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Editorial: Past Time for Later Start Times

Teenagers are sleep deprived, and sleep deprivation takes a significant toll on safety, health and learning.

We’ve known this for decades.

But for decades, literally, Fairfax County Public Schools (and Montgomery County, Md.) have let a combination of reactionary blabber ("buck up and get moving;" "just tell them to go to bed earlier") and organizational resistance prevent implementing a solution to this very real problem.

Getting up at 5:30 or 6 a.m. to hop on a school bus at 5:45 a.m. or even as late at 6:30 a.m. to get to school by 7:20 a.m. is not healthy for teenagers. It is nearly impossible for teenagers to go to sleep before 11 p.m. or midnight.

Fairfax County high school students average six hours of sleep a night on weeknights. Research shows they need nine hours of sleep. Research has also quantified the costs of sleep deprivation.

That level of sleep deprivation contributes to depression and suicidal thoughts.

Driving-while-teen is challenging by itself; driving with sleep deprivation is like driving under the influence, and contributes to car accidents both minor and major.

Sleep deprivation is also associated with lack of impulse control, another aspect of teenage life that needs no augmentation.

It’s hard to learn when sleep deprived, and harder still to get excited about what one is learning.

Children’s National Medical Center was contracted more than a year ago by Fairfax County Public Schools to develop proposals for starting high schools after 8 a.m. Specific proposals will be presented shortly, and those specific proposals are sure to bring out specific objections.

Yes, changing start times will cost money. Yes, changing start times will require changing a lot of other things that many will find inconvenient. It’s going to require significant will on the part of supporters of teen health, supporters of later high school start times to push this proposal across the finish line. Kudos to SLEEP in Fairfax advocates who have been pushing for so long.

How much would you spend, how much would you be willing to be inconvenienced, to prevent a single suicide? To prevent a single serious car crash? These are genuinely the things that are at stake.