Changing School Start Times: Sleep Medicine Team Provides a Way to Improve the Health of Fairfax Teens April 23, 2014

Washington, DC – At a Fairfax County School Board work session, a team organized by Children’s National presented four potential transportation scenarios as the best of many options to delaying high school start times and improving the health, safety, and academic success of students in the district. Each scenario provided a rationale for the specific changes in start time windows, including the pros and cons, and the approximate cost associated with the changes.

“Building upon the decision of the Fairfax County School Board to openly examine this important topic, it was essential to us to take an evidenced-based approach to making a significant change that would benefit adolescents but also impact many stakeholders in the community,” said Judith Owens, MD, MPH, Director of Sleep Medicine at Children’s and Director of this project. “We evaluated all of the potential scenarios and narrowed it down to four conceptual models that we feel represent the best options for the community and Board to evaluate.  All of these models can be refined further following Board and community input.”

Four potential scenarios:

  • Middle/open window: where middle schools start at 8:50 am and elementary schools have an “open window” where they open between 7:35 - 9:40 am. The estimated cost for this plan would be around $12.3 million.
  • Middle schools open later at 9:30 am, high school would start at 8:30 am and elementary schools would open during a window between 7:50 - 9:15 am. The estimated cost for this plan would be around $7.6 million.
  • Middle schools open early at 7:20 am and elementary schools open 15 minutes earlier, between a window of 7:45 - 9:10 am, and high schools would open between 8:10 - 8:20 am. The cost for this plan would be around $4.6 million.
  • Middle schools and high schools flip their school start times. This change would mean high schools would start between 7:50 – 8:20 am and middle schools would start at 7:20 am. The cost of this plan would be around $5.5 million.

For the past year, the Children’s team has reviewed medical research related to adolescent sleep and the impact of school start times, developed transportation schedule models, and conducted extensive community engagement regarding how best to go about changing school start times in Fairfax County.

“Despite the size and complexity of the Fairfax County school district we believe that the costs are reasonable, given the great health, safety, and academic benefits that can be gained for students.  We also believe that these costs can be reduced with some additional changes to current district practices, such as adopting a uniform length of instructional day for both elementary and secondary schools,” stated Owens.  

Currently in Fairfax County, elementary schools start between 8:00 – 9:20 am, middle schools start between 7:45 – 7:55 am, and high schools start at 7:20 am. Fairfax County is the 11th largest school district in the United States, serving more than 181,000 students in 196 elementary, middle, and high schools, and would be the largest school district in the United States to implement delaying high school start times.

Previous research has shown that chronic sleep loss and disruption in circadian rhythms associated with early high school start times and insufficient sleep in teens are associated with a myriad of negative consequences, including poor academic performance and school attendance, increased  sport-related injuries, a higher rate of car accidents and potential long-term increases in cardiovascular and metabolic (i.e., type 2 diabetes) health risks. “Research tells us that delaying school start times and increasing sleep time, will result in many positive impacts in teens include improvements in academic achievement, tardiness and school attendance. Research has also shown mental and physical health benefits for students including improvements in mood and reduced rates of depression,” says Daniel Lewin, PhD, Associate Director of Sleep Medicine and a co-director of this project.

Moving forward, the Children’s National and Fairfax County Public Schools teams will host a number of town hall meetings for the community to provide input and feedback regarding the different transportation options, which will ultimately result in a set of final recommendations from the Children’s team to the Fairfax County School Board.

Contact: Emily Hartman or Caitlyn Camacho at 202-476-4500.


About Children’s National Health System

Children’s National Health System, based in Washington, DC, has been serving the nation’s children since 1870. Children’s National is Magnet® designated, and is consistently ranked among the top pediatric hospitals by U.S.News & World Report. Home to the Children’s Research Institute and the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation, Children’s National is one of the nation’s top NIH-funded pediatric institutions. With a community-based pediatric network, seven regional outpatient centers, an ambulatory surgery center, two emergency rooms, an acute care hospital, and collaborations throughout the region, Children’s National is recognized for its expertise and innovation in pediatric care and as an advocate for all children. For more information, visit ChildrensNational.org, or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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