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Virginia District's Plan to Start School Later Will Cost $5 Million

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The school board of the Fairfax County, Va., district voted last night to shift high school start times next year, citing "clear health benefits for adolescents" associated with providing more time for sleep.

Under the approved plan, high school start times will shift from 7:20 a.m. to between 8 and 8:10 a.m., and middle schools will shift start times from 7:55 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. 

The move—which will cost the 185,000-student district about $5 million—provides a real-life example of the cost-benefit analysis a district must make in shifting start times.

As I reported in August, the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that high schools and middle schools should start at 8:30 a.m. or later to better sync schedules with students' natural sleep cyclesSleep-wake cycles shift two hours later at the start of puberty, making it difficult for students to wake up as early as they did when they were younger, the organization said in a statement that accompanied its recommendations.

But, as Fairfax County proves, starting school later isn't always as simple as printing a new time on students' schedules. The $5 million cost will cover the purchase of dozens of additional school buses necessary to cover a new transportation plan associated with the staggered start times. 

Despite the research supporting later start times, budgets are tight at schools around the country, and some districts might not be willing to shell out the cash necessary for such a change. And families often have well-worn schedules oriented around school bell schedules. Those can be difficult to change. 

Fairfax County's change follows years of discussions. The district worked with Children's National Medical Center to develop four options to shift start times. The board made its selection after holding community meetings to discuss the proposals.

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