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  1. The Education Gradebook

With Florida's recess mandate set to take effect, some worry schools will water it down

Just like reading, math and science, recess is now a part of daily life in Florida's traditional, public elementary schools beginning when classes start over the next two weeks.

A sweeping education bill signed into law this summer carries several mandates, including one parents across the state — especially in Pinellas County — had been rallying for: 20 consecutive minutes of free-play recess every day for students in kindergarten through fifth grade.

The Florida Department of Education this month issued guidance to school districts on the new law, which does not apply to charter schools. It clarified that the law does not specify where recess must be provided, and that it could be spent indoors or outdoors.

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The state is leaving logistics like location and scheduling up to school districts. And district leaders in the Tampa Bay area are passing those decisions on down, letting individual schools handle the details. That worries some parents, who fear principals — some of whom had been reluctant to implement recess — may opt for bringing it indoors to better fit their schedules. That would go against the spirit of their fight to provide more outdoor free play for students, they say.

"This leaves it open for teachers and schools to do status quo," said St. Petersburg parent Nicole Bond. "They're just going to sit in their classroom and give them a break now."

Bond was one of several Pinellas parents who recently advocated for a statewide mandate on recess, arguing that a directive implemented at the district level for the 2016-17 school year didn't go far enough to ensure schools built in enough time for free play and physical activity. She says her 7-year-old son, Ethan, had only a few five-minute "health breaks" a day at Pasadena Fundamental Elementary.

Pinellas was one of the last school districts in the region to budge on allowing time for recess. Before 2016-17, the district used the full 150 minutes that the state required each week for P.E. classes, while other counties like Hillsborough only used 60 minutes a week for P.E. and left the rest of the time up to a classroom teacher, usually for recess.

Many schools in Pasco and Hernando counties also made time for traditional recess. Those counties, however, have longer school days than Pinellas, allowing more time to fit recess into their schedules.

Pinellas' directive for last year required elementary schools, at minimum, to build in 20 minutes of recess or physical activity on days without P.E. Some schools went further by holding unstructured recess outdoors every day, while others did the bare minimum, opting for teacher-led activities inside the classroom on designated days.

"We're not providing guidelines of what should be happening during that time," said Shana Rafalski, Pinellas' executive director of elementary education.

She added, however, that schools should "make sure you're giving kids choice of what they're doing with that time."

This year, Pinellas, along with Hernando, will make sure each elementary school submits a master schedule with carved-out time for recess. All the state requires is a "certification of fidelity of implementation of recess" signed by the superintendent of every school district. Pinellas superintendent Mike Grego signed the form earlier this month.

Stephanie Cox, a Shore Acres Elementary parent who led the effort for recess in Tallahassee, echoed Rafalski's sentiments on the importance of letting students decide how they spend their down time.

"The key is students should have a choice," Cox said. "And I think that is what really is important to recess moms is that choice is involved in recess."

Cox said she is concerned some principals will opt to hold recess only indoors, "but from just looking at the wording of the law, it has to be unstructured play."

"It's just not the same qualitatively as outdoor recess," she said.

Times staff writer Megan Reeves contributed to this report. Contact Colleen Wright at cwright@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.

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