SINCE THE mid-1990s, school districts of varying size across the country have taken measures to push back morning start times for high school students. The reason is simple: To function at their most alert levels and to maintain the healthiest possible lifestyles, adolescents need more sleep and early start times at schools interfere with their natural circadian rhythms, making it almost impossible for them to get the rest they need.
When it comes to the potential negative outcomes sleep deficits can cause in that age group, the research is persuasive: Chronic sleep loss can mean academic underperformance and lower scores on standardized tests, and it can mean a higher risk of sports-related injuries. Bleary-eyed teenagers cannot possibly be at their best when, as is the case in several school districts in Maryland and Virginia, they are expected to rise as early as 5:45 a.m. to meet their buses every weekday. It’s in the best interest of students, teachers, administrators and parents that this problem be addressed.
To that end, the Fairfax County School Board, after several previous failed attempts, is seriously revisiting the issue of pushing back start times for high school students enrolled in its system, having partnered with the Children’s National Medical Center’s Division of Sleep Medicine. Montgomery County has formed a working group that’s due to report a proposal sometime this fall. It’s good to see these districts — two of the largest in the nation — take the issue seriously, and hopefully they’ll follow the lead of their Arlington and Loudoun counterparts, which already have later start times. Starting later would undoubtedly send a message to other districts in the area — and possibly even to comparably large districts elsewhere that are confronted with the same problem.
Of course, these changes will not be easy to implement. A shift in the high school schedule means a shift in every other schedule, including those of teachers, coaches and parents. It would also likely mean a financial burden on the districts, given the extra buses — and drivers — that might be required to implement this change properly and with minimal logistical disruption. In the case of Fairfax County, these concerns have grounded previous proposals for delayed start times, most notably in 2009. As legitimate as they may be, however, those concerns don’t outweigh the importance of the goal — ensuring the healthy development of young adults.
Whether through clever cost-cutting elsewhere or through the increased federal funding that these changed schedules could potentially bring from higher attendance rates, a creative solution is needed.