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Editorial: Later Start Times for High School

It’s past time to act; let this year be the year.

Tuesday morning, Sept. 3, the first day of school in Fairfax County, Dr. Karen Garza began her official day at 6:30 a.m. at Chantilly High School. While Garza was making herself available for interviews before the first class started at 7:20 a.m., many students were already on the school bus.

That means the students, and most likely their sleep-deprived parents, were rousted out of bed before 6 a.m., a time that is essentially the middle of the night for teenagers.

The science on teenagers, sleep schedule, health, learning and more all points in a single direction.

“The scientific evidence is irrefutable: chronic sleep loss and disruption in circadian rhythms associated with early high school start times are associated with negative consequences including poor academic performance, increased sport-related injuries, and potential long-term increases in cardiovascular and metabolic (i.e., type 2 diabetes) health risks, said Judith Owens, MD, director of Sleep Medicine at Children’s National Medical Center. “We know that delaying high school start times increases total sleep time and positively impacts academic achievement and school attendance. There are also documented mental and physical health benefits for students that include reductions in rates of depression and fewer drowsy driving crashes.”

Children’s National Medical Center’s Division of Sleep Medicine has been contracted by the Fairfax County School Board to develop a plan to delay high schools’ start time to 8 a.m. or later.

A 2011 survey showed that more than a quarter of 10th and 12th grade students were getting less than five hours of sleep on school nights, about half of the recommended eight-and-a-half to nine-and-a-half hours of sleep for teenagers.

Sleep deprivation can also affect teen mood and ability to cope with stress. About a third of Fairfax County students surveyed in the last county student youth survey reported feeling depressed, with more than 15 percent reporting that they had considered suicide in the past year.

Fairfax County Public Schools, with a new superintendent supportive of later start times, is poised to do the right thing. It’s time to make this the last year that high school begins at 7:20 a.m.

For more information see http://smartschoolstart.wordpress.com/ and http://www.sleepinfairfax.org//.