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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In 2007, legislators asked the state Department of Education how much it would cost for every student to have physical education five days a week.
"It seemed like the obvious step to take," said Sen. Erik Wells, D-Kanawha. One in four fifth-graders has high blood pressure and cholesterol. One in four eleven-year-olds is obese, a clear red flag for the future.
They sent the department a resolution that began with "Whereas, seven of 10 West Virginians will die of heart disease, cancer or stroke; and whereas, 28 percent of West Virginia fifth-graders ... have one or more cardiovascular risk factors ..."
"We knew that, if we could get our kids active, we could prevent a lot of type 2 diabetes, obesity and heart disease," said Sen. Dan Foster, D-Kanawha.
But to their dismay, state Department of Education officials told them daily P.E would cost between $13 million and $1.5 billion.
"The legislators got upset at us for that," said Melanie Purkey, director of the state Office of Healthy Schools, "but they asked for the cost of physical education, not the cost of physical activity."
Wells is still upset. "The department knowingly and effectively killed any effort to have physical education five days a week," he said. "At interims, when Melanie said $1.5 billion, you could just see legislators shifting to 'Well, we can forget that.'
"I have learned that when the department doesn't want something, they put a high estimate on it," he said.
"We had to give them a range, so we had to include the worst case scenario," Purkey said. The $1.5 billion included a gym for every school that didn't have one, she said. The low end, $13 million, added classroom space only.
"We don't need all those new gyms and classrooms, just to get kids moving five days a week," Wells said.
Purkey agrees. There are other ways kids can be active every day for a fraction of that cost, she told the Gazette-Mail in January. In the past five years, given the obesity epidemic, there has been a national movement to get kids moving through physical activity, she said.
"If the Legislature had asked us for the cost of daily physical activity, instead of physical education, the numbers would have been much lower," she said.
"As soon as you use the words 'physical education,' you run into code and policy requirements:" teacher certification, facility specifications, scheduling and teacher/pupil ratio," she said. "We had to take all that into account."
"Physical activity" has no such requirements under West Virginia law. It means get kids moving: running, jumping rope, zumba, walking, whatever. Anyone approved by a school can supervise physical activity. It can happen anywhere, anytime it fits.
Physical education involves classroom time, learning about the body and its functions. Physical activity is simply moving the body. "Physical activity costs very little and is very do-able," Purkey said. "You can require all kids to participate."
"Well, why didn't they say that five years ago?" Wells asked. "Why didn't they say then that daily physical education may not be doable, but there's something else we can do?
"We tried to tell them," Purkey said.
She added, "We don't want more bad P.E.," of the type that causes kids to hate exercising or is a classroom, non-movement situation. "We're concentrating on improving the quality of what we have."
What's the difference between education and activity?
State Schools Superintendent Jorea Marple is a strong advocate of daily exercise, any way it can happen. "We've got to look at what's possible," she said.