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School Lunch and Recess Woes

Published in ChicagoNow, September 18, 2017

Evanston, Illinois supports its public schools. Last spring, we even voted for a referendum to raise our property taxes so our school children would receive good educations. Is it unreasonable to expect our school district to make changes to how lunch and recess are managed so those children we treasure can be joyful, healthy, and receptive to learning in school?

Reading a long thread on the school district’s parent Facebook page made me weep. Then, it made me angry. Folks like me, people who worked to pass that referendum, have been complaining about lunch and recess issues for years. And yet, here we are with the same old problem and no district-wide effort to address the fact that our kids don’t have enough time to eat or play outside. And in both environments, they are subjected to harsh treatment by “supervisors” who are not trained in the appropriate way to work with children.

On Facebook, a parent wrote, “My 6-year-old doesn’t want to go to lunch anymore because he gets yelled at for just talking. Anyone else hearing similar reports?” Well, that unleashed an avalanche of comments. One parent described how her daughter got in trouble for telling another child to be quiet. Another described how her child’s lunch, that she had made, packed and sent with him, was thrown away by a lunch supervisor. And there was the story of a girl yanked from behind by a different supervisor.

Another parent described how, if the children get “clapped at” three times, even if it’s within the first five minutes of the lunch period, the punishment is that they no longer get to eat. For some children, lunch is the most nutritious meal they get each day. The parent stated that withholding food as a punishment is a form of abuse, and I agree.

Excuses for the lunch problem abound. There are only 20 minutes for lunch, including the time it takes to get there and get ready for recess, because each grade level in a given school, kindergarten through fifth, needs to cycle through the lunch room. Children can’t eat in their classrooms because it would be difficult to deliver the hot lunches and, understandably, teachers need a lunch break. Plus, there are teachers’ union rules. Classes can’t double up in the lunch room, giving each grouping of two grades 30 minutes for lunch, because not all schools have enough room to accommodate two grade levels in their lunch rooms, and many more lunch supervisors would have to be hired. And it costs money to train the lunch supervisors because they would have to be paid for that. Wait a minute. Didn’t we just pass a referendum?

Many parents reported their children barely ate anything for lunch and were very hungry at the end of the day. Wonder how learning went in the afternoon? Despite all of these complaints, over many years, there is no district-wide policy about lunch. Somehow, the school board and superintendent can’t figure out how to solve the problem. Schools rely on parent volunteers, but those available at lunch hour are few and far between. As far as I know, there is no formal outreach to community volunteers, perhaps retirees, who may be available at that time of day.

The thread of over 100 comments drifted to the other part of the lunch problem: recess. One parent stated, “If you think lunch is bad, check out recess. I volunteered once. And never again… There weren’t enough monitors and I’m shocked that more kids weren’t hurt during recess.” She was at a loss for how to handle aggressive behaviors.

The flip side of the physical aggression is the “mean girl” behavior a parent witnessed, and this was on the kindergarten playground. She also saw several situations of children verbally hurting or bullying other kids. The playground supervisors who observed these incidents, or were told about them, did nothing. Can you imagine what a nightmare fifth grade recess is?

Another parent shared that she volunteered to help with kindergarten and first grade recess. So many children who felt left out by others and were lonely gravitated to her. She was saddened by the reality that there were not volunteers at other recess times to provide a sympathetic ear.

Supervision of recess is an issue, similar to the problem of poorly trained lunch supervisors. But the larger concern is, in addition to the poor quality of recess monitoring, that there is simply not enough opportunity for free play during the typical school day. I drive by empty playgrounds several times a day because I live a couple of blocks from a school. Children need more time to play, and trained personnel need to be present to ensure that play is safe and inclusive.

We all know that research supports the need for better lunch experiences and longer recess. It’s kind of like climate change. The science supports that there is a problem, but some folks persist in denying it while others feel overwhelmed by how complicated it would be to solve.

But here’s the thing. If you never try to address the issue, nothing will ever improve. Whenever I talk to parents of incoming kindergarteners, I always stress that the biggest problem for these little ones is not the academic expectations (although I have a lot to say about how inappropriate these can be). Lunch and recess are the things parents need to think about. Are their children being put under too much stress because there is not enough time to manage actually eating their lunches? Are they too burned out to learn because they don’t get enough time to move, socialize, and just play freely so they are open to learning? Sadly, I think the answer to both questions is “yes.”

One parent broke the lunch/recess time this way: “They leave her classroom at 11:00. 11-11:15 = recess time. 11:15-11:20 = getting into the lunch room. 11:20-11:30 = CHEW TIME (no talking). 11:30-11:35 = clean up time. All in all, they have 40 minutes so I guess the last 5 minutes is transporting the kids back to their classrooms.”

How about having a group of adult stakeholders (administrators, teachers, and parents) come together to brainstorm this problem. It shouldn’t take forever as the issues are clear. I have a hard time believing there is no solution. My experience as a preschool director was that no matter how thorny an issue was, there was always that moment when someone proclaimed, “I have an idea.” And that idea was often the answer we were seeking.

Despite all of the adult concerns and constraints, remember it’s the kids who really matter. Think about the little boy whose mother posted,

“He slept with his new backpack last night because he is so proud and excited to bring it to school. Yet his first words in his little raspy morning wake up voice were, I don’t want to go to lunch today mommy. Will you tell the princibull?”


by Laurie Levy
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