School Board prepares for wellness policy vote

Policy would require half an hour of recess in elementary schools

Eight-year-old Kennedy Robinson plays on the playground at Lucy Craft Laney Community School in North Minneapolis. The Minneapolis School Board is considering a proposal to mandate 30 minutes of recess daily at all elementary schools in the district. Photo by Nate Gotlieb

The Minneapolis Board of Education is preparing to vote on a policy that would mandate at least 30 minutes of daily recess in all elementary schools and would clarify what foods and beverages the district can offer and when it can offer them.

The proposed wellness policy would require a minimum of 30 minutes of recess in all elementary schools in MPS. It would also require that all food and beverages sold or offered during the school day comply with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s nutrition standards. The policy would define the school day as being from 12 a.m. to 30 minutes after dismissal.

The proposed policy comes nearly a year after the USDA finalized its rules on what school districts need to include in their wellness policies. Policies are required for districts that participate in the National School Lunch Program, which provides millions of students with no-cost or low-cost meals each day.

The USDA’s final rule said wellness policies must include the federal nutrition standards for meals and snacks and specific goals for nutrition promotion, education and physical activity.

The department is requiring districts to be in compliance by June 30.

Debate over recess

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Minnesota Department Education both encourage schools to require at least 20 minutes of daily recess as part of an effort to get kids 60 minutes of daily physical activity. Research shows a direct relationship between physical activity and learning and that sacrificing recess time for increased classroom instruction does not improve academic performance, according to an MDE recess toolkit.

Minneapolis Superintendent Ed Graff recommended requiring 20 minutes of daily recess in an initial draft of the wellness policy. It’s a requirement that a majority of MPS schools already meet, Graff said in January, although some split their recess periods into 10-minute slots.

However, the School Board Policy Committee amended the policy at its April meeting to require a minimum of 30 minutes of recess.

“There should be no reason why my children get 30 minutes while children over here on the North Side do not,” School Board Member Ira Jourdain, who represents portions of Southwest Minneapolis, said at the board’s May 9 meeting. “For me, this is a moral and ethical issue, and it’s something that just needs to be done.”

District staff members have cautioned the board that a 30-minute policy could have financial implications. Teachers typically take their duty-free lunch during recess, Chief of Schools Michael Thomas, and schools would potentially need to adjust to cover the additional recess time.

Based on projections, it would cost about $2.4 million to add an additional half an hour for classroom teachers and just under $500,000 for support staff, Thomas said.

In addition, many schools do not have the facilities to offer 30 minutes of recess, Program Specialist for Physical Education and Health Sarah Loch said at the April School Board Policy Committee meeting. Many do not have the equipment support for a 30-minute recess requirement, she said.

Graff suggested at the May 9 meeting a policy that would keep the 20 minutes of recess and allow schools to find an additional 10 minutes somewhere during the day. School Board member Kim Ellison appeared to agree, saying later in the meeting that she planned to introduce an amendment in June that would call for 30 minutes of recess throughout the day but not necessarily in one block.

Board members firm

Several School Board members appeared firm in their support of 30 minutes of continuous recess, however. Jourdain said recess is an issue of racial equity, saying that studies have shown that 30 minutes of recess decreases emotional and behavioral disorder referrals and behavioral concerns. Board Member KerryJo Felder, who represents North Minneapolis, said kids are over-tested and asked what it would look like if the district carved out the 10 minutes by cutting down on testing.

Board Member Siad Ali said he’s heard from parents that recess is good for their children, and he cited research on the benefits of it. Board Chair Rebecca Gagnon said it’s important to think about kids who don’t have opportunities for play outside of the school day in the conversation about recess.

Board Member Nelson Inz said he understood the scheduling difficulties that more recess time could create but didn’t understand why it would cost more. He said he hoped to get more information on the financial impact of recess so he could make an informed vote.

Ellison advocated allowing the schools to institute recess policies that work for them, noting the district’s strategic plan, which says, “schools are the unit of change.”

She cited her recent visit to a North Minneapolis school, where she was told that requiring 30 minutes of recess would be detrimental to the school’s needs.

“We can’t say schools are the unit of change and then tell them how they need to operate their day,” she said.

Meal program in full compliance

The USDA standards require food items to meet certain whole grain, fruit, vegetable, dairy or protein requirements as well as nutrient standards for calories, sodium, sugar and fats. They would apply to food and beverages offered through the district’s school meal program as well as school stores, fundraising activities and vending machines, under the updated wellness policy.

The district’s meal program is already in full compliance with USDA’s nutrition guidelines, according to Bertrand Weber, director of Culinary and Wellness Services. It has no intention of rolling back any of its standards, despite a recent relaxing of rules on sodium, whole grains and milk by the Trump administration, Weber said.

The updated wellness policy would also codify the amount of time required for service and eating of meals — 20 minutes for elementary and K–8 schools and 30 minutes for middle and high schools. It would reinforce the district’s prohibition on bringing food to school for personal celebrations and would prohibit schools from denying or requiring physical activity or denying or delaying meals as responses to inappropriate behavior.

It would also require unrestricted access to water during meal periods and adequate bicycle storage at schools and encourage parents, students and staff to bike or walk to and from school as well as at school.

More than a dozen schools in the district have bike fleets, according to Jenny Bordon, the district’s safe routes to school specialist. She said 44 schools hosted Walk and Bike to School Day events during MPS Wellness Week earlier this month.

The School Board is scheduled to vote on the updated wellness policy on June 13, its last scheduled business meeting of the 2016–2017 school year.

At a glance: Proposed changes to Minneapolis Public Schools Wellness Policy

— Requiring a minimum of 30 minutes of daily recess at all elementary schools.

— Requiring all food and drink offered or sold during the school day to comply with federal nutrition standards.

— Defining the school day as from 12 a.m. to 30 minutes after dismissal.

— Prohibiting schools from using physical activity or delaying or denying meals as a response to inappropriate behavior.

— Requiring 20 minutes for service and eating of meals at elementary schools and 30 minutes at middle and high schools.