Hundreds of Fairfax County high school seniors have dropped their first classes of the day so they can stay in bed a bit longer this school year, part of a decades-long effort pushing for later school start times.

About 650 students — 5 percent of the Class of 2014 — are participating this fall, with numbers steadily growing. Nearly 19 percent of the seniors at Robert E. Lee High School in Springfield, for example, are coming to school late after they dropped early morning courses.

To start school late, students must be on track to graduate and get permission from their principal and parents. The seniors can drop as many as two first-period classes so long as they do not need the credits to graduate. And they need to find their own way to school without relying on buses.

Some school administrators, parents and students question whether the new program is fair to the 11,000 other teens who must still stumble to bus stops in the pre-dawn darkness. These include students who do not own a car or can’t rely on parents who have day jobs.

The first classes of the day begin at 7:20 a.m. in Fairfax, among the earliest in the Washington region. Neighboring jurisdictions have later start times, including Loudoun County, which begins classes at 9 a.m.

To start school late, students must be on track to graduate and get permission from their principal and parents to take part. (Fairfax County Times)

Fairfax’s “opt-out” program — unique in the Washington area — is a first step toward giving county teenagers additional rest. Parents and advocates for later start times have been arguing for years that early school starts are detrimental to teen health and that even an extra hour or two of sleep could make a real difference. Critics have said that changing the schools’ schedules would be expensive and a logistical nightmare, requiring more buses and more time spent battling traffic on the country’s most congested roads.

School Board member Sandy Evans (Mason) said the program is a “modest step” in her quest to push back the first bell in high schools by at least one hour after years of failed board attempts to change start times across the county.

Evans said that the senior opt-out program was created after a February School Board meeting and that the program formalizes an unofficial practice parents had employed. For years, Evans said, some students got out of first-period classes after their parents got a note from a doctor citing health reasons requiring their children to get more sleep.

She said the board embraced the idea because it does not cost anything and does not include any complicated changes to bus schedules. Parents were notified of the program in August, but many families missed its quiet unveiling this fall.

School officials said the program was intentionally small in scope, but students have helped drive its popularity, with some schools seeing dozens of students sign up. School officials said the program will be offered to more students next year.

Lake Braddock and Hayfield secondary schools each have 56 seniors opting out of a morning class, and South County High School has 55. At Langley High School, 39 seniors are opting out of at least one class, including another 10 opting out of a second first-period class.

Julie Halse said her son, a Hayfield senior who is a cross-country runner and gifted student, dropped an ungraded Advanced Placement seminar class and has benefited from the opportunity to get about 90 minutes of extra sleep.

“I see a huge difference in him,” she said, noting that he’s performing well at school. “His energy level is up, and he’s not nearly as tired as before.”

Lucas Halse, 17, said that toward the end last year, he was so exhausted after a full day of school and track practice that he napped on the couch every evening. Now, he said, he’s able to come home ready to finish his homework. And he’s noticed that his overall mood has improved.

“A lot of my friends are jealous,” Halse said, noting that he accomplishes more now because he’s better rested. “I’m no longer in­cred­ibly tired at the end of the day.”

But not all students are fans of the new program. This month, the Robinson Secondary School student newspaper staff lambasted senior opt-out in an editorial.

“This kind of policy reinforces the idea of only needing to do the bare minimum to get by, which has never been something the school, or FCPS as a whole, has strived for,” the editorial said. “Any college will be able to see what a student does their senior year, and if the only reason for dropping a class is sleep, it will not look good. . . . If college is your plan after high school, keep those classes.”

Evans said that some eligible students have elected to keep the extra credits on their schedules to impress college admissions offices. Only two seniors are opting out of classes at the magnet Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Principal Evan Glazer said.

Abe Jeffers, principal at Lee High, said that nearly 75 students out of 388 in the senior class had opted out of an early morning class. He estimated that all seniors in the county had about a 25 percent chance that their schedules would allow them to enroll in the program.

“It was luck of the draw,” Jeffers said.

Jeffers said that depending on the day of the week, Lee students who opt out may arrive at school as late as 10:30 a.m. but at a cost to certain teachers. There’s concern among faculty that if fewer students sign up for elective classes — those not required to graduate, including offerings such as marketing, calculus and Japanese — that teachers’ jobs might be in question.

“What kind of message are we sending to teachers of classes that are electives?” Jeffers said.

Leslie O’Shaughnessy, a Lee High fine arts teacher, has lost eight students from her classes since the opt-out program began. She said that among teachers, the program is “demoralizing” because students are choosing to sleep rather than to attend their classes.

“This policy does not jive with FCPS’ general policy of teaching students to strive for excellence, rather than settling for putting forth as little effort as they can get away with,” she said.

Experts say sleep is crucial for teenagers, who need nine hours in bed each night, said Judith Owens, director of sleep medicine at Children’s National Medical Center. In March, the School Board approved a $143,912 contract to have her team draft a plan for Fairfax to adopt later start times.

“We know that insufficient sleep is likely to result in mood changes, and kids report more depression and suicidal ideation if they are not receiving sufficient sleep,” Owens said, noting that few Fairfax students get enough rest.

She said studies have shown that a lack of sleep has been tied to health risks including obesity, hypertension and strokes.

Phyllis Payne, who co-founded the Start Later for Excellence in Education Proposal, or SLEEP, with Evans, said the senior opt-out program has her optimistic that bigger changes could be in store. According to SLEEP, 72 of 95 counties in Virginia start high schools at or after 8 a.m. The first buses pick up kids at 5:45 a.m. in Fairfax, she said.

And more students are likely to drop classes as graduation approaches. Teresa Johnson, principal at Chantilly High School, said that 11 students there have dropped a first-period class but that the number will grow.

“There is a strong likelihood that as the year goes on, more seniors will take advantage of the option, particularly after college admissions letters come out,” Johnson said.