Commentary: Teens Deserve Sleep Before School

Commentary: Teens Deserve Sleep Before School

For about 10 years, area parent groups and child health specialists have been arguing that high school start times should take into account the body clocks of high school students. In fact, research shows that high school age teens do their best if they get a solid nine hours of sleep. Adequate sleep improves learning, memory and performance in school. Inadequate sleep has many downsides.

Fairfax County high schools have the earliest class start times in Northern Virginia. Our high school teens get less than the optimal sleep time. In fact, two out of three Fairfax teens are seriously sleep deprived—losing two or more hours of sleep every school night. And it costs them. School districts with start times like ours (7:20 a.m., in fact) have much higher teen car crash rates, for example. One in four Fairfax teens suffers symptoms of depression. Fairfax County’s own studies show that teens with adequate sleep are less likely to show signs of depression.

SLEEP (Start Later for Excellence in Education Proposal), a local parents’ organization, has been pleading the case for the teens—so far to no avail. (Go to What is most frustrating for the parents is that the school board does not disagree with the premise that a later start time would improve student performance, health and safety. The problem is that Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) apparently lacks the political will and/or management skill to adjust the school schedule: 72 of 95 counties in Virginia have figured how to operate high schools starting at 8 a.m. or later. Neighboring Loudoun County high schools start at 9 a.m., while FCPS is still stuck on 7:20 a.m.

Why? First, there is a strong lobby for not changing after school sports programs schedules for fear of harming their competitiveness. Yet, Loudoun County operates excellent and competitive sports programs despite later class start and end times. Second, FCPS management would have to rework the scheduling of its substantial fleet of buses. No question, this would take major rejiggering of times and routes. But, again, this is not nuclear science, and somehow those brighter, more creative folks in Loudoun County, Arlington County and others nearby have worked it out perfectly. Further, I understand that parents in other jurisdictions quickly accommodated to later starts and indicate high rates of satisfaction with the later times.

Recently, the new FCPA Board passed a resolution indicating their intention to study and introduce later start times. That, and a new superintendent and other changes in senior management are stirring cautious optimism among advocates for adequate sleep for our teens. Let’s hope the ponderous Fairfax County system will stand and move forward with overdue action critical to the wellbeing of our youth.

Then, might we imagine the Fairfax Supervisors boldly moving forward on—dare I say it—road and infrastructure improvements for the Wiehle Metro station; the long-stalled Reston Master Plan; or, a county police force held accountable to the public for the use of lethal force?