Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
OGDEN — With year-end testing rearing its head in Utah's public schools, some Ogden elementary students may find themselves spending more time with their books than on the playground.
Several schools have elected to temporarily suspend the afternoon recess period for some elementary school students in an effort to optimize instructional time, said Donna Corby, spokeswoman for Ogden School District. She said the decision to hold or withhold afternoon recess is at the discretion of a teacher based on the individual needs of the classroom.
Ogden elementary students traditionally receive a morning and afternoon recess in addition to a classroom break for lunch. Corby said the district policy applies only to the afternoon break and does not constitute permanent decisions.
"This gives the teacher the flexibility to say, 'I don't want to interrupt this science experiment to have kids run around,'" Corby said.
The decision to allow teachers flexibility on afternoon recess began evolving during the winter months when inclement whether and an especially severe inversion led educators to question whether outdoor play was the most efficient use of time, she said. While the weather may have warmed up, students are now entering the end-of-year testing season, where educators are under renewed pressure to get struggling students up to grade level.
Because it is an optional decision, Corby said the district has not tracked which, or how many, of its 14 elementary school have suspended recess periods.
Ogden School District is one of the most ethnically and economically diverse school districts in the state. Ogden's elementary schools have historically been among Utah's worst-performing schools, but last year the district saw dramatic improvement in student proficiency after implementing a rigorous data-driven and individualized approach to education.
"We need every instructional day and every instructional minute to make sure our students are prepared," Corby said.
In recent years, public schools have been charged with both increasing academic performance and combating childhood obesity. In 2010, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 — an initiative championed by first lady Michelle Obama — which led to more healthy school lunch options being mandated in schools.
Last week, Granite School District received an award for its commitment to physical education from Champions for America's Future, a nonprofit organization that advocates for health and fitness education. Jenny Grosh, Granite's elementary physical education coordinator, said the district is unique in that certified PE specialists are assigned to each elementary school to conduct PE classes at least once a week.
But Grosh said that health and fitness for children goes beyond the unstructured play of recess or even dodge ball games in a gym class. She said Granite's PE curriculum instructs students on healthy living habits that contribute to a lifestyle of fitness. She also said that teachers in the district are encouraged to engage students in short five-minute activity breaks throughout the day.
Most of Granite's elementary schools have two recess periods in addition to lunch, spokesman Ben Horsley said, but at some schools fifth- and sixth-grade students are given only one recess period.
Similarly, elementary students in Canyons School District are given a 30-minute lunch break and one 15-minute recess during the day, according to district spokeswoman Jennifer Toomer-Cook.
Linda Mayne, interim health and physical education specialist for the State Office of Education, said the state does not dictate how much time students should spend in recess, instead allowing local school communities to make those decisions. She acknowledged that schools are under increasing pressure to perform in academic areas like math and English, but was also concerned that schools may be tempted to limit a student's chances to be active during the day.
"I would hope everyone would be concerned," she said. "We are currently observing a rise in childhood diabetes."
Mayne agreed that structured PE courses potentially contribute more to lasting lifestyle choices than the disorganized play of recess. But she said its clear that giving students time during the day for activity helps them focus and perform better in class.
"Kids do better if they get out and run," she said. "It gets blood flowing, and they just do better."
Corby said Ogden teachers who elect to suspend the afternoon recess are encouraged to give students an opportunity to walk around and use the restroom or to even lead the class in a short period of basic calisthenics.
"Childhood obesity is a larger problem than the amount of time that a child is at recess," she said. "The Ogden School District is very interested in promoting healthy lifestyles in our students."
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