"Brain breaks" are becoming part of the Howard County school day, and it's all part of the fight against childhood obesity. The physical activities breaks are part of the Howard County Public School System's implementation of the not-yet-finalized policy on wellness through nutrition and physical activity, which has been in the works for more than a year.

Nothing has changed in either the policy or the implementation procedures since the second report in October 2013, said Frank Eastham, executive director of school improvement and administration when he gave a third report to the board Feb. 20. But work is continuing on rolling out the changes the board approved last spring in the schools, including incorporating more physical activity into the day.

Wellness in schools requires a multifaceted approach, said Linda Rangos, coordinator of health education for the school district. She pointed to a December publication from the Centers for Disease Control that includes a Comprehensive School Physical Activity program model for schools.

That model includes five components: quality physical education; physical activity before, during and after school; staff involvement; and family and community engagement. The school system has all of those components in place, Rangos said, so the model will be an inexpensive one to implement.

"We're not adding something new," she said. "What we need to do is strengthen the coordination and elevate the idea of physical activity in the classroom. ... We just want to give teachers some new ideas they can use in their classroom tomorrow."

Instructional resources to support physical activity in the classroom are now available on the teacher's online hub. At all three levels – elementary, middle and high school – the activities take as little as 30 seconds or as long as two minutes. The "brain breaks" are just small breaks in instruction for activity, like what Rangos called "deskercises." A "super brain break" is when the activity coordinates with the academic instruction.

"Super-charged brain breaks have a double-punch by reinforcing academic concepts through movement," Rangos said. "Someone who teaches Mandarin will say the word, an action word, and the students will do the activity next to their desks."

At the secondary level, students should be more involved in determining what the brain breaks should be, Rangos said, to come to something age- and developmentally appropriate.

Some might hear the word "break" and say schools can't afford to lose that academic time, Rangos said.

"But we cannot consider it a break," she said. "We have to consider it an intervention for our children to optimize their health and academic learning."

The board last spring voted to implement some aspects of a new wellness policy, while the policy was still being worked on. Those aspects included stricter vending machine guidelines and making breakfast available to all students at all schools. Critics, however, said the policy needed more work, and the system hired a dietitian — Ekere Ekandem Olojola — in December to help create nutritional guidelines for food served in schools.

Mary Klatko, director of food and nutrition services, also updated the board on several pilot programs at Howard and River Hill high schools, Dunloggin Middle School and Clarksville Elementary School, as well as the general state of a la carte, breakfast and lunch options in the school cafeterias.

At Clarksville, a la carte options have been increased to include apples, string cheese and small salads, among other options. At Dunloggin, a grab-and-go option has increased the number of students who purchase lunch by 22 students, Klatko said. At River Hill, more vegetarian options are available at the salad bar, like hummus, garbanzo bean salad and black bean corn salad. At Howard, a made-to-order deli bar is being used by about 25 students a day but hasn't increased the number of students purchasing lunch, Klatko said.

In the coming weeks, the system will look at recess practices, physical education, intramurals, school day end time (in regards to when less-healthy food options can begin to be served by PTAs and boosters), after-school food sales and school-level and systemwide reporting responsibilities.

A second public hearing (the first was in April 2013) is set for March 13, and a board vote is scheduled for April 10.