The current elementary school schedule in Fairfax County is irresponsible

The Fairfax Times article entitled Fairfax elementary schools watch the clock was reprinted in the Washington Post April 10 under the title “A push to clock in longer at school.” This appeared in the Fairfax Edition of Local Living.

“Interim Deputy Superintendent Dan Parris is leading a working group to study options for improved school schedules across all grade levels, K through 12, according to FCPS spokesman John Torre,” Kate Yanchulis reported. “Yet School Board member Janie Strauss (Dranesville) urges caution in considering a change. As with everything in the school system, Strauss said, the elementary school schedule represents a delicate balance.”

I posted some comments after this article:

“A delicate balance” is not how I would describe the elementary school schedule in Fairfax County Public Schools.  “Out of whack” is more like it.

This article explains that Fairfax provides “a combined 40 minutes each day for lunch and recess.”

Only 10 minutes per day for recess. Really?  Does this make any sense at all? No. And yet this is the unrealistic and impractical limit supposedly in effect for the last seven years. The absurdly limited schedule imposed on the elementary school students in Fairfax County is so confusing that few people understand it in the first place.

Thankfully, the 10-minute recess is rarely enforced. However, this leaves students with less than the mandated amount of instructional time. So, please, let’s not pretend that the current schedule should continue any longer. This is educational malpractice.

The current elementary school schedule is not a carefully considered plan with “a delicate balance.”

The current policy of dismissing elementary school students 2 ½ or 2 hours early every Monday is irresponsible.

See also Fairfax Times reports on the Full Schooldays petition.

Reston Now posts poll about “Mini Mondays”

“A grassroots movement is underway to try and get Fairfax County Public Schools to reconsider half-day Mondays,” Karen Goff reports. Afternoon Poll: Should FCPS Elementary Students Have ‘Mini Mondays?’ | Reston Now.

Full Schooldays has also organized a petition to gather signatures of support to send to the FCPS school board.

“The elementary school schedule is too short,” says the petition. “Fairfax prides itself on being a leader in American public education, but it is stuck in the past in clinging to such a short schedule for elementary schools. Students are sent home 2 ½ or 2 hours early every Monday. The students should be allowed to stay in school for at least 6 hours and 40 minutes every single day of the week.”

I posted comments refuting a statement by Jane Strauss, the Fairfax County School Board representative for Dranesville District, that full-day Mondays would mean about a seven percent increase in teacher salary costs. I also noted that the statement that “if the Tuesday through Friday schedule were shortened and the time added back to Monday, there might not be any cost,” is wrong.

I’m glad Reston Now is highlighting this important issue.

Snow days highlight scheduling issues in school districts

Snow and severe winter take a toll on classroom learning. Washington Post reporters Donna St. George and Michael Alison Chandler report:

Schools could be grappling for weeks with the academic fallout of one of Washington’s snowiest winters in recent memory, capped by Monday’s late-spring storm and the potential for more this week. Educators say the gaps in instruction time may take an extra toll on students who struggle in class and that college-bound juniors and seniors might face the most pressure because they have lost so much preparation time for end-of-course exams and Advanced Placement tests.

I commented:

There have been several news stories about the new 10-minute limit to recess in Prince William County to make up time lost to snow days. Fairfax has had a 10-minute limit to recess for the last seven years; however, currently there is no written directive about the length of time that should be allowed for recess.  Most students are allowed more than 10 minutes for recess.  However, when this happens, the students are not getting the time required for the standard school day in the Standards of Accreditation. This is a problem.  It can be fixed ending the policy of dismissing all elementary school students 2 ½ or 2 hours early every Monday. There is a petition urging the Fairfax County School Board to take this action: Stop Monday Early Dismissals and Provide More Recess Time | Change.org.

Fairfax does not stipulate how long recess should be

On February 27 I requested a copy of any written policy on the subject of recess in the elementary schools in Fairfax County Public Schools and any instructions to elementary school principals regarding recess. On March 14, I received a reply from Brandynn Reaves, Public Information Specialist, Department of Communications & Community Outreach.

It is significant that there is currently no written directive about the length of time that should be allowed for recess. However, we need to keep in mind that the number of hours in the current elementary school week only allows enough time for a maximum of 10 minutes per day of recess while still meeting the state requirements for the length of time in the standard school day.

Here is the information on the FCPS policy regarding recess:

The Commonwealth of Virginia’s Standards of Accreditation require a daily recess but the length of that recess or its location is not stipulated.  The Code of Virginia §22.1-207 states that physical and health education shall be emphasized throughout the public school curriculum by lessons, drills and physical exercises, and all pupils in the public elementary, middle, and high schools shall receive as part of the educational program such health instruction and physical training as shall be prescribed by the Board of Education and approved by the State Board of Health.  Here is a link to the code:  http://leg1.state.va.us/cgi-bin/legp504.exe?000+cod+22.1-207.

Fairfax County Public Schools’ (FCPS) Regulation 5008.2 addresses recess in elementary schools.  It states that “Elementary schools provide daily recess that promotes physical activity beyond physical education classes.”  For your convenience here is a link to the regulation: http://www.boarddocs.com/vsba/fairfax/Board.nsf/files/8JYHAH478D58/$file/R5008.pdf.

Additional information about Fairfax County Public School’s Health and Physical Education program can be found at: http://www.fcps.edu/is/hpe/index.shtml.

The Office of Safety and Security (OSS) encourages teachers and administrators at elementary schools to create a safe and fun environment for recess.  When the weather is inclement or when there are extremes in temperature, FCPS will often issue warnings to administrators regarding air quality or student safety.  Here is a link to the OSS’ Cold Weather Safety Sheet: http://www.fcps.edu/fts/safety-security/publications/seh-23.pdf.  FCPS’ OSS also publishes a Safety Rules for Outdoor Recess Fact Sheet (SAF-2) and the Playground Supervision Guidelines for Staff and Volunteers Fact Sheet (SAF-33) which can be found on the OSS General School Safety Fact Sheet website.

School administrators are also reminded that the school grounds (to include the playgrounds) should be inspected daily by custodial staff to determine whether any vandalism or significant safety issues have occurred overnight. On playgrounds, school staff should be noting playground equipment or ground cover in need of repair or replenishment.

Fairfax working group will propose improved school schedules

On Friday Tricia Cowell and I discussed our concerns about the current elementary school schedules with Interim Deputy Superintendent Dan Parris and our excellent representatives on the Fairfax County School Board: Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield District) and Sandy Evans (Mason District). Parris is leading a working group that is studying ways of improving the schedules. One of the goals is providing full-day Mondays for the elementary school students.

The current schedule for the elementary schools does not provide sufficient time to allow any more than 10 minutes a day for recess while also meeting the requirements in the Standards of Accreditation for the standard school day. The length of time spent at recess varies from school to school. Parris said he did not have statistics on the amount of time allowed for recess at all of the elementary schools.

Fairfax considers alternative ways to provide sufficient time in school

Kate Yanchulis reports on  future options for snow days in Fairfax County. “This year, the school system has added two days to the end of the year to help make up for the large number of closings, pushing the last day of school from Friday, June 20, to Tuesday, June 24. Extending the length of the school day and building more cushioning into the calendar from the start were both offered as ideas to consider.”

This report avoids mentioning the gaping hole in the current Fairfax County schedule for the elementary schools. Dismissing all elementary school students either 2 ½ or 2 hours early every Monday is shortchanging the students from having the number of hours in schools supposedly guaranteed by the Standards of Accreditation.  Since September 2007, Fairfax County Public Schools has had a policy limiting recess to a maximum of 10 minutes per day. This is absurdly restrictive. The time for recess should be expanded. It is true that most, if not all, Fairfax schools do allow more than 10 minutes per day for recess. However, that means that the schools are not providing the number of instructional hours required in the Standards of Accreditation.

Extending the length of Mondays in the elementary schools is not merely an idea to consider–it is something that must be done. Period. The Fairfax County School Board must stop Monday early dismissals and provide more recess time.

School divisions are expected to comply with state regulations

Yesterday I received a confirmation from the Virginia Department of Education that “School divisions are expected to comply with the Board of Education’s regulations.  The regulation that you cite may be found in 8 VAC 20-131-150 of the Regulations Establishing Standards for Accrediting Public Schools in Virginia (Standards of Accreditation):  http://leg1.state.va.us/cgi-bin/legp504.exe?000+reg+8VAC20-131-150

Here is the text from the previous link:

8VAC20-131-150. Standard school year and school day.

A. The standard school year shall be 180 instructional days. The standard school day for students in grades 1 through 12 shall average at least 5-1/2 instructional hours, excluding breaks for meals and recess, and a minimum of three hours for kindergarten.

B. All students in grades 1 through 12 shall maintain a full day schedule of classes (5-1/2 hours), unless a waiver is granted in accordance with policies defined by the local school board.

Statutory Authority

§§ 22.1-19 and 22.1-253.13:3 of the Code of Virginia.

Historical Notes

Derived from Virginia Register Volume 14, Issue 1, eff. October 29, 1997; amended, Virginia Register Volume 16, Issue 25, eff. September 28, 2000; Volume 22, Issue 24, eff. September 7, 2006.

I received this confirmation from Anne Wescott, Assistant Superintendent for Policy and Communications, Virginia Department of Education.

This should be a wake-up call to the Fairfax County School Board. Most elementary schools do not meet the requirement for the standard school day. The total overall time the elementary school students have in school averages 6 hours and 10 minutes per day. One half hour of this time is devoted to lunch. Therefore 10 minutes per day is available for recess. However, most schools allow students to have more than 10 minutes per day for recess, therefore these students have less than 5 ½ hours in the standard school day. Fairfax can easily correct this deficiency by ending Monday early dismissals.

Board of Supervisors should provide the funds requested by the school board

I disagree with those who say that the Fairfax County School Board’s request for an increase in the transfer of 5.7 percent from Fairfax County is overly ambitious. The Advertised Budget of $2.5 billion is a net increase of only 2.4 percent, or $59.4 million, from the FY 2014 Approved Budget. The school system needs at least this amount of money to cover enrollment growth, an increase in health insurance rates, an increase in contributions to the Virginia Retirement System, and to provide an adequate schedule for the elementary school students.

Today’s snow day is another reminder that the elementary school schedule in Fairfax is substandard. There have been several news reports about the new 10-minute limit for recess in Prince William County. Reporters have failed to note that Fairfax County has had a nominal limit of 10 minutes per day for recess for the past seven years. This schedule is inadequate and unrealistic. It is true that most students are allowed more than 10 minutes for recess. However, when this happens, the students are not getting the time required for the standard school day in the Standards of Accreditation. The time provided for the elementary school students is not sufficient. Fairfax should fix this problem by ending Monday early dismissals.

Although it is possible to implement full-day Mondays without additional cost, I think it would be preferable to provide additional funding to provide alternative planning time for the teachers. I believe that FCPS should provide a minimum of five hours of planning time per week within the student day for every full-time elementary school teacher. This increase of 2 ½ hours more than is now provided would compensate for eliminating the Monday afternoon planning time. This was the recommendation of the Time and Learning Task Force in 1996.

The funding for this additional staffing in the elementary schools could be provided by reallocating some of the money in the school board’s Advertised Budget. The Priority Schools Initiative could be eliminated for a savings of $4.6 million and the reduction in “needs-based” staffing could be increased by another $12 million or so.

This is money that could be reallocated from the budget with a 5.7 increase in the transfer. If the Board of Supervisors adopts County Executive Ed Long’s proposal for only a two percent increase in the transfer, that would make it very difficult to provide the additional staffing that could facilitate an acceptable elementary school schedule.

Providing an elementary school schedule which complies with the requirements of the Standards of Accreditation and also provides more than 10 minutes per day for recess is one of the fundamental responsibilities of both the Fairfax County School Board and the Board of Supervisors. It is a false economy and a risky strategy to provide a substandard schedule for elementary school students. This schedule needs to be fixed as soon as possible. Fairfax needs to stop Monday early dismissals and provide more recess time.

Fairfax officials avoid mention of recess in discussing exercise

The Fairfax County Public Schools administrators are trying to fly under the radar again by avoiding any mention of recess in their presentation to the Governance Work session of the school board scheduled for Monday, March 3.

One document, entitled Instructional Program, says “The Superintendent shall maintain a program of instruction that offers challenging and relevant opportunities for all students to achieve at levels defined in the Board’s Student Achievement Goals policies.”

The 12th item states that the Superintendent shall “Operate an innovative, self-supporting child nutrition program that meets or exceeds Federal guidelines and that promotes healthy choices and wellness.”

No mention of exercise as a part of wellness. The Instructional Program Operational  Expectations Measures adds information on how to measure this: “Annually update curriculum to promote healthy choices and wellness for students through the instructional program.”

Next we have Learning Environment-Treatment of Students. It states, “The Superintendent shall establish and maintain a learning environment that is safe, healthful, non-discriminatory, respectful and conducive to effective learning.”

Included in this is a requirement that the Superintendent shall “Provide school environments that are healthful for students, promoting proper exercise, nutrition, and proper sleep.”

FCPS deserves a failing grade for this metric. It is hard to talk about “promoting proper exercise” while clinging to an absurd restriction limiting recess periods to 10 minutes per day.

In the operational expectations measures for the learning environment, more details are given. Here is the section dealing with healthful environments for students:

 4. Provide school environments that are healthful for students, promoting proper exercise, nutrition, and proper sleep.

1.19 Measure
Increase in the number of students in Physical Education grades 6-12 monitoring and adjusting a nutrition and fitness plan before exiting high school

1.10 Measure
Increase in the number of sleep logs recorded by students as part of Living Fit in Fairfax Grant. Increase in the hours of sleep reported by middle and high school students.

1.11 Measure
Ratio of students supported by Social Workers, Psychologists and School Counseling professionals in comparison with national benchmarks.

It is clear from the sketchy measures listed for providing school environments that are healthful for students that the top administrators in FCPS are not at all proud of their preposterous limit of 10 minutes per day for recess. Perhaps FCPS administrators and some school board members are hoping that they don’t have to actually defend a limit of 10 minutes a day for recess. If they are not willing to defend it, why don’t they get rid of it?

Fairfax needs to stop Monday early dismissals and provide more recess time.

I protested a six-minute limit to recess seven years ago

Seven years ago I complained to the Fairfax County School Board that six minutes per day was not nearly enough time for recess. I also noted that some schools were in violation of the requirement that a shortened day must be at least four hours long. Later that year the administration lengthened the school hours to comply with the four-hour minimum day and to provide 10 minutes per day for recess, still a ridiculously short period of time.

It is unbelievable that after seven years Fairfax County school leaders seem to think they can continue to shortchange the elementary school students. Fairfax County has not really won the argument that 10 minutes is sufficient for recess. School administrators have carefully avoided publicizing the nominal 10-minute limit to recess. Although some school board members are asking questions, so far the School Board has refused to place the issue of the elementary school schedule on the agenda. This has got to change. We are going to shine a light on the facts about the elementary school schedules in Fairfax County.

Let’s make public the evidence in this case. Here is the text of a statement I made to the school board seven years ago:

Virginia Fitz Shea
….

Comments to the Fairfax County School Board; April 26, 2007; Regular Meeting No. 18; Agenda Item 4.01

Chairman Storck, Superintendent Dale, and members of the School Board, I urge you to revise the operational expectations monitoring report for the instructional program and treatment of students. One of the interpretations states that “FCPS provides additional time for learning through before and after school programs, extended days, pre-kindergarten and full-day kindergarten, modified calendar schools, and in the summer.”

I recommend adding that “FCPS shall meet or exceed the requirements in the regulations of the Commonwealth of Virginia for the number of hours all students spend in school.”

Fairfax County must expand the amount of time that many of its elementary students are in school each week in order to comply with the Standards of Accreditation, which state that the standard school year shall be 180 instructional days and “The standard school day for students in grades 1 through 12 shall average at least 5-1/2 instructional hours, excluding breaks for meals and recess, and a minimum of three hours for kindergarten.”[1]

Fairfax County has set 30 minutes as the time allowed for lunch. Adding a 30 minute lunch period each day to 5 ½ hours of instruction totals 30 hours per week, not counting recess. If a school planned to provide at least 10 minutes of recess per day, the school would need to provide at least 30 hours and 50 minutes for each 5-day school week. The attached chart listing the weekly hours for Fairfax County elementary schools shows that most of the elementary school students are in school for only 30 hours and 30 minutes per week. So it would appear that either these students are offered only six minutes per day for recess (scarcely enough time to walk to and from the playground) or else recess cuts into the mandated instructional time. Some schools provide even less time in school.

Fairfax County should provide more time in school for elementary school students by ending the Monday early dismissal policy. Only 16 elementary schools in the county provide students with a full day of classes on Mondays. The others dismiss students up to two hours and 50 minutes early to give teachers planning time. Although up to one shortened day in each five-day week is allowed by the Virginia Department of Education, the regulations stipulate that the day “may be shortened to no less than four hours.” [2]

As can be seen in the chart, 16 elementary schools provide only 3 hours and 50 minutes in school on Mondays, a clear violation of the law. I would like to call particular attention to the concluding sentence in this regulation: “The student day here described shall be considered a minimum day rather than an optimum day, a longer student day is encouraged to accommodate the instructional program and student needs.”

For most elementary schools, Fairfax County not only falls short of an optimum schedule, it falls short of the minimum schedule required by the state. In effect, Fairfax County is breaking the law of the Commonwealth of Virginia. I urge you to take immediate action to ensure compliance with state law and to provide an adequate elementary school schedule for all students by September 2007.

[I attached a chart showing elementary school hours. Since my request for a copy of the bell schedules was denied, I checked the website of each school or phoned the front office to get this information.]


[1] Title 8 of the Virginia Administrative Code, Section 20-31-150

[2] Title 8 of the Virginia Administrative Code, Section 20-490-30