Originally published Feb. 10, 2019 in The Bulletin.

By Jackson Hogan

Despite the state giving Oregon schools a few more years to meet a minimum number of physical education minutes per week, many Central Oregon school districts are still struggling to provide gym time for elementary and middle school students.

Many district officials say meeting requirements is difficult due to a lack of gym space, not enough staff and little funding from the state.

Ryan Douglass, the physical education teacher at Buckingham Elementary School, watches as a group of his students participate in an activity station during a physical education class on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019. (Ryan Brennecke/Bulletin photo)

“We believe in activity; we know it’s good for kids, … but we’re not sure the letter of the law is good for the system,” said Sisters School District Superintendent Curtiss Scholl. “It makes us make some interesting choices with our staffing.”

The Oregon Department of Education is mandating 150 minutes of PE per week for elementary students by the 2020-21 school year, and 225 minutes per week for middle school students by the 2022-23 school year. Originally, those deadlines were set for 2017-18, but the state pushed back the deadline in 2017 because most schools were not close enough to the benchmark. In 2015-16, most elementary students statewide only had about 75 minutes of PE, and middle school students averaged between 142 and 159 minutes per week, according to the agency.

The increase in PE time was based on a recommendation from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which said a high amount of physical activity correlates with strong academic achievement and can help fight obesity, according to the Oregon Department of Education.

Some Central Oregon school districts have plans in place to meet the state mandate. Stacy Smith, Crook County School District’s director of curriculum and instruction, said his district is exploring increasing the amount of physical activity in normal elementary classrooms. The district is also looking into hiring more full-time employees to specialize in teaching PE throughout the district, he said.

Right now, elementary students in Crook County schools average 100 minutes of PE per week, while middle school students have 143 minutes per week.

Culver School District, which has one PE teacher for the middle and elementary school, will be hiring a new PE teacher just for elementary students for the 2019-20 school year, said Superintendent Stefanie Garber. This will boost elementary PE time from 60 minutes per week to 150, as the K-5 students will be able to take PE classes more than twice a week. The district is also ordering a curtain to split one of its two gyms in half, so two PE classes can run at the same time.

“It’s doable, you just have to get used to some noise,” Garber said of the split-gym plan. “I’m so excited that the kids will get physical activity every day.”

In Jefferson County School District, elementary students currently go through a rotation between PE, music and library/technology classes, meaning the amount of dedicated gym time can vary from twice to four times each week in 30- or 40-minute sessions. According to Superintendent Ken Parshall, the district is considering devoting more of that rotational time towards PE, but warned that this could take away from time in the library and in music class for elementary students.

Central Oregon’s two largest school districts, Bend-La Pine and Redmond, said they were exploring options to find more time in the day for PE. Skip Offenhauser, Bend-La Pine’s executive director of curriculum and instructional technology, said PE minutes vary depending on the school, but on average, middle schoolers get 220 minutes per week and elementary students are between 75 and 90 minutes per week. Offenhauser didn’t provide any specific examples of how Bend-La Pine might increase its schools’ gym time.

Linda Seeberg, Redmond School District’s executive director of academic achievement, said the district’s middle schoolers are currently on-track with the state mandate, but elementary students are only at about 90 minutes per week. This spring, elementary principals and teachers will be meeting to brainstorm ideas to boost PE time for K-5 students, Seeberg said. Options include having a schoolwide “morning gathering” for physical activities, hiring more PE teachers, having small physical-activity breaks in regular classrooms or even having PE teachers oversee more than one class at once — an option gym teachers aren’t thrilled with, Seeberg admitted.

Meanwhile, in Sisters, meeting the PE requirements is proving to be difficult. Scholl said Sisters Elementary School only has one small gym for its 306 students, meaning they can only have so many PE classes per day, especially given Sisters’ cold winters.

“When it’s 11 degrees in the morning, taking kids out in the field isn’t going to happen,” he said.

At the middle school, gym space isn’t a problem, but because there’s only one teacher each for PE and health, there isn’t enough staff to teach enough PE classes to meet the state requirements, Scholl said. Because he feels the state isn’t providing enough funding for schools, adding more teachers for those subjects in both elementary and middle schools is a challenge, he said.

Many other local school districts also said they’d have to figure out how to meet PE requirements despite most of their middle school gym teachers also teaching health classes.

A 2017 PE legislative report from the Oregon Department of Education recommended allocating more funding for K-8 PE classes, and department spokesman Peter Rudy said the amount of money dedicated will depend on what the Legislature passes in the current session. There are also PE teacher hiring grants provided by the agency every biennium, most recently $4.5 million in grants.

Rudy added that if districts are out of compliance with the PE requirements, the state will give schools resources such as free options for physical instruction led by classroom teachers and professional development opportunities. However, if schools still can’t reach the required levels, eventually, some state funds could be withheld, Rudy said.

Still, many administrators understand why the state wants more gym time.

“Even though this is a challenge for us, we recognize the importance of the push at the state level to get kids more physical activity,” Seeberg said.

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