In response to last week’s letter to the editor, “What students need is sleep, not SLEEP”, the letter-writer is correct that Fairfax County students need sleep, but despite his assertions, it’s not just good parenting that enables high schoolers to get adequate sleep. Medical and educational experts, who have studied the body of research about teen sleep patterns and school start times, would tell you that starting high school later means more sleep for adolescents. In fact, the middle and high schools in many of the communities in the sociology study cited by the letter-writer start after 8 a.m.
The point is, Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) have early start times and the vast majority of Fairfax teens are sleep deprived. The 2012 Fairfax County Youth Report found that only 1/4th of FCPS sophomores and 1/6th of FCPS seniors get 8 hours of sleep or more per night and pediatricians recommend 9 hours for this age group.
Unfortunately, last week’s letter included a number of other points that are just flat wrong. Contrary to what was published, the results of the Youth Risk Behavior Survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control show that Fairfax students are not doing as well in terms of mental health as other students in the nation. The percentage of Fairfax teens who report symptoms of depression and consider suicide is higher than the national average (according to a September 2013 fact sheet from Fairfax County). In this case, “higher” is bad. A smaller percentage of Fairfax students reported attempting suicide, but our community is still grieving the loss of the students who died by suicide earlier this year. Even one life lost to suicide is one too many. SLEEP is grateful to the many people and organizations working together in Fairfax to prevent and treat depression in our young people.
SLEEP has never claimed that providing later high school start times would eliminate all depression, but research in districts that have made this change has shown decreases in student depression and the need for medication. Changing start times is an opportunity to help many children and families.
SLEEP recognizes that there are some students who function well with the very early start time, but most do not. Everything is not fine. Community members need to understand that buses begin picking up students at 5:40 a.m. and many of our children are required to rise between 5 and 6 a.m. Earlier this year, a mother received this desperate text from her son, “I can’t keep going to school this early. I can’t stay awake in first period. I get home and I’m exhausted, so homework goes super slow... I don’t care if we have to move or send me to private school or something. This is really ruining my life.”
Plainly stated, students are more alert and awake when school starts later.
The letter-writer touted the lower than national average percentages for alcohol and marijuana use as further evidence of the value of the status quo, but there is no research evidence making a case that early start times have any protective value and there is evidence to the contrary. Further, while he is right about marijuana and alcohol use, he failed to mention that according to the 2012 Fairfax County Youth Survey Report, “Fairfax County students reported higher rates of use in the past months for all other drugs for which national comparison data are available (inhalants, LSD, Ecstasy, cocaine, methamphetamines, steroids, and heroin).”
Our average test scores are top-notch and higher than many districts that already have later start times. But, what the letter-writer ignores is that parent-education levels and income levels in Fairfax also are higher and these demographic elements have a large impact on test scores and academic performance. More than one study has shown that student performance improves when schools shift start times later. In terms of cost, the outcome data from multiple districts have shown numerous benefits to health, well-being, safety, and performance. Brookings economists have said a shift of one hour is equivalent to two added months in school in terms of improved performance. That’s huge!
The letter-writer’s attempt to malign the school board and the all-volunteer efforts of dedicated parents, teachers, students, and health professionals are misplaced. Once implemented, we won’t be slapping “high-fives” and moving on. We’ll be right here continuing to advocate for the health and well-being of students in Fairfax County Public Schools. We’ll be serving their needs as health-care providers, social workers, psychologists, teachers, parent volunteers in the classrooms, and serving on the school health advisory committee, the Partnership for a Healthier Fairfax, and the Healthy Kids’ Coalition – just like we do now. We’ll continue to work to increase awareness of sleep health and appropriate bedtime routines as we have done for the past ten years.
SLEEP Communications Director