FCPS set to require recess in all middle schools for the first time

Fairfax County Public Schools plans to start requiring recess for middle school students (courtesy FCPS Office of Communication and Community Relations)

The Fairfax County School Board intends to approve policy revisions next month that would make recess a requirement at all elementary and middle schools.

Under the proposed changes to Fairfax County Public Schools’ student and staff health and wellness policy, all middle school students would be guaranteed at least 15-minute, supervised recess breaks during the day. Elementary school students will get two recess breaks per day, totaling at least 30 minutes.

“Mental health professionals have expressed the benefits of a daily break for all, and most importantly for students who enter our buildings at 7:30 in the morning and don’t see a ray of sunshine until dismissal,” Ricardy Anderson, the school board’s Mason District representative, said at Thursday’s board meeting (March 24).

According to FCPS, the recess requirement for elementary school students is not new. It’s just being integrated into the health and wellness policy at the school board’s request.

FCPS has “employed a variety of structures” to give middle school students a break during the school day, but this will be the first time that recess is mandated at that level, a spokesperson says.

Middle schools across the system started incorporating recess into their schedules during the current school year so FCPS could see what works prior to implementing an official policy.

“[The] School Board, with the support of our Student Health Advisory  Committee and other community advocates, wanted to put this in policy to bring about more consistency and fidelity and ensure all students were benefitting,” the FCPS spokesperson said by email.

The health and wellness policy defines recess as “student-selected structured and unstructured play.” Teachers and other staff are prohibited from withholding recess from students “to manage behavior” and from using it for instructional activities, including classwork and homework.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recess helps students by providing an outlet for physical activity, reducing disruptive behaviors, and improving memory, attention and social skills.

The push for recess in middle school builds off of a parent-led campaign to expand the practice in elementary schools, which culminated in changes to state law and FCPS’ current 30-minute guarantee in 2018.

“By codifying it, it’s just solidifying our support for middle school students having a time to rest and rejuvenate and connect in their school days,” Hunter Mill District School Board Representative Melanie Meren said on Thursday.

If approved, the revisions to the health and wellness policy — which also addresses sleep, nutrition, mental health services, and other subjects — will take effect with the 2022-2023 school year, which begins on Aug. 22.

Anderson and a few other school board members moved to have the policy approved on Thursday but faced pushback from colleagues who felt that they and the community had not gotten sufficient notice of the recess proposal.

The ensuing debate over whether to vote that night or at the board’s next regular meeting on April 14 became unexpectedly tense, considering that all members expressed support for the plan to guarantee recess in middle schools.

“The name-calling and accusations of unprofessionalism, if we really want to be a better board, think about what professionalism looks like,” Braddock District Representative Megan McLaughlin said. “…That’s what hurts our work and our relations with one another.”

The board voted 8-3 to postpone the approval until April, with Anderson, Meren, and Springfield District Representative Laura Jane Cohen opposing. Providence District Representative Karl Frisch abstained.

Superintendent Scott Brabrand told the board that he and other division leaders have discussed the policy changes with middle school principals, who are already working to include the recess requirements in their schedules for the next year.

“Our staff will be ready, whether it’s tonight or two weeks from now,” Region 5 Assistant Superintendent Rebecca Baenig said.