Originally published March 17, 2021 by Merion West.
By Stefanie Meyer and Collin Webster
Over this past year with the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, questions such as who should go to work, what services are essential, and which health needs are most important were left in large part to local decision-makers. One of the key questions faced by school board members, city councils, state legislators, and governors at the start of the pandemic last March was what to do about schools.
Across much of the country, the decision was made to close school campuses and shift to virtual learning for the remainder of the spring. Subsequently, less than half of K-12 schools reopened for in-person instruction in the fall.
Unfortunately, school closures and the postponement of reopening have resulted in loss of structured physical activity opportunities for children and adolescents. During the pandemic, kids have been less active and, thus, are at risk of becoming more overweight. Physical activity benefits children’s physical, social, and mental health and also supports their academics. Yet, paradoxically, it appears as a nation that our collective response to the pandemic has exacerbated the pre-existing epidemic of physical inactivity amid efforts to protect people’s health. Recent studies have shown that K-12 schools are not super-spreaders of COVID-19, if guidelines are followed including masks and reducing the size of gatherings. This prompts the question: Have persistent school closures been the optimal course of action for children’s health?
We are still learning about the virus and all the impacts that it has had (and will continue to have) on children’s lives. There is talk of “learning loss” and federal funding to help close that gap. What about other gaps? It is critical that whole-person well-being be considered when making decisions that affect children’s health, now and in the future. Decisions about how best to handle school operations are particularly important to ensuring children receive the opportunities they need to meet physical activity guidelines.
The first author of this piece (Stefanie Meyer) is a school board member in North Dakota. She felt the weight of the nearly impossible decisions regarding the health and well-being of kids, teachers, and families that would be impacted by school closures. After much discussion with the community and administration, her school board decided to re-open schools—in-person—starting in August of last year. Board members and district officials had guidance from state leadership but were given the autonomy to decide for themselves how best to move forward with kids’ education. Adhering to COVID-19 guidelines, schools implemented multiple measures to ensure physical distancing, and mask-wearing protocols were followed while students engaged in physical activity. Physical education classes were held outside, blocked schedules were created to reduce large groups, and masks were required during school hours and at athletic practices. Whole-child health was at the foundation of the decision to bring children back to school.
It is our plea to all stakeholders in K-12 education to learn from case examples like these when evaluating community responses to the pandemic. Such examples illustrate the potential of local decision-making simultaneously to support both academic and health-related needs. We must consider whole-person health while wrestling with the challenging decisions of how to ensure children continue to benefit from the school environment to learn, stay active, and be well.
Dr. Stefanie M. Meyer is an assistant professor of practice in the Department of Public Health at North Dakota State University and a fellow at the Challey Institute for Global Innovation and Growth. Dr. Collin A. Webster is a professor in the Department of Physical Education at the University of South Carolina.