find a quick solution. According to the local advocacy group Start Later for Excellence in Education Proposal, or SLEEP, more than 70 counties in Virginia start high school classes at or after 8 a.m.
“We live in one of the wealthiest counties in the U.S.,” McLaughlin said. If 70 other counties in the commonwealth can afford to do it, so can we.”
Owens said the experts found one instance when school start times were moved to earlier in the morning.
She said that in a small community in Alaska, where the local economy was closely tied to the fishing industry, students were asked to come to school earlier in the morning so that their parents could be out on the water earlier in the day.