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Does School Start Too Early?

Group calls town hall meeting to discuss school start times and sleep health.

Being tired is just a normal part of the school day to Herndon High School junior Douglas DeCarme, 16, who said that he is typically too busy with work to think about being tired.

"A lot of people in class sleep during the day … during classes," DeCarme said. "They don’t even mean to do it sometimes, but you can’t sleep four or five hours a night and come to class and be totally awake."

With the hopes of promoting better sleep habits and building a unified consensus on start times for Fairfax County Public Schools, a local organization of advocates for student sleep will hold a "town hall" meeting for students and parents this Sunday, Oct. 29.

The meeting, which will take place from 4 to 6 p.m., will be held by local group Start Later for Excellence in Education Proposal (SLEEP). While holding the event to increase calls for later start times for public school students in Fairfax County, the meeting is also being used to increase awareness about the importance of teens and regular, healthy sleep schedules said Phyllis Paine, co-founder of SLEEP.

"The bottom line is that you need your sleep," said Dr. Helene Emsellem, director of the Center for Sleep and Wake Disorders in Chevy Chase, Md., author of "Snooze or Lose: 10 ‘No-War’ Ways To Improve Teen Sleep Habits," and a speaker at the event. "Sleep is something that is incredibly important to your health, especially for teenagers … who are growing and going through puberty."

A healthy sleep schedule for a teenager should include about nine hours of sleep nightly, said Emsellem, who added that high school students are currently registering about seven hours of sleep. While students typically lead busy lives, it hasn’t been until recently that the problem of consistent lack of sleep has made itself grossly apparent, she added.

"Teenagers these days are faced with two different worlds, one that is a 24/7 world that is filled with so many distractions to keep children up later," Emsellem said, "while the other is increasingly active in academics and extracurricular activities, where students have to wake up very early."

THE RESULT of this lifestyle, Emsellem said, can be disastrous for student health and success.

The lack of sleep builds up over the days of the week, causing students to become progressively more exhausted, she added. Prolonged sleep depravation might result in an increased risk for obesity, mood disorder, difficultly with focus and learning, accidental injury and general health, Emsellem said.

"We know that if our kids were getting enough sleep every night that there would be fewer absences, fewer tardies, lower drop-out rates, better behavior, less depression, the list goes on," said Phyllis Payne, co-founder of SLEEP. "If you ask any first period teacher, they’ll tell you that the kids come in in the morning and they are just absolutely awash."

For 16-year-old Herndon High School junior Rachel Belyavsky, there’s only one answer towards the issue of sleep — she needs more.

"I’m usually so busy that I don’t fall asleep until after I get home, but you just get more and more tired as the week goes on," she said. "Some people will try and make it up on the weekends, but it’s just not safe for your health."

SPEAKING TO THE CROWD about the negative consequences of student sleep deprivation is just the first step in coming upon a solution, said Payne. The ultimate goal of the meeting is to build a consensus among students and their parents to persuade th school system to push back start times past 8 a.m., she added.

Mason district school board member Kaye Kory, who will moderate the town meeting, said that pushing back the school start time from around 7 a.m. for most FCPS high schools to a time after 8 a.m. is the best way to increase the amount of sleep that students get each night.

She said that having students waiting for buses around 6 a.m. is too early for anyone who looks to get a decent night’s sleep.

"It doesn’t help anybody to ignore the situation [of exhausted students] because it will only get worse," Kory said. "I think many of our students are affected academically by these early start times … and we need to find out what we can do to fix this."

The problem is finding enough resources, such as buses and bus drivers, to efficiently get the students from a county that is large in total area to their respective schools, she said. Fairfax County Public Schools has already hired an independent consulting firm to determine what could be done in terms of student transportation, Kory added.

Finding a later start time for students will give them more time for sleep and a better mindset for academic and extracurricular activity, Payne said.

"When you give them a more reasonable start time, you give them more opportunities," Payne said. "Students will be more awake, engaged in classes … they’ll be more alert for after-school activities."

"The benefits are so far-reaching and we’re just hoping that enough people will agree with us."