Sleep Night was held at Annandale High School on February 26, but the name was a misnomer. No one was sleeping, instead rapt attention was paid by parents, students, teachers, and other community members who gathered to learn more about why the Fairfax County Public School (FCPS) School Board established a goal to set high school start times to after 8 a.m. (as they do in 72 other Virginia counties) and to discuss strategies to make this work in Fairfax. If you missed Sleep Night and the opportunity to talk with our School Board Members keep reading to find out what the experts have to say about later start times and be sure to let our School Board Members know that you support their goal and think the time has come for FCPS to figure out how to make later start times a reality for our high school students!
Ramona Morrow, President of the Fairfax County Council of PTAs (FCCPTA) welcomed folks who braved stormy weather to attend. Ms. Morrow advised "FCCPTA is co-sponsoring this event with SLEEP and Fairfax County Federation of Teachers (FCFT) because we are concerned about the health and safety of our teens. We're coming to bring our collective voices together to increase awareness and to gain support for the importance of safe and healthy start times." She then introduced Virginia Delegate, Mark Keam (D-District 35). Delegate Keam, set the stage for the evening with his passionate remarks about why later start times are important to him. "I'm here as a delegate AND as a parent of kids who attend a FCPS elementary school. I want to help ensure that everything you are doing becomes a reality because our kids need this. Keep up the fight!"
Dr. Judith Owens, Director of Sleep Medicine at Children's National Medical Center did a great job walking the audience through the medical reasons why getting enough sleep is so important. "We need sleep to facilitate memory and to help us with executive functions, such as the ability to organize our thoughts, to moderate our emotions and to be goal-directed. These executive functions are developing most rapidly during the teenage years."
She then explained that physical changes occur during puberty that cause circadian rhythms to adjust so high school students fall asleep at later times. This means sleep deprivation is an inevitable result for Fairfax County high schools students who are caught in a squeeze between early school start times and changing adolescent sleep cycles. Dr. Owens reported that most high school students are two hours short on the suggested nine and a quarter hours of sleep and this has a detrimental impact on students.
Dr. Owens described some of the many negative impacts of inadequate sleep including: susceptibility to illness, problems with school attendance, and ability to learn and work efficiently. "I contend that many of these kids who say that they take 5 hours a night doing homework [recent NSF survey results] are taking so long partly because they are so inefficient, so exhausted, so tired, that it takes them 5 hours to do what should take 3."
Dr. Owens also reported resulting health problems, "Teens that get less sleep report feeling more unhappy, more depressed, and hopeless about the future, or negative about life. According to studies, adolescents with sleep deprivation are 24% more likely to report depression and 20% more likely to have suicidal ideation." And, there is very real concern about long term consequences, "Study after study shows a correlation between sleep deprivation and obesity and type 2 diabetes." She also reported "Drowsy driving is another extremely important issue. In two studies, one in Virginia, a powerful correlation of data indicated that there is a decline in teen car crashes with a start time after 8AM."
"Studies of schools that switch to a start time after 8am have a decrease in tardiness and absenteeism, drop-out rates, reports of depression and a decrease in the use of stimulants," Dr. Owens reported. And contrary to a popular misconception, bedtimes do not shift later. Students reported getting to bed at the same time as before, and some students reported going to bed 20 minutes earlier. Student comments included, 'I felt so much better with the extra time, that I was getting my homework done quicker and could go to bed earlier.'
A lively panel discussion followed. Participants included a neurologist, Dr. Emsellem, who got involved with this issue as a result of problems her children and patients encountered with early high school start times. "I'm doing what I can to fight the good fight and help keep teens healthy and get them the sleep they need to be the charming, creative, fascinating individuals they are capable of being when they are more rested."
President of the Medical Society of Northern Virginia (MSNV), Dr. Sandy Chung. who is also a board member of the Virginia Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics (VA AAP), announced a recent decision by VA AAP to endorse later high school start times and noted that the MSNVA reaffirmed its existing position in favor of later start times. (See article below).
The teacher perspective was enthusiastically represented by Steve Greenburg, President of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers. "I'm here tonight because your teachers care about our students' health and academic progress. In order for us to do our job well, students need to come to school healthy and ready to learn. The investment in whatever it takes to get this problem fixed will be worth the payback in academic achievement." Terry Eiserman, a high school English teacher in Arlington County Public Schools (ACPS) for nearly 30 years and mother of two girls who attended FCPS schools, talked about ACPS' 2001 transition to later high school start times. Terry acknowledged that "Prior to changing from 7:30 am to 8:20 am, the worry was that the sky would fall, horrible things would happen. None of that happened. I honestly believe that Arlington is better because of this start time change. As an educator, I have to say that this is the way to go."
Rounding out the panel was Talia Schmitt, a Woodson HS senior and representative on the school board's Student Advisory Council (SAC). Talia explained "I became interested in this issue because I hope that the next generation of freshmen gets the privilege of starting at least at 8 a.m. I know that the school system has a lot to offer and I think everybody would appreciate it more if we had the opportunity to wake up a bit later." Talia also reported that the next generation of students wants later start times, "I conducted a survey of the freshman class and asked: 'If you could change one thing about Woodson, what would it be?' The overwhelming majority (60%) chose a later start time".