March 26, 2019 - Atlanta - Rep. Demetrius Douglas, D - Stockbridge, reacts to the passage of his bill, HB 83, which provides for recess for students in kindergarten and grades one through five, in the senate, where is was carried by Sen. Jeff Mullis, R - Chickamauga. Tuesday was the 37th legislative day of the 2019 Georgia general assembly. Bob Andres /

Georgia recess bill gains final passage, so school kids may get a break

Elementary schools across Georgia will have to schedule recess under legislation that passed the General Assembly on Tuesday after several years of trying.

For it to become law, Gov. Brian Kemp still must sign House Bill 83. It has strong support, though: The Senate voted for it 48-4 on Tuesday, and the House previously passed it by a similarly wide margin.

State Rep. Demetrius Douglas, D-Stockbridge, a former Georgia Bulldogs football player who went pro, has been pushing the legislation for several years, saying obesity is a problem that recess can address. Versions passed both chambers of the General Assembly last year, but the bill, a relatively short one at about a paragraph long, was held up over disagreements about the details.

“Who would have thought three lines about recess for kids would be so hard?” Douglas said after the vote Tuesday.

The legislation says all schools for kindergarten through fifth grade “shall,” with some exceptions, schedule recess daily. It encourages a duration averaging half an hour a day, and it requires school boards to write policies ensuring that recess “is scheduled so that it provides a break” and isn’t withheld “for disciplinary or academic reasons.”

Opponents worried about tying the hands of schools that are pressed for time to meet academic goals. State Sen. Blake Tillery, R-Vidalia, said he was voting against it out of concern for “burdening” school districts, “although I do hope that everyone does get their time for recess.”

That concern — another mandate for schools — was a big obstacle, despite testimony about research showing the benefits for both health and learning.

Students had been visiting the Gold Dome for years to push for Douglas’ bill. Pierce Mower was 9, and in third grade, when he testified at a legislative hearing for it in 2017. He came to the Capitol again this month to testify at another hearing. His reaction Tuesday: “Oh my God, finally.”

Unfortunately for him, the mandate isn’t written for middle school, where he’ll be next year.

There is no official count of recess, so it’s hard to say how many schools are skipping it — or skimping on it. The state Department of Education testified that about 900 of the state’s 1,300 elementary schools participate in a program called Power Up for 30, which encourages at least half an hour of physical activity per day.

Proponents of recess say that’s great, but it’s not a mandate and it’s not the free time they believe their kids need.

“I feel like they’re pulling recess because they’re so worried about testing,” said Katherine Nordby, who led a Girl Scout troop that testified in favor of recess in 2017. She pulled her daughter out of her neighborhood elementary school in Paulding County last year and enrolled her in a part-time private school, home-schooling her the rest of the time. It was partly because teachers were withholding recess, either as punishment or to drill before tests, she said.

That is counterproductive, Nordby said. “If we want kids to be educated,” she said, “we need to give them time to process what we are teaching them.”

She said she felt like officials, including the local school board and lawmakers, were dismissive when the girls made their presentations, clapping and then doing nothing. But the General Assembly listened to kids this time.

One of Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan’s sons is 8 and will be covered by the recess rule if Kemp signs it.

“I’ll have to tell my son Ryder about that tonight,” Duncan said after the vote.

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