With two children at Annandale High School, parent Laurie Lindberg’s day often starts before the sun rises.
“We get up at quarter to 6 (a.m.). My daughter’s alarm clock goes off, and I have to check that she actually gets up. She won’t get up unless I do. It’s actually gotten worse over the years,” Lindberg said, adding that her children are not lazy. They are just tired.
While her 17-year-old daughter preps for school, Lindberg’s son, 15, catches a few extra ‘Zs’. Putting less effort into his morning prep routine affords baby brother a bit more sleep than his sister. But, still, both teens struggle in the mornings.
“One thing that was kind of sad for me this year is my son told me he is falling asleep in biology every other day... I’m actually now making coffee in the morning for my 15-year-old freshman son,” Lindberg said. “It’s that French vanilla-y stuff, but part of me is mortified that I’m basically drugging my kid.”
The Lindberg children arrive at Annandale High School before classes start at 7:20 a.m. School is dismissed at 2:05 p.m.
After-school theater rehearsals, student clubs and organization meetings and sports keep the teens moving until the evening, when they return home and the tired feeling returns, Lindberg said. Both teens sleep in late, sometimes past noon, on weekends.
“When they were younger, they used to come home and do homework,” she said. “Now, my daughter often comes home and takes a nap for a few hours. It takes so long to do homework because they are so tired.”
A parent-led campaign to increase teen sleep by pushing back high school start times is hoping this year is pivotal to its 10-year campaign.
“I’m feeling incredibly hopeful because while I was feeling disappointed (under previous year’s efforts) and so were thousands of parents, students and teachers,” said Phyllis Payne, a Fairfax resident and co-founder of SLEEP (Start Later for Excellence in Education Proposal). The group was formed in January 2004 with co-founder and now-School Board member Sandy Evans (Mason District).
“We’re ramping up again because there was a lull between 2009 and when the new School Board took office (in January 2012). That previous School Board was divided six to six on finding a solution or going with the status quo.”
In the last election, six of the incumbent School Board members chose not to seek reelection, a large turnover for a 12-seat board.
In April 2012, the new School Board voted 10-2 to set the goal of beginning high school days after 8 a.m.
In an effort to promote this effort, SLEEP is conducting its first countywide “Sleep Night,” from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 26, at Annandale High School.
“We really want to give parents the opportunity to talk,” Payne said about the event. “The goal is to increase awareness for teen sleep needs and how that’s different from adults and younger kids.”
The National Institutes of Heath, the Centers of Disease Control and the National Sleep Foundation are among those organizations reporting that teens need an average of nine hours sleep each night to promote performance, health and brain development. Teenagers might feel more tired without this sleep because of their growth and hormones.
Payne, a health education writer, began her advocacy of teen sleep while her children were too young to attend school.
“I got involved before this was an issue at all for our family,” she said. “It was more seeing what our (children’s) baby sitters were going through. We had a bus stop outside of our front door, and the kids are standing out there in the dark and cold with their bookbags (waiting for the bus).”
High school students are the first picked up by Fairfax County Public School buses. The earliest pick up is at 5:45 a.m., according to the school system.
Following the discovery of her baby sitter’s early morning starts, Payne said, “I saw in the newspapers, in probably 1998, that the school system was looking at this, and I thought, ‘OK, good. This will be fixed by the time my kids go to school.’”
Payne’s daughter is now a junior at the College of William and Mary, and her son is a senior in high school.
“I thought, when we started, it would take a couple of years,” Payne said. “Change is hard. ... We tend to speculate about the negatives and not look at the positives.”
Opposition focuses on the effect later start times would have on after-school activities such as athletics.
Parents promoting later start times often point to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a governor’s school, as an example of how sports and academics can be scheduled even with later start times. Thomas Jefferson, which enrolls students from Fairfax, Arlington, Loudoun and Prince William counties and the cities of Fairfax and Falls Church, begins at 8:30 a.m. and lets out at 3:50 p.m.
“Loudoun County (Public Schools) is a good example because it dismisses at 3:30 p.m.,” Payne said. Stone Bridge High School, for example, begins at 9 a.m. and dismisses at 3:48 p.m., according to the high school’s website. Its football team competed at the state championship in December 2012.
Costs of shifting bus schedules to accommodate later start times also are cited as reasons why the SLEEP proposal cannot be achieved. Several cost estimates have been conducted by both school officials, independent consultants and SLEEP. The estimates vary grossly from millions of dollars to no cost depending on whether more buses are hired to accommodate the retention of the current elementary and middle school start times, or whether the schedule is simply flipped so that elementary and middle schools start earlier in place of high schools.
Under School Board direction, a new consultant will review options to postpone high school start times until after 8 a.m.
“What’s kept this movement alive primarily is that later high school start times would be a tremendous benefit to our teenagers,” School Board member Sandy Evans said. “I really don’t think that issue will go away without that (change).The question always is how? How do we put this all together.”
Evans said School Board members also are concerned about having younger children standing at bus stops in the winter morning hours when it is still dark out.
Parent persistence on the topic of sleep is also keeping the movement alive, Evans said.
“Phyllis is a health educator herself. I would put that as one of the top reasons why she’s such a great parent advocate,” Evans said. “It’s not just a matter of advocacy with personal stories but facts, and I think that’s really important.”
Spring Hill Elementary School parent Jennifer Jackson has jointed the SLEEP movement in hopes that later high school start times will be achieved before her now-fifth grade child is in high school.
“I’m looking ahead,” she said. “I find it really disappointing it’s been going on as long as it has. ... I really feel like this is a critical time, and I have some hopes that it will be done in the next few years.”
Payne said she shares the same hopes.
“The School Board has recognized this is a public health issue,” she said. “We have kids who are dropping out who would otherwise stay in school. We have kids in car accidents that wouldn’t be happening. ... There were advocates before me, and there will be advocates after me.”