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Marblehead Village School Playground

Marblehead’s Recess Wars: An Update

As Marblehead Beacon reported in the fall of last year, Marblehead has endured significant controversy surrounding the issue of elementary school recess.


The topic first gained attention in the summer of 2021, when an announcement about a transition from two to one recess blocks in the elementary school schedule prompted parents to start a petition in favor of retaining the two blocks. It eventually garnered 480 signatures, and the plan to remove the second recess was rescinded.


A working group was formed to consider options, and then-Superintendent John Buckey reported back to the School Committee that the group was unable to reach a consensus. School Committee Chair Sarah Fox disputed Buckey’s statement, stating that she had been a member of the working group and her perception was that for “every parent, the administrators, and all the staff, with the exception of [former Assistant Superintendent Nan Murphy] ... the consensus was that the second recess was to the benefit of the children.” 


Nevertheless, the removal of the second recess became official policy for the 2022-2023 school year. Buckey explained to Marblehead Beacon at the time that “the school teams determined that the previous schedules did not provide adequate time for teaching and learning, and in fact were out of compliance with State requirements for minimum time on learning.”


Just this past week, the School Committee’s policy subcommittee took up the recess issue at its first meeting of the year, which took place on Zoom on August 4, 2023 with members Jenn Schaeffner and Alison Taylor in attendance, as well as Acting Superintendent Michelle Cresta. 


Two parents spoke in favor of returning additional recess time to the schedule during the public comment portion of the meeting, with Karla Strobel stating, “I am an advocate of two recesses at the school, and I implore this committee to consider reinstating two recesses in K through three,” but questioning why – if the issue was previously one of time on learning – there is now an opportunity to reconsider. Marblehead resident and mother Naomi Caselli – also a professor of education at Boston University – noted that her incoming first grader struggled with the lack of movement last year. “It has really impacted his understanding of what school and education is about and his joy for learning,” she said. “He is really, really struggling to stay in his seat for as long as he is.” Noting that this wasn’t an isolated problem but one that was common to many young students, Caselli said that, “his teacher tried to get them as many movement breaks as they could but was scared of getting in trouble for not having time on task.”


During the policy meeting, Schaeffner noted that she had done significant research about recess policies in other school districts. At present, the Marblehead wellness policy specifies a minimum of 15 minutes of recess for elementary school students per day. Schaeffner noted that Norwood has a physical activity policy – recommended by Shape America – which requires 60 minutes per day or 300 minutes per week of physical activity, including physical education classes. Wellesley’s policy, Shaeffner reported, specifies that “schools will endeavor to schedule recess prior to lunch, because research indicates that pre-lunch physical activity increases nutrient intake and reduces food waste.” Lexington, she said, has required two recess breaks per day since 2012, while Newburyport only requires one. Many districts, Schaeffner said, include a policy stating that the “withholding of recess or physical education will not be used as a form of punishment or discipline.”


Schaeffner indicated her support for modifying Marblehead’s policy, saying “I think it’s worth relooking at this in terms of having a second recess in our elementary schools.” Taylor agreed. “This is definitely something that makes my heart smile,” she said, and then called into question the argument that time on learning was a factor in removing the second recess. “There is no statute or rule that says that time on learning – particularly when you are talking about K through three – is not inclusive of putting on your snow pants and waiting in line patiently…A child isn’t going to learn at home how to stand in line with 20 of their friends.”


Taylor also noted what she sees as the benefits of physical activity, stating that research shows it will “provide for an incredible amount of improved focus during history or during math or during English” and that “given our need to do some catch up… because of Covid learning loss, I think it’s really a no brainer.”


Citing the experience of her own child at Brown School, Taylor said that there was a wide divergence among different teachers with regard to finding extra time for movement. “Some students were still allowed to go out in the playground. Other students were allowed to walk in a single file line around the playground, and others weren’t allowed to leave their classroom at all.” 


The recess discussion was also raised during public comment at the August 11th meeting of the full School Committee. Becky Suciu, noting that she is in the schools every day, advocated for scheduling recess before lunch, noting that “at the lower grades, they really just need to move.” Without a morning recess, she said, their “first opportunity to move during the day may have been their time in the lunchroom,” which is not conducive to “the kids sitting down and actually eating.”


Former School Committee member Kathy Leonardson also spoke about recess during public comment, expressing her belief that the number of recesses should be left up to the educators, not to the School Committee, because this “is an implementation question, and not a policy question.” Noting her own lack of trust in this School Committee, she suggested that the discussion about recess during the policy committee meeting was “an end run around the educational professionals and the School Committee’s own policies, appropriating the power of the superintendent or acting superintendent to yourselves.”


The School Committee did vote on August 11th to approve a new wellness policy and to forego the typical requirement of three separate readings before the School Committee, but the new policy does not make any changes to the recess requirements. Rather, the approval was done in an accelerated fashion to ensure that Marblehead is eligible to participate in the newly approved statewide program for permanently funding free school lunches for Kindergarten through 12th grade public school students. The wellness policy – including the recess component – can still be modified in the future. 


While acknowledging the interest in extending the recess time allotment, Cresta also noted during the policy subcommittee meeting that “the schedules have already been set for this year” and “I would hesitate to move anything ahead too quickly.”


Newly appointed Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning Julia Ferreira agreed that “it is a balance with the time on learning and the requirements we have from the [Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE)] with the constraints of the school day and our contractual obligations with our teachers as well.” 


Both Schaeffner and Taylor questioned the time-on-learning justification. “I will continue to push back on the idea that [recess] isn’t time on learning,” Taylor said. “DESE could not point me to where it states that that is not included in it.” Schaeffner concurred, noting that “other school districts in their policies have more minutes than we do, without having a longer school day.” 


Ferreira emphasized her enthusiasm for finding a resolution. “I’m just excited to collaborate with this,” she said, “I think having everyone at the table would be very helpful.” There is a tentative plan in place to reconvene on this topic next week with additional staff members and teachers to participate. 


Editor’s note: School Committee member Jenn Schaeffner is a Marblehead Beacon founder and editor. She is recusing herself from Marblehead Beacon’s coverage of the School Committee and anything pertaining to Marblehead Public Schools.