A movement to push back school start times has made it to the Virginia legislature, where Del. Kaye Kory has introduced a bill requiring all Virginia public schools to start classes at 8 a.m. or later.
"It is a real problem for people in Fairfax County that schools start so early," said Kory, who represents the county in the General Assembly and previously served as vice chairwoman of the county School Board.
Most high schools in Fairfax start at 7:20 a.m., and most middle schools start between 7:50 and 8:05 a.m., said John Torre, a spokesman for Fairfax County Public Schools. Only elementary schools all start after 8, with most starting between 8:30 and 9:15 a.m.
Students whose schools start before 8 a.m. are forced to wait for the school bus in the dark, leaving them vulnerable to getting hit by cars or attacked, Kory said. The early start times also mean students are constantly suffering from a lack of sleep, which harms their academic performance and their immune system, she said.
A later start to the school day has been a battle in Fairfax County for years. Last year, the School Board approved a resolution saying its goal is to start high school after 8 a.m., and the board recently issued a request for a consultant to help come up with a way to implement later start times.
Parents in Montgomery, Frederick and Anne Arundel counties in Maryland have also been fighting for later start times, and Montgomery County's superintendent said he would study the issue.
Advocates of later start times say teenagers' biological clocks demand the change.
"The experts say that waking a high school student up at 6 a.m. is like ... waking an older adult at 3 a.m. every day," explained Phyllis Payne, a Fairfax County parent who co-founded the advocacy group Start Later for Excellence in Education Proposal, or SLEEP, with Sandy Evans, who now represents Mason on the School Board.
Many parents like the idea.
"It sounds like it's reasonable as long as that doesn't cause a problem systemwide," Falls Church High School PTA President Joan Daly said of Kaye's bill. "To not have to have kids walk to the bus in the dark, that's a plus at any age, because that's a safety issue."
But the proposal could have implications for transportation, both in terms of having enough buses the effect on local traffic, said Fairfax Education Association President Michael Hairston.
It also affects child care and after-school jobs and activities, said at-large School Board member Ted Velkoff.
"There's not really a question about the science ... the need for nine hours of sleep and all that," he said. "The problem is there are many other factors that go into creating a schedule."
And, Velkoff added, "personally, I wish the state legislature would stay out of things and let the local school board make its own decisions."