The inside story on Fairfax County, VA's ongoing efforts to ensure safer, healthier bell times for students K-12
by Phyllis Payne, Sandy Evans, and Judith A. Owens
A recent major newspaper published a story that sensationalized shifting bell times and pitted one child in a family against another—implying that older children are somehow undeserving of sleep or our sympathy while ignoring the fact that the middle school sibling would herself benefit from the overall schedule change once she reaches high school. In particular, the reporter criticized “flipping” the bell times.
The “flip” is only one of many approaches schools use to provide healthy schedules. Each community can and usually does explore a number of options when looking for that “Goldilocks solution” to balance the political resistance to change against the biological needs of the students.
Start School Later’s position is to encourage districts to schedule all children to start school after 8 a.m., our leadership also recognizes that we don’t want the perfect to be the enemy of the good. None of our children should be at the bus stop before dawn.
We minimized the number of years that any student would be exposed to start times before 8 a.m.
Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) chose a good option with a goal to make further improvements as soon as possible—improvements that would be expedited by legislation like California’s SB328 setting parameters for all schools. We minimized the number of years that any student would be exposed to start times before 8 a.m.
While the change meant that most 7th and 8th graders started around 15 minutes earlier than before for their two years in middle school, all high schoolers started 50 minutes later for 9-12th grade. Our 7th to 12th grade secondary school students all start at 8 a.m. now, a 40-minute improvement. Parents may still be sleep deprived, but like our children, our years of sleep deprivation due to school policy are more limited than they were before we tackled the problem.
We don’t want the perfect to be the enemy of the good. None of our children should be at the bus stop before dawn.
Importantly, students have gained substantial benefits from our new bell schedules: Published studies specific to the change in Fairfax found significant gains in sleep, mood (less depression), and more students eating breakfast before school, researchers also found reduced daytime sleepiness and self-reported drowsy driving.
Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) data confirm findings from previous studies—Fewer teen drivers in Fairfax are involved in car crashes, including crashes related to distracted driving (DMV has no category for “drowsy driving”). That’s one finding that hopefully provides peace of mind not only to parents of young drivers, but also to people who share the roads with them.
Phyllis Payne, MPH is a Co-Founder of SLEEPinFairfax and Implementation Director of Start School Later. Sandy Evans is a Fairfax County School Board Member and SLEEPinFairfax Co-Founder, Judith A. Owens is the Director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Boston Children's Hospital and Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School who has studied the process of bell-time change in Fairfax County Public Schools.
Middle school and high school are already some of the most grueling years in most kids’ lives. And everything is harder, darker, sadder, and heavier when you’re tired.
By Morgan Lloyd
So I think we can all agree that being a teenager can really suck sometimes. Middle school and high school are notorious for being awkward, scary, and hard. These are the beginnings of the formative years of our lives. We’re shown how to be individuals, how to start being adults, how to learn. But I associate middle school and high school not with excitement of becoming my own person but with thin carpets, bright lights, and exhaustion.
Exhaustion was a badge of honor in high school. We would compare sleep horror stories, in a way competing with one another to see who was operating on the least amount of sleep. We bonded over the bags under our eyes, seeing them as proof that we were fighters. That our lives were rigorous and hard. Obviously, we were teenagers trying to be big and bad, but my point is that not only was sleep deprivation the norm: it was expected and even glorified.
I was lucky if I got five hours of sleep a night. Yes, lots of homework kept me up late, but regardless of work I couldn’t fall asleep earlier if I tried. My body wasn’t ready to sleep at nine, which is around when I’d have to fall asleep to get the baseline eight hours. No teenager I know can fall asleep on command, especially not that early. So, to the teachers who tell us to “just get to bed earlier,” we know you mean well, but it’s just not that simple.
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