Is Your School Ready for New Recess Policies? | Procopio, Cory, Hargreaves & Savitch LLP
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Is Your School Ready for New Recess Policies? | Procopio, Cory, Hargreaves & Savitch LLP

Beginning with the upcoming 2024-25 school year, new recess requirements will go into effect in California for elementary schools, including charter schools. These changes will impact public schools that offer recess from kindergarten through 6th grade, unless the school only serves 6th grade as part of the high school and/or middle school curriculum. The new requirements are the result of Education Code Section 49056, added by Senate Bill 291 (SB 291). The education budget bill signed into law on June 29, 2024, Senate Bill 153 (SB 153), made further changes.

The purpose of the new law

SB 291 was passed in 2023, adding new recess requirements to Education Code Section 49056 that will go into effect in the upcoming 2024-25 school year. Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, SB 291’s authors recognized the long-term effects of the pandemic on children’s social-emotional development, which manifested in the form of widespread behavioral disruptions in classrooms. The purpose of SB 291 is to prioritize and protect unstructured play and peer-to-peer social interaction in schools, in part to help schools address the behavioral needs of students.

The SB 291 bill also noted research indicating that recess can allow children to test and push their limits, develop physical fitness, and master new skills. While recess in public schools has declined during the No Child Left Behind era, the bill’s author noted that recess is making a comeback.

SB 291 was aimed at elementary schools and this was confirmed by the grade level amendments adopted in the recent education budget bill, SB 153.

No requirement to offer breaks, but new requirements for elementary schools that do offer breaks

Recess is not mandatory in California public schools at any grade level, although school districts are encouraged to provide daily recess for elementary school students. SB 291 did not change that, although the author noted that eight states require recess. Earlier versions of the legislation would have made recess mandatory in California at some grade levels, and news articles about those early versions led to some confusion in schools. The final, approved version of Education Code section 49056 does not require schools to offer breaks. Instead, this adds new requirements for elementary schools that offer recess.

Definition of primary school

The recess requirements in Education Code Section 49056 apply only to “elementary” public schools. An “elementary” school is defined as a public school that serves all grades TK through 6. If a school serves only 6th grade as part of its high school and/or junior high school curriculum and does not serve any lower grades, the school is exempt from the new law provided it provides physical education classes to its students.t first-grade students.

For schools that provide grades TK-6 as well as grades higher than TK-6 — for example, TK-12 or TK-8 charter schools — the law applies only to recess provided to students in grades TK-6.

If you have questions about whether the new law applies to your school’s grade system, please contact our attorneys.

Definition of “break”

The new law defines the term “recess” broadly to include a period of time during the school day, separate and distinct from physical education and meals, during which students are provided with supervised and unstructured time to engage in any of the following activities:

  • physical activity;
  • play;
  • organized games; or
  • social involvement of peers.

Schools should read this definition carefully to determine whether the new law affects their programs. Any school offering this type of break, regardless of whether it is called a “break,” must comply with the new law. Some schools may offer breaks only at certain grade levels or only at certain tracks within a grade level, and SB 291 does not require a school to offer breaks uniformly across grade levels or across the board. Instead, SB 291 adds new requirements for any breaks a school already offers or plans to offer in its core program.

New requirements for schools offering breaks

Beginning in the 2024–2025 school year, public school-sponsored breaks must meet all of the following requirements set forth in new Education Code Section 49056:

  1. Recess must be at least 30 minutes on regular school days and at least 15 minutes on early release days. Please note that a break is not required on days set aside for field trips or other specific educational activities.
  2. Recess must be provided in one or more time slots independent of physical education and meal times. The total 30 minutes (15 minutes on early release days) of recess may be split into multiple recess periods, and these recess periods may be combined with lunch or PE. However, the bell schedule should clearly separate recess from PE and meals. Students may be provided with a snack during recess, but the school may not count any portion of meal time as part of the 30-minute recess period.
  3. The break must take place outdoors, weather and air quality permitting. If there is not enough outdoor space, which is the case in some schools, recess may be held indoors. It is important to note that there is no explanation for what constitutes an outdoor recess under the new law. These are local decisions, meaning schools have the flexibility to use their best judgment on when to hold recess indoors.
  4. A break is a must follow the student’s Individual Education Plan (IEP) or Section 504 plan. Schools already do this, but protections are built into the new law to ensure schools offer recess to all students. In each case, consider how your school enables students to take recess in accordance with their IEP or 504 Plan. This could include supports that address physical accessibility, behavioral challenges, or social interactions.
  5. Pupils A student may not be deprived of recess unless participation in recess poses a direct threat to his or her own safety or the safety of his or her peers. This new requirement is intended to ensure that schools do not view recess as a form of punishment or discipline for students, as was previously permitted. If a school must deny recess to a specific student due to an immediate threat to safety, the school is required to make every reasonable effort to resolve such threats and minimize the exclusion to the greatest extent possible. For example, if a school separated two students due to a disagreement that could escalate into a fight, the school must make every reasonable effort to resolve the situation and allow both students to participate in recess, if possible. As noted in #4 above, schools should also consider whether the student’s disability (if any) is a contributing factor to the denial of recess. If so, it may be necessary to provide additional supports and accommodations to accommodate the student’s IEP or 504 Plan in lieu of denying recess. Of course, the school should also follow its student disciplinary procedures, safety plan, and threat assessment procedures, as appropriate.

Please note that the above requirements apply only if the school offers recess as defined in the statute. Education Code Section 49056 does not require schools to begin offering recess if they did not already offer it.