By Alex McVeigh
Should area high schools have later start times?
The Fairfax County School Board on Monday will hear a progress report on a sleep study conducted by the Children's National Medical Center that began last April and examines all aspects of starting high school later in the morning.
Judith Owens with the center's Division of Sleep Medicine spoke to parents in McLean in October about the study's goals and the science behind it.
She called later high school start times "one of the most important steps to take to ensure teenagers are getting adequate sleep."
According to the the Division of Sleep Medicine, sleep is essential for memory retention, organizing thoughts, quick reactions, working with accuracy and efficiency, abstract, creative and insightful thinking.
Conversely, a lack of sleep can lead to unhappiness, depression, hopelessness, as well as inhibit production of insulin, human growth hormone and chemicals that control hunger.
Owens said that teenagers entering adolescence are naturally programmed to have trouble falling asleep before 11 a.m., meaning that waking at 5 or 6 a.m. is interrupting an important part of their sleep cycle.
“The latter part of our sleep is spent largely in what we call rapid eye movement, or REM sleep, which is absolutely critical for memory and learning,” she said. “We’re actively robbing students of this very important phase of sleep by asking them to wake up at 5:30 or 6 in order to get to school at 7 to 7:30.”
The Fairfax County School Board experimented with the idea of later start times last fall by allowing seniors to drop their first class of the morning, provided it wasn't required to graduate, and more than 650 students participated, according to the Washington Post.
The group presenting to the school board Monday has been tasked with providing an implementation plan for later start times, which would include new bell schedules, changed bus pickup times and more.
Since the 1990s, more than 70 school districts around the country have moved high school start times later, and Owen said very few have gone back to the earlier times.
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