FEBRUARY 24, 2017 ATLANTA Students in Lisa Cunnigham’s second grade class play during a recess at the Burgess-Peterson Academy. Kent D. Johnson/AJC
Photo: Kent Johnson/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: Kent Johnson/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Mandate for recess in schools gets amended in Senate committee

It’s still a mandate, sort of

Children across Georgia scored a legislative victory Wednesday when a Senate committee passed a bill requiring that elementary schools plan for recess.

Before kids pop the cork on the sparkling apple juice, though, they should read the fine print. 

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While House Bill 273 orders elementary schools to “schedule” recess for all students in kindergarten through fifth grades, it also contains numerous caveats that would allow a school to veer from that schedule for field trips and “conflicts” at recess time or inclement weather and “acts of God.”

An even bigger loophole, requested Wednesday by Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta, chairman of the Senate Education and Youth Committee, is in a line about how that scheduled recess is to play out: schools are merely “encouraged” -- not required -- to include an average of 30 minutes per day of recess. The word “shall” wasn’t used there due to concern that a mandate to actually offer the scheduled break would conflict with the state’s new hands off approach with schools.

All but two of Georgia’s 180 school districts have signed “flexibility” waivers with the state Department of Education, which means they can ignore a lot of state mandates, like, say, one for recess.

Tippins said Senate “leadership” added that to the bill plus another innocuous sounding line that is perhaps the most meaningful one in the whole thing: it says the legislation does not relate to health and safety.

Most kids, and even adults, might shrug at that, but future lawyers will realize that no sentence is added to a law without a reason. In this case, that one clarifies that school districts with flexibility contracts can waive the recess mandate, since most state rules are waivable, except those involving health and safety.

The sponsor of the mandatory recess bill says the number of kids with high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes is way too high in Georgia.

People who testified for this bill in prior legislative hearings said recess is a necessity for physical and mental health, so the amendment clarifies the situation.

Tippins seemed to acknowledge he was weakening the bill when he explained the requested amendments to the bill’s author, Rep. Demetrius Douglas, D-Stockbridge.

“It’s as strong a language as we can get,” Tippins said, sounding somewhat apologetic.

The bottom line, should the bill become law, is that recess will have to be scheduled but won’t have to occur for the scheduled amount of time.

It’s basically a voluntary mandate, if that makes sense.

Even so, it could have a big effect on Georgia’s 800,000 K-5 students because the bill has a major ally.

While children and parents initially pushed it, testifying at earlier hearings during this legislative session, teachers have jumped aboard. They’ve been following it on social media, and it has captured their attention, said Margaret Ciccarelli, the chief lobbyist for Georgia’s largest teacher advocacy group, the Professional Association of Georgia Educators.

Teachers support it for an obvious reason, she said: desk-bound children have short attention spans. “They know that recess is good for students,” she said, “and increases academic outcomes.”

The bill that would require school districts to allow those children recess time

The bill, if it becomes law, would give parents some leverage, since they could report to the education department a failure to at least schedule recess.

To become a law, the bill still must get through a vote of the full Senate, then return to the House of Representatives, where it already passed once, for approval of the Senate’s changes. Then, Gov. Nathan Deal must decide whether to let it become law.

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