Some school administrators, parents and students question whether the new program is fair to the 11,000 other teens who must still stumble to bus stops in the pre-dawn darkness. These include poor students who do not own a car or can't rely on parents who have day jobs.
The first classes of the day begin at 7:20 a.m. in Fairfax, among the earliest in the Washington, D.C., region.
Fairfax's "opt-out" program - unique in the Washington area - is a first step toward giving county teenagers additional rest. Parents and advocates for later start times have been arguing for years that early school starts are detrimental to teen health and that even an extra hour or two of sleep could make a real difference. Critics have said that changing the schools' schedules would be expensive and a logistical nightmare, requiring more buses and more time spent battling traffic on the country's most congested roads.
School Board member Sandy Evans said the program is a "modest step" in her quest to push back the first bell in high schools by at least one hour after years of failed board attempts to change start times across the county.
Evans said that the senior opt-out program was created after a February School Board meeting and that the program formalizes an unofficial practice parents had employed. For years, Evans said, some students got out of first-period classes after their parents received a note from a doctor citing health reasons requiring their children to get more sleep.
She said the board embraced the idea because it does not cost anything and does not include any complicated changes to bus schedules. Parents were notified of the program in August, but many families missed its quiet unveiling this fall.
School officials said the program was intentionally small in scope, but students have helped drive its popularity, with some schools seeing dozens of students sign up. School officials said the program will be offered to more students next year.
Julie Halse said her son, a senior who is a cross-country runner and gifted student, dropped an ungraded Advanced Placement seminar class and has benefitted from the opportunity to get about 90 minutes of extra sleep.
"I see a huge difference in him," Halse said, noting that he's performing well at school. "His energy level is up, and he's not nearly as tired as before."