Still no decision on Fairfax start times, budget impact unknown

WASHINGTON – What time students start the school day was a contentious issue in 2009 for Fairfax County Public Schools. But this time around, school officials promise that community involvement will be a priority as the county considers changes to the school schedule.

On Monday, a progress report on teen sleep and delaying start times for Fairfax County high school students was presented to the school board and Superintendent Karen Garza.

There’s talk that the later start times could be phased in over a two-year period. But right now it is not known when the new schedule would start or how any changes would be rolled out.

“That still is yet to be determined how much we can accomplish by next year,” Garza says.

She says a lot of work has been done behind the scenes to look at a variety of options.

The final report is expected to include how much it will cost to change when high schoolers begin their day. The price tag will vary depending on which option the school system chooses to implement the delayed start times.

Meanwhile, the school system is facing a major budget shortfall for the new school year.

Delaying the start of the school day is a complex issue involving buses schedules, school facilities used by adults, sports practice schedules and other after school activates and even the amount of homework students receive.

School board member Megan McLaughlin calls it a herculean task involving “180,000 kids, 200 schools and a bus fleet second to Greyhound.

The board must move forward urgently on the proposal to change start times. The change is needed so that students can get more shut eye and not only improve their classroom performance but avoid the dangers from sleep deprivation, she says.

Experts say the dangers include obesity, high blood pressure, strokes and suicidal thoughts.

The $143,000 study, which began in April 2013 and is a work in progress, is being done by the Children’s National Medical Center’s Division of Sleep Medicine.

“What we’re about here is the greater good for the greatest number of students,” says the center’s director, Dr. Judith Owens.

In studying 88 other school districts nationwide on pushing back school start times, Owens says one of the most important things learned was, how important is it to give families, students, principals and everyone involved “ample time to adjust to any changes.”

She says providing enough time to get used to the new schedule will be one of the recommendations in the report. The final report could be out in the next few months.

“We are very, very interested in doing what’s right for our students first and foremost,” Garza says.

“We want to make a decision well enough in advance so that parents, families and the multitude of adult activities that we affect have plenty of time to adjust,” Garza says.

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