Anchorage students may see longer lunch and recess periods next year after the school board passed an update to its wellness policy Tuesday night.
The revised policy, which previously stipulated a 45-minute block for lunch and recess at the elementary level, now requires a minimum of 30 cumulative minutes of recess and 20 minutes of lunch — with the clock starting after students are served — among other shifts to physical education and physical activity guidelines throughout grade levels.
Many of the changes are aimed at improving students’ overall health and academic outcomes.
“The reality is that children are not programmable robots,” said school board member Kelly Lessens, who spearheaded the revisions. “They come to school with emotions and feelings. And energy. And in order to do the hard work of teaching and learning, we need to figure out how to get their brains and their bodies primed to receive that information and grow.”
While the change adds only five more minutes to the overall lunch and recess time block, Lessens said that requiring 20 minutes for lunch after students are served is a key part of the shift. Students waiting in a lunch line for 10 minutes would be left with only 10 minutes to eat, she said.
The 30-minute recess minimum could also mean significant expansion in recess for schools that were only using 20 minutes of the overall 45-minute block for recess, Lessens said.
The policy changes reflect research conducted by Dr. Juliana Cohen, an associate professor with a faculty appointment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a faculty position at Merrimack College, where she directs the Center for Health Inclusion Research and Practice.
She’s spent the past two decades researching school districts around the country to better understand ways to improve child health and student outcomes. In 2019, Cohen volunteered help to evaluate an Anchorage School District pilot wellness project.
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A 2019 ad hoc committee determined the district should rewrite the board’s existing wellness policy and create a wellness pilot program that allowed several schools in the district the opportunity to have at minimum 30 minutes of recess and 30 minutes for lunch, and movement breaks.
During that pilot project, Cohen said, parents told her students were sleeping better, and they were no longer “hangry” after having more time to eat lunch. Students at participating schools were also found to be less hungry, more focused and happier, and they had fewer disciplinary problems.
The new policy also updates language around how much physical activity students should get each day, dictates 30 minutes of lunch for secondary students, revamps physical education programming and timing, and says schools must offer students a reimbursable meal whether or not they have money to pay for it.
In Alaska, state statute requires students to get 90% of the recommended one hour of daily activity at school. That activity can come in the form of both recess and other brain breaks, like jumping jacks, and the updated policy says administrative regulations should be created to make sure students get physical activity opportunities. The policy revision says that when possible, recess should happen before lunch and take place outside.
“What’s particularly exciting about (the revised policy) is that it’s really grounded in strong evidence that suggests many of the components of it, such as these longer lunch periods, more opportunity for physical activity, really will benefit children physically, mentally and academically,” Cohen said.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many children lost out on opportunities to socialize and have fallen behind academically, Cohen said. The updated wellness policy may help address some of those issues.
While recess and lunch might be seen as a break from the school day, a lot of important learning takes place in those times too, she said. Longer recess and lunch can play a role in social and emotional learning, Cohen said.
“What we also hear is that when they come back from eating a full lunch, when they come back from exercising or playing outside or movement breaks, is that they’re more efficient learners,” Cohen said. “And so (it) really helps a lot of kids to concentrate better.”
She said that beyond longer lunch and recess, the updated policy encourages movement breaks — a shift that could help teachers integrate them into a classroom’s curriculum, like doing multiplication or counting games with jumping jacks.
“It really gives teachers this permission without being concerned that they’ll get in trouble,” she said.
Cohen also noted that the policy isn’t one-size-fits-all and can be put into practice at schools in different ways, whether that means two 15-minute recess periods, or whether they eat lunch in the classroom or cafeteria.
At the school board meeting Tuesday, superintendent Jharrett Bryantt said the Anchorage School District administration was prepared to work on implementing the new policy fully by next school year.