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Law Requiring Minimum Recess in Elementary Schools Is Put on Hold

Years in the making, a new obligation for elementary schools to provide at least 20 minutes of recess daily won’t go into effect this year

School recess
Credit: Creative Commons

Signed into law this summer, New Jersey’s new requirement that public elementary schools provide a minimum of 20 minutes of recess every day made it through eight years of legislative debate and one governor’s veto.

Now, it looks like it will be another year before it goes into effect.

A week into the school year, the state Department of Education changed course and yesterday informed districts that the new recess requirement would not take effect this year after all; instead, it would be bumped into the 2019-2020 school year.

The department in August had informed districts to prepare for it this school year. But it issued updated guidance yesterday that the state Attorney General’s office has determined otherwise, and the law signed by Gov. Phil Murphy on August 10 would come into force “in the first full school year” following, meaning now 2019-2020.

Attorney General’s office made the decision

“It is the opinion of the Attorney General’s Office that school districts must comply with the new law beginning with the first full school year following the effective date of the act,” read the state’s new guidance.

“The act became effective on August 10, 2018, so the first full school year following the effective date of the act would be the 2019-2020 school year.”

The announcement, coming on what was a holiday for many districts, caught some by surprise, including the bill’s longtime sponsor.

“I had expected that the law would be implemented this year, but I can understand if there are some school districts that need time to make the scheduling adjustments,” said state Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer) in an emailed statement. “I have worked on this plan for eight years only to see it thwarted by then Governor Christie, so we can wait one more year if that is what is needed by the schools.”

Still, Turner jabbed at the Murphy administration for not working with her to address the timing issues. “I would have hoped that the Murphy administration had simply asked for more time if that is what the school districts needed, rather than relying on a legalistic interpretation to delay implementation,” she said.

Kindergarten through 5th grade

Child playing

Others said some districts not fully meeting the law now might welcome another year to prepare. “Given that the bill was signed into law less than a month before the opening of school, the Attorney General’s clarification makes sense from a practical standpoint,” said Frank Belluscio of the New Jersey School Boards Association. “It will provide more time for those districts that would have to make adjustments.”

Turner has been pressing for this bill for close to a decade, citing the health and education benefits for young students of getting a break in their day. The law would apply to students in kindergarten through 5th grade.

As of 2016, just five states required some form of recess or unstructured physical activity every day, and new attention has been given to the benefits through a widely cited report from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Most schools already have daily recess

A vast majority of elementary schools in New Jersey already provide daily recess, school officials said, so the law would require little or no adjustments in their schedules. But it does place new rules on what that recess would look like and how it would be used.

Included is a requirement that recess be outdoors “if feasible.” Another more controversial stipulation is that a school could not use recess to meet its physical education requirements, nor could it withhold recess from a student as a disciplinary action more than twice in a week.

Turner said she hoped schools that prepared for the new requirement this year continue their plans. “For now, I encourage the Department of Education to work with school districts to help those that are able to provide recess this school year,” she said.

“The mandate may not be taking effect until next year, but I am certain that the parents, teachers and school officials who share our desire to make the educational experience of young schoolchildren the best it can be want to move forward as quickly as they can. This is about what is best for the children.”

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