Hundreds of parents in the Long Beach School District have signed a petition calling for the return of recess after the district replaced the unstructured playtime with phys. ed. classes to meet state requirements.
Parents have said that the district is “skirting around the rules” to meet new requirements and have called on school officials to add more time for free-play physical activity to the school week.
But acting Schools Superintendent Dr. Jennifer Gallagher emphasized that recess is still in effect and part of a restructured lunch period. Gallagher and other administrators said at the Feb. 8 school board meeting that they intend to gather parent feedback on the issue.
A group of parents launched an online petition about two years ago urging the district to add more time in the week for students to engage in physical activity. As of this week, the petition had more than 600 signatures.
“Kids aren’t getting enough recess time,” said parent Jessie Farrell. “Recess is important for the social and emotional development of a child — it’s what kids need in order to thrive.”
In the 2015-16 school year, the district turned recess into “semi-structured” phys. ed. classes to meet State Education Department requirements and to mitigate issues like injuries and bullying, Gallagher said.
According to the state, students in kindergarten through grade three are required to take part in phys. ed. daily, and for students in grades four through six, at least three times a week.
In Long Beach, students rotate certain subjects, known as “specials,” like art, library, computers and phys. ed., on a six-day cycle. In addition to attending a gym class once within the cycle, students are required to participate in a phys. ed. class immediately after lunch every day for 30 minutes, Gallagher said.
Parents say the district is getting around rules by placing a teacher in the schoolyard during what used to be recess.
Phys. ed. teachers monitor students during what used to be a traditional recess period — which takes place either outdoors or in the gym, depending on the weather — and instruct them on certain exercises before allowing them to choose which activities they would like to take part in, like playing basketball or on the playground.
“At a typical recess period in Long Beach, you might see students running a few laps around the schoolyard to start, and then choosing from a bunch of fun activities — playground, games, sports, etc.,” Gallagher said. “Students can mix with other grades and classes, and can choose the activities that interest them.”
Gallagher said there have also been fewer reports of disciplinary issues like bullying since the change.
“I really believe that our practice around a semi-structured recess is a model for other districts,” Gallagher said.
Janice Donaghy, a district parent and elementary school teacher in Franklin Square who helped create the petition, said the Long Beach School District is spreading its phys. ed. teachers too thin. She called on the district to hire more teachers and mimic other local districts, which she said incorporate more physical activity time in their curriculums on a weekly basis.
“By the time [students] eat — they’re scarfing down their sandwiches — how much time is actually spent on line?” Donaghy said. “It comes down to, once they’ve done their jumping jacks, and they’re lining up quietly, they’re getting in 10 minutes” of free play.
Although parents said they spoke to administrators and school board members about the issue in the past — and while some board members were open and receptive to their concerns — they said they were met with resistance by former Schools Superintendent David Weiss.
Another parent, who has a first-grader in the district and declined to be named, recommended replacing a computer “special” with a phys. ed. period.
“It’s really causing a detriment to these children,” she said. “They’ll say they don’t have the staff for it. In other schools, they have parent volunteers come in, and people are dying to do it — they’ll be the lunch aides for the day so they can go outside and monitor the kids while they’re playing outside.”
Laura McCarthy, the parent of a fourth-grader in the district and a local teacher, said the Long Beach district is “basically circumventing the law.”
“I think they need the time to interact with one another without being told, ‘Everybody do 15 jumping jacks, run around, play basketball’” she said. “They’re not allowing kids to develop social skills.”
She said she recognizes that school officials are trying to prevent bullying, but that a lack of recess where children can choose how they play hinders their
creativity. “Academically, they’re doing what they need to do, but I don’t like the philosophy of not allowing these kids to be kids,” McCarthy said. “Recess is, blow the whistle, go do what you want.”
Gallagher said she plans to send a survey to parents in the coming weeks that will include questions about recess and gather input from the elementary schools in the district on how they define recess. She said she would present the results to the school board in March.