Letter: Students Need Sleep, Not SLEEP

Letter: Students Need Sleep, Not SLEEP

— Let me start by saying that despite what some proponents to schedule changes may imply, we all care deeply about the wellbeing of our kids. What we disagree on is the cost to benefit realities of proposed solutions.

The University of Cincinnati recently conducted a study of 1000 teens. This study revealed that the biggest factors in teen sleep habits were not biological as claimed by the SLEEP organization. The biggest contributors to proper sleep habits were in fact social ties and parental involvement. Teens that had strong social ties and friends with good sleep habits were more inclined to have better sleep habits themselves. Furthermore, it was found that teens that had parents who were actively involved in sleep schedules had far better sleep habits then those teens whose parents were not involved. The University of Cincinnati research findings are reaffirmed by a 1994 study by Dr. Mary Carskadon. Carefully selected parts of Dr. Carskadon’s study are often quoted by the SLEEP organization. However, SLEEP fails to mention that 95 percent of the teens in the 1994 study reported that parents played no part in setting bedtimes.

SLEEP is quick to point out that 72 of 95 counties in Virginia have later start times. Yet Fairfax County outperforms all other Virginia school districts. The average SAT score and average graduation rate in Virginia are 1528/83 percent respectively. Fairfax County averages are 1663/92 percent respectively. The national average is 1498/80 percent respectively. The SLEEP website also lists several districts from Florida, Texas and Georgia as “successes” for later start times. No individual district listed comes close to Fairfax County averages and all are below national averages. Texas 1434/83 percent, Florida 1457/75 percent, Georgia 1452/67 percent, New Jersey 1521/86 percent. SLEEP has a list of schools across the country with later start times that were ranked by US News. They forgot to mention that the same report shows that 9 of the top 10 high schools in Virginia are located in Fairfax County.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) conducts an annual nationwide survey of students. It includes 8th 10th and 12th graders. This survey is called the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS). SLEEP tells us that 30 percent of our surveyed students report having felt depressed. The national average is 30 percent including those schools with later start times. However, Fairfax County students are below the national average for those teens that have considered suicide. We are 50 percent below the national average for those teens that have actually attempted suicide. Fairfax County is below the national average in all age groups for substance abuse/use including alcohol and marijuana. Marion County, Fla., with later start times and listed as a SLEEP success, is above the national average in all categories and their attempted suicide rate is more than double that of Fairfax County. Can somebody from SLEEP explain how that can be true given their later start times? Could it be that later start times is not the solution to teen problems?

SLEEP wants to scare you with the talk of drowsy teen drivers but yet no accidents in the past five years have been attributed to a drowsy teen in Fairfax County. Furthermore, this School Board has told us that elementary students will not be commuting in the dark. They propose that buses will pick kids up at their front door. What about walkers? With proposed elementary start times of 7:40 and 7:45 and winter sunrise at 7:25, your elementary student will walk to school in the dark.

Next school year, our school system will endure $98 million in cuts. We will lose 720 staff members. Class sizes will grow and our children will suffer. Two objective start time studies have been performed in the past at great expense. Both studies concluded that this change would not be right for Fairfax County. This board chose to disregard the past studies and instead spent money we don’t have and hired The Children’s National Medical Center. They did not ask CNMC to determine whether this was a right for Fairfax County. They instead told them to figure out how to make it happen. Curiously, Dr. Judith Owens of the CNMC recently said, “Delaying start times does not guarantee that students will get more sleep.” Really?

Fairfax County is the 13th largest school system in the nation but yet we run and maintain the largest bus fleet. Now this fiscally irresponsible School Board wants to add 20 to 60-plus additional buses to support later start times. The cost for this fleet change ranges from $2.7 to almost $8 million. They have yet to tell us what the annual ongoing cost of these buses and staff will be. Needless to say, this money will be spent as we continue to endure cuts from the true educational needs of our children.

I have proposed to the board that a better use of time and funds would be to start an awareness program. Give students and parents the information and tools that they need to make good decisions with regard to developing good sleep habits. Begin this program in elementary school and continue it until graduation. Let’s work together to provide our children the life tools they will need meet the world head-on and succeed.

In conclusion, it is my opinion that the message being sent by SLEEP and this School Board, that later start times is the silver bullet solution to a long list of teen problems, is irresponsible and dangerous. If they implement their schedule change, proponents will slap high fives and move on, yet they will have done nothing to address the real issues facing our youth.

Email your School Board to voice your opinion. fairfaxcountyschoolboard@fcps.edu

Jeff Stewart