NJ law mandates up to 20 min. of recess

Photo by Amanda Valentovic
Superintendent Jeffrey Rutzky, far right, and the West Orange Board of Education discuss the 20-minute recess requirement signed into law by Gov. Phil Murphy on Aug. 10.

WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Board of Education discussed New Jersey’s new recess legislation and how the law will affect the school day at each of the district’s seven elementary schools at its Aug. 27 meeting at West Orange High School. The law, P.L. 2018, c. 73, which was signed by Gov. Phil Murphy on Aug. 10, requires school districts to provide daily recess periods of at least 20 minutes for students in kindergarten through fifth grade, among other requirements. The law went into immediate effect, and must be implemented during the 2018-2019 school year.

In addition to the 20-minute requirement, the law specifies that recess: be held outdoors if feasible, not be used to meet physical education requirements, not be required on a school day that is shorter due to an early dismissal or a delayed opening. A “student shall not be denied recess for any reason, except as a consequence of violation of the school district’s code of student conduct, or based upon the advice of a medical professional, school nurse, or the provisions of a student’s Individualized Education Plan and/or 504 Plan. The recess period should be scheduled in a manner that does not interfere with the implementation of the student’s IEP.”

The law also states that a student cannot be denied recess based on the district’s conduct code more than twice in a week, and those students will be provided restorative justice activities during the recess period.

Superintendent Jeffrey Rutzky discussed the changes that would be made to the district’s elementary schools in order to comply with the law at the meeting.

“We need to have recess not be a part of physical education, so the physical education numbers have to stand alone,” Rutzky said. “It used to be that you could, and now they’re saying that the recess period should not be used to meet health, safety and physical education. So we will be looking into that and doing what we need to do as far as our master schedules and our hiring for next year. That’s going to require us to probably hire a couple more physical education teachers.”

Parent Robin Isserles asked if a student not completing homework is a violation of the school’s conduct code, because parents have complained in the past that recess was taken away from students who did not hand in an assignment.

“Over the past few years we’ve heard complaints that elementary-age children in some schools were denied recess because of missing homework,” she said. “Is missing homework a violation of the student code of conduct? If not, can we expect that this practice will be no longer permitted?”

“We’ve had meetings over the summertime and we have removed that as a consequence,” Rutzky said.

He also addressed restorative justice, saying that it would help to improve the social, emotional and behavioral responses of the students in a “much less punitive intervention.”

“One of the things we’ve talked about with the principals and assistant principals is really having our counselors and the administrators help the student understand” what they did wrong, Rutzky said. “They’re going to be taking on a lot of this, really helping the student understand the emotional learning that needs to take place.”

Terry Trigg-Scales, who is a challenger for one of the two open seats on the BOE in the upcoming November election, asked if teachers would be trained in restorative justice as the recess law goes into effect.

“Restorative justice is a program not just for students who need something a little bit different than lunchtime, so I’m wondering if the district has a plan to investigate and implement teachers in restorative justice,” Trigg-Scales asked. “This is coming down the pike from the state department and it would be wonderful if West Orange could be ahead of that.”

In response, Rutzky said that the district is aware teachers need continued professional development regarding restorative justice, which is an alternative approach to punishment for wrongdoing that promotes dialogue, accountability and a sense of community.

“Restorative justice is something that we’ve been having conversations about with one administrator, in the high school in particular, that is interested in trying it on a pilot basis,” he said. “It’s something that we are definitely looking into.”

Each student at the elementary school level must receive at least 20 minutes of recess time, but Rutzky said that if a parent asks that their child be permitted to go to the library or another classroom, the district will explore what is legally allowed.

Weather is also a concern that the district was already considering and will continue to consider as the law goes into effect.

“We know in the wintertime it has to be safe outdoors for kids to go out there,” Rutzky said. “So if it’s not safe they’re not going anyway, whether the law permits it or not. The law indicates that it should be outside if weather permitting, but we want to know if the kids are meeting with a teacher and doing certain things, are we violating the law if a parent says ‘I’d like to have my child stay in.’”

BOE attorney Matthew Giacobbe said at the meeting that the district will ask the New Jersey Department of Education if students engaging in other activities during recess is a violation of the law; for clarification of the protocol for students with medical excuses; and for a clearer definition of restorative justice.

“We’re checking with the DOE on a couple of things,” Giacobbe said. “They didn’t give a full definition of restorative justice. There are other states that have done it; this isn’t the first in the country. Ultimately if a parent has a valid reason like a medical issue, we have to look into it.

“We’re thinking about the student who loves art and while we want them to go out and run around and get exercise because it’s good for them to have recess and play, the one day a week that the art teacher says ‘Come on in,’ are we going to put ourselves in that situation? It wasn’t clear communication on that so we’re going to see if we can get that answered,” Giacobbe continued.

Because of the 20-minute requirement for a recess period, Rutzky stressed the importance of elementary school lunchrooms running efficiently. Students should have enough time to eat lunch and not feel like they have to eat fast because they have to go outside because of the law.

BOE member Ken Alper asked if adjustments would be made to the school day schedule because of other activities usually held during lunch and recess time.

“I know at some of our schools there have been things like jazz band or chorale and rehearsals or practices during lunch, so some things might be in conflict,” Alper said at the meeting.

“We may need to adjust,” Rutzky said. “If the state comes back and says recess is the priority and nothing else can be done, we’ll follow that law. We’ll do what we have to do, but we need to get that information first and make decisions from there.”

West Orange’s school day is shorter than the state average and shorter than some districts in the surrounding area, and BOE member Sandra Mordecai asked if the length of the school day would be changed to account for a guaranteed 20 minutes of recess.

“Will we look to extend our school day by 10 minutes so the principals have some leeway?” Mordecai asked at the meeting. “I know that’s going to be a contractual issue, so are we going to think about that for our next round of contract negotiations?”

Both Giacobbe and Rutzky said that extending the school day would be part of the teachers’ contract-negotiating process, and would have to be discussed at the appropriate time.

BOE Vice President Mark Robertson questioned what students would be able to do if weather conditions did not allow recess to be held outside.

“Given that we’ve had a year of a lot of extreme weather, do we have specific plans in place for what kids would do indoors?” he asked. “Do we have Legos, supplies and equipment, enough fun activities that they can do freely indoors?”

In response, Rutzky said the elementary school principals have been working with the PTA to purchase games and activities for students to use during indoor recess.