More than 90 percent of Fairfax County students are sleeping less than the recommended nine hours, a survey co-sponsored by the county government and school board found.
The deficit was biggest in high school: 56 percent of eighth-graders said they slept at least eight hours a night, but only 17.3 percent of 12th-graders said the same. One-third of seniors said they logged just six hours each night, and nearly one in 10 students reported sleeping four or fewer hours.
The 2009 Youth Survey was the first time sleep patterns were included in the annual report, and the data highlights an old sore in school board debates: Should high school start later?
With few exceptions, high school classes begin at 7:20 a.m. "The early school start times are the major sleep stealer," said Phyllis Payne, co-founder of the Start Later for Excellence in Education Proposal, or SLEEP. "What would you have a 16-year-old do, go to bed at 8:30?
"Less sleep is linked to obesity, it is linked to depression. ... The thinking part of your brain is getting shortchanged when you're sleep-deprived," Payne said. "We are literally handicapping our kids in the process of what they're going to school for."
Neighbors Arlington and Loudoun counties have later morning bells at 8:15 a.m. and 9 a.m., respectively. Arlington has just four high schools, and Loudoun has 12, to Fairfax's 26.
Sandra Wilson, a school board member and former SLEEP co-chairwoman, said, "It is important we do everything we can to help [students] with this issue."
In 1998, a school system task force recommended a later start time, but the logistics of changing the bus schedules proved too much. The board revisited the issue last school year, but the only low-cost solution lacked support from the community, fellow school board member Jane Strauss said. The plan would have pushed the middle-school start time to 10 a.m., and forced elementary school students to wait for buses in the dark, close to dawn.
"If it were easy to fix, we would have fixed it years ago," said Strauss, noting that the extra buses and drivers would cost "tens of millions of dollars."
Strauss suggested parents take the initiative and limit their children's television and video-game time.
Like many area districts, Fairfax schools were roughed up by the recession. In the past two years, the budget was cut $52.5 million, while enrollment increased by 7,000 students. School employees have not received pay raises or cost-of-living adjustments since fiscal 2009.
"We've made so many cuts. Our first priority with any budget money is giving pay raises to our employees," Strauss said.