Originally published April 21, 2019 in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
By Cynthia Howell
The school day will be 20 minutes longer in the coming 2019-20 school year in North Little Rock School District elementary schools as a way to provide more time for classroom instruction and recess.
The class day that now begins at 7:50 a.m. and goes to 2:30 p.m. for the district’s kindergarten-through-fifth-grade pupils will continue to start at 7:50 a.m. in the new school year, but will end at 2:50 p.m., as the result of a School Board vote last week.
Multiple factors led to plans for longer school days — including a new state law that requires elementary schools to provide at least 40 minutes of recess a day, Lori Smith, North Little Rock’s executive director of elementary curriculum, assessment and accountability, said in an interview.
“I think it’s going to be great. Teachers are already saying that they really, really appreciate it, and some are asking for even longer because of all of what they have to get in,” Smith said.
Act 641 of the recently ended legislative session says that at least 40 minutes of instruction time per day must be used for recess because children need physical activity to help their focus in the classroom, and for developing good social skills and healthy lifestyles.
School districts across the state will be making decisions in the coming days and weeks on how to incorporate 40 minutes of supervised, unstructured social time into the elementary school pupil’s school day if they don’t do it already.
It’s not unusual to have recesses of less than 20 minutes in a six-hour school day.
Pamela Smith, spokesman for the Little Rock School District, said Friday that the leaders in the capital city district are aware of the new law and are meeting with the district’s employee organization — the Little Rock Education Association — “to figure out what our next steps will be.”
“We’re going to make sure we have conversations with all the folks who will be impacted by the act — just to make sure we are all on the same page and that we are in compliance,” Pamela Smith said.
Ali Noland is a parent of a Little Rock district pupil and a leader in the Parents for Active Learning organization that urged lawmakers to address the lack of recess time.
She emphasized that school boards as policymakers are free to decide whether to adjust their school start and end times, but it is not required or necessary under the law that was initially introduced by state Rep. Jana Della Rosa, R-Rogers.
She said that as a parent she doesn’t have strong feelings one way or the other about altering the length of the school day.
“But we were very careful to make sure that this could be implemented without having to do that,” Noland said of the law. “The way it was anticipated, it would be a trade-off of a small amount of in-class time for a small amount of additional recess time. I can imagine that there are probably some school districts that would rather extend the school day than make that trade-off, and I guess as a policy matter they are able to do so if they choose to. The law itself intended that trade-off.”
Lori Smith called the 20-minute extension to the elementary school day in the North Little Rock district a satisfactory response to the demands for more time for physical activity and more classroom instructional time.
Leaders in the North Little Rock district have been able to draw from experiences with a recent pilot program that enabled 25 campuses across the state to schedule one hour of recess per day for kindergarten-through-fourth grades and 45 minutes per day for fifth-graders.
North Little Rock schools that were in the pilot project found that the extra recess time required a lot of student transition time — lining up, moving from place to place on the campus, and then settling down after a recess break.
“Overall, it was positive for kids, but in terms of instruction time, we really took a hit,” Lori Smith said about longer recess periods and transitions. “This is a nice compromise,” she said of 40 minutes of recess time and an overall longer class day.
“We knew already that we were pushed for time and then, with the new initiatives that we are doing , we just really needed more time for instruction,” she said.
Each North Little Rock principal will decide how to structure the recess time for their schools, she said.
Noland, the parent advocate for the 40 minutes of recess time, noted Friday that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend an hour of recess per day.
The terms of Act 641 state the value of school play time in regard to learning social, communication and lifestyle skills. It also notes the challenges that have developed regarding school recesses.
“Due to numerous mandates, there has been a steady decline in the amount of time dedicated to recess for elementary public school students,” the law says.
“To address the increased need for public school student social awareness and learning opportunities beyond the classroom, recess should be included as part of the instructional school day,” the statute states in setting the 40-minute minimum for daily recess.
“Recess shall consist of supervised, unstructured social time during which public school students may communicate with each other,” the statute continues, adding that “recess must occur outdoors when weather and other relevant conditions permit.”
Recess must also include, without limitation, opportunities for free play and vigorous physical activity, regardless of whether recess occurs indoors or outdoors.
Additionally, the statute re-categorizes teacher supervision of children at recess as an “instructional duty,” rather than a “non-instructional duty,” which includes tasks such as supervising students during school meals, or before or after school.