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Get the latest coverage of the 2024 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

Recess is still in session after changes to sweeping education bill

Young people stand in a lunch line.
Courtesy of Hillsborough County Public Schools
Students stand in the lunch line at an elementary school in Hillsborough County.

Florida legislators backtracked on a bill that would have made recess time optional for kindergarten through 5th grade.

Florida legislators nixed part of a larger education bill that would have taken away the mandatory recess period.

The provision, which has since been removed, would have allowed schools to break up the 20-minute recess time. It also gave educators the option to prescribe tasks or activities to students during the break.

But a group of parents, dubbed the Recess Moms, rallied against the changes. They maintained that recess must constitute 20 minutes of "consecutive" and "unstructured" free play — what the current law mandates — in order to be effective.

"That's a precious few minutes in a school day. Most of the time kids are being directed. Recess is 20 minutes where they get to decide what they get to do and what they get to play," said Courtney Cox, a parent in the Pinellas County school district.

The change was part of a larger effort to give more flexibility to public schools. The section was originally listed in SB 7004, a sweeping proposal aimed at removing regulations that sponsor Sen. Corey Simon (R-Quincy) said holds back public schools from competing with private schools.

Other provisions removed a requirement that third graders pass a reading test in order to move on to fourth grade, and that students pass an Algebra 1 and language arts exam in order to graduate.

Legislators argued against the idea that those changes lowered education standards, noting that the state has implemented a new metric, the FAST exam.

But recess advocates singled out the changes related to free play, pointing to research that states the break period is crucial to children's development.

"That's developing their social skills, it's allowing them to make friends and ... the thing that people don't realize is it does help them perform better once they've had that break, they can come back re-energized and ready to learn again," said Raegan Miller, a mother of two.

Miller adds that by making break time optional, some schools might feel compelled to keep struggling students in the classroom for extra instruction.

"Those kids who might actually need it the most are going to be the first ones that are probably going to lose this break — that time to blow off steam," said Miller. "I think as adults, we all know sometimes you just need that break."

Cox also contended that removing mandatory recess would actually make public schools less appealing than private schools that do not fall under the same state regulations.

"We have the playground, we have the space for recess, and so it became a selling point for our school, and our people started sending their kids to the neighborhood public school again," said Cox.

Both Miller and Cox were part of an effort to make mandatory recess part of state education law in 2017.

Six years later, they reunited with other parents across the state on social media to urge legislators not to touch that hard-won bill.

The current law applies to students in kindergarten through fifth grade. One change the Recess Moms would like to see, Miller said, is requiring charter schools to follow the rule too.

While the newest version of the bill no longer mentions school recess, the Recess Moms say they'll be keeping a close watch on how it proceeds during next year's legislative session.

As WUSF's general assignment reporter, I cover a variety of topics across the greater Tampa Bay region.