For the past six years, 20 minutes of daily recess has been a way of life for children in Florida’s public elementary schools.
State lawmakers mandated the time for free play after hearing the need from parents across the state.
Now those same parents, who proudly call themselves “recess moms,” are sounding the alarm that their hard-fought gain could soon be gone. As part of a sweeping proposal to deregulate school districts, senators have included a tiny wording change in physical education laws that would end the requirement that schools provide 20 consecutive minutes of unstructured free play per day.
The bill, which goes before the Senate PreK-12 Education Committee on Wednesday, would remove the words “unstructured” and “consecutive.” It’s raising the specter of the return of five-minute student “brain breaks” that parents fought against last time this issue surfaced.
“Obviously it’s disappointing that, of all the things they choose to deregulate, the opportunity for kids to get free play is what they are choosing,” said Stephanie Cox of St. Petersburg, who traveled to Tallahassee several times in 2016 and 2017 to fight for recess. “It’s one of the few moments of the day that students are given the choice of what they can do.”
Cox and others are reenergizing the “Recess for All” social media groups they started years ago, urging parents to call their lawmakers before the proposal gets too far.
“Many people don’t realize what is happening until it passes,” said Marucci Guzmán, an Orlando activist and mom whose husband, former state Rep. Rene Plasencia, sponsored the House recess bill in 2017. “Their voice does matter.”
Guzmán noted that many of the parents who pushed the initial recess bill no longer have children in elementary school. She said it’s important that the new generation of elementary school parents get involved for lawmakers to get the message not to mess with kids.
“Only if we push back will they think, maybe it’s not a good idea,” said Guzmán, who has a 4-year-old who will enter kindergarten next year.
She and others argue that if adults deserve unregulated breaks while at work, children at school do too. Five-minute breaks to watch a video and dance around between lessons is not the same thing, they said.
Recess provides children the opportunity to play, to lead, to learn life lessons without adult interference.
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“Now someone is wanting to take that away, and I’m not OK with that,” Cox said. “We will fight for kids’ right to have 20 minutes a day to be kids.”
The issue for senators is one of deregulation. In 2016, John Legg, then the chairperson of the Senate Education Committee, killed a proposed recess mandate contending that school districts — not the Legislature — should make such decisions.
This year’s Senate initiative aims to put more control of education in the hands of local educators and officials. In addition to the recess proposal, it includes ideas such as ending the mandate that holds some third graders back from fourth grade based on test scores.
Senators included the deregulation approach in a bill expanding school vouchers last spring. They said public schools need to be freed of “onerous” rules so they can better innovate to meet families’ education wants and needs.
Giving school districts more leeway might make sense in an ideal world, said Raegan Miller of St. Petersburg, another of the original recess moms. But when it came to giving kids a daily break from academics, “we were seeing huge disparities among schools,” Miller recalled.
“We would love to do it at a district level, but it just wasn’t happening,” she said, suggesting a law leads to consistency.
She observed that the state is not discussing reductions to other mandates, such as time required for weekly language arts instruction, regardless of student academic needs.
“Everything else is heavily regulated,” said Miller, who still has photos of herself testifying on the 2017 bill in her phone. “They should be looking at those.”
Guzmán said she hoped some of the lawmakers who remain from 2017 will stand up for recess rather than going backward. That year, the concept passed the House and two Senate committees unanimously before being added to an appropriations bill that became law.
“There are so many issues impacting our schools,” she said. “We shouldn’t be taking it out on children who just need the ability to play.”
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