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Letter: Later Start Times Can Benefit Community

To the Editor:

To set the record straight, there is nothing worse for traffic than a car crash, and sleepy teen drivers are like drunk drivers in terms of performance behind the wheel. Later high school start times are safer for teens and also for the rest of us as they have been shown to significantly decrease car crashes in young drivers.

When you read letters opposing this effort, please ask yourself whether the letter-writer has a personal vested interest in retaining the status quo. Last week’s letter, “Later Start Times Affect Commuters,” was filled with misinformation and scare tactics.

The letter made it sound as if there are only a small number of children impacted by the morning start times that are among the earliest in the nation. Fairfax County high schools start classes at 7:20 a.m. Only 10 percent of schools in the nation start before 7:30 in the morning. Seventy-two of 95 counties in Virginia start high schools at 8 a.m. or later. Perhaps the letter writer would prefer that FCPS start school at 5 a.m. to ensure that our children are all out of the way before the morning commute? The reality is that Fairfax County Public Schools are a massive part of the traffic flow for the entire morning commute. It will remain that way with any of the new schedules as well.

The majority of FCPS high school students are sleep deficient. Only 15.5 percent of seniors get 8 hours of sleep per night on school nights and medical experts recommend about 9 hours for adolescents. In 10th grade, only 25 percent are getting at least 8 hours of sleep per night. The letter writer seems to be suggesting that 75 percent or more of our students pay for unnecessary medical tests and ask doctors to write medical excuses for a problem that is the norm, not the exception to the rule. Perhaps he is unaware that there is compelling medical and educational evidence that very early school start times are a problem and that the Virginia Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics has a position in favor of later high school start times for students in Virginia as does the Medical Society of Virginia and the Medical Society of Northern Virginia.

For more than a year, FCPS has partnered with Children’s National Medical Center and has met with stakeholder leaders from more than 45 different organizations, agencies, and community groups. Transportation experts and stakeholder leaders studied about 20 scenarios before the School Board selected four potential scenarios to bring to the community for input. The School Board has been extremely slow and deliberate in this process. Children's National Medical Center has been working to include input from all stakeholders, including principals, social workers, leaders from the teacher organizations, PTAs, the athletic council, the Park Authority, School Aged Child Care providers, the middle school after school program, Safe Routes to School, and others. In July, there will be a work session with a report to the board. School Board members have suggested that the Blueprint for Change may be one of the four options or it may be a hybrid based on the community input.

Montgomery County’s superintendent delayed implementation of any high school start time changes, but he will not be able to close the door on the need for later morning schedules because it is critical to his desire to close the achievement gap. Seventy-eight percent of the parents polled in Montgomery County supported the change despite what seems to be an inflated cost estimate. Dr. Starr made the mistake of wrapping the later start time proposal into a wish-list idea to extend the length of the elementary school day and combined the cost estimates making both look more expensive.

Abundant research on this topic is clear: When schools have delayed the start of the school day, students have shown improved physical and mental health, less depression, reduced car crashes and improved performance in the classroom and on the field. Schools also report reduced tardiness and sleeping in class, as well as improved attendance, graduation rates, and standardized test scores.

Thankfully, Fairfax County has also been able to find solutions that are less than a third of the cost of Montgomery County’s plan, including more efficient bus routing that may reduce commute times for some students.

Multiple organizations have studied and support this change and community members who care about child health and safety as well as their own commutes should support this change as well by signing the petition at sleepinfairfax.org.

As Dr. Owens from Children's National Medical Center says, “To do nothing is to do harm.” I firmly believe that.

Phyllis Payne

Fairfax