Originally published April 2, 2022 by the Dalton Daily Citizen.

You may often hear educators speak about the importance of prioritizing the needs of the whole child. As a school system, our goal is to prepare students for success in a global community, but to do that we must focus not only on students’ academic development, but their physical, mental and social-emotional development, as well.

Whitfield County Schools understands the role our teachers and staff play in the health of our children, but we don’t want to just talk about healthy living, we want our students and staff to live healthy lives and encourage their families and communities to do the same.

The district’s Wellness Program, an initiative to improve and promote health and fitness, is led by the Whitfield County School Nutrition Department. Angie Brown, director of School Nutrition, believed the Wellness Program was a great way to “talk about the importance of physical fitness, emotional wellbeing and healthy living,” but said the school system “needed something that really showed students and staff what they could do to improve their overall health,” which is how One Whitfield Wellness Week was born. Since 2018, Whitfield County Schools has dedicated one week out of the year to the education and practice of healthy living, hoping that students and staff would pick up these practices and continue them to lead happier, healthier lives.

Lyn Douglas, physical education teacher at Valley Point Elementary, knows it’s important for students to “learn different aspects of health” and hopes students develop an awareness of overall healthy decisions, habits and behaviors. Douglas, who is also a member of the district’s Wellness Committee, believes students are more willing to engage in physical activity, drink water or try new foods because “they value what is taught at school” and when schools participate in Wellness Week, “healthy behaviors are promoted and reinforced.”

This year’s district-wide One Whitfield Wellness Week: A New You in 2022 was held March 7-11. The themes — Moving Monday, TACO Tuesday, Water Wednesday, Thinking Thursday and Fitness Friday — all focus on different aspects of health and wellness.

Chad Ikerd, a teacher at Southeast Whitfield High School, put together Wellness Week infographics that went along with each day’s theme and shared them with his school.

“I think with this generation of kids, especially young kids, the majority of the physical activity they get is at school,” Ikerd said. “A lot of them go home and watch TV or play video games, so we really have to take advantage of the time we have with them.”

His infographics encouraged his school to do the simple things, like walk 10,000 steps a day or drink more water. Ikerd wanted students to understand “it’s not super complex to live a fairly healthy lifestyle.” Kara Allen’s class at Southeast Whitfield promoted Wellness Week by drawing their favorite physical fitness activities with chalk on sidewalks outside the school. Chris Fore, a ninth-grade student in Allen’s class drew a soccer ball and basketball, while another of Allen’s students, tenth-grader Jameson Stepp, drew a track runner. Participating in Wellness Week was important to Allen because “a lot of our students get stuck in the same routine every day so we are trying to break that and help keep them active and engaged.”

Moving Monday

On Moving Monday, students and staff were charged with getting out of their seats and keeping their bodies active. For staff, activities like taking the stairs when possible or parking further away from their buildings were encouraged. Classroom physical activity breaks were also recommended to help improve student achievement and brain health so they could return to their studies ready to focus.

Eboni Hernandez, a sixth-grader at North Whitfield Middle, said she sits “most of the day,” and even when she goes home she “sits in her room.” During Wellness Week, her school participated in various activities, including taking walks around the school and Edwards Park. “I don’t really go outside that much, so I liked going on our walks this week.”

Some teachers chose to combine physical activity with their lessons. Students at New Hope Elementary had fun learning their multiplication facts by playing a game teachers called “Multiplication Movement.” Students ran to one side of the basketball court to get their multiplication equation and then to the other side to find the answer.

TACO Tuesday

On TACO Tuesday, students and staff were encouraged to “Talk” about making healthy choices, “Ask” for their favorite veggies, “Consume” more fruits throughout the day and “Offer” to help friends make healthy choices. Whitfield County School Nutrition “created quite a buzz” said Douglas, when all cafeterias added kumquats and mango to Tuesday’s lunch menu as a way to introduce new fruits to students.

“We love to give students the opportunity to try new things,” said Kelsey Blevins, school nutrition coordinator and Wellness Committee chair. “Judging by their faces after trying them, we think the students had mixed feelings about the tiny citrus fruit.”

Ananiah Roby, a third-grader at Beaverdale Elementary, actually enjoyed trying a new fruit and said she “loved it” while her classmate Helena McPheeters said it was “a bit sour,” and that she preferred other fruits like watermelon and kiwi. Their teacher, Miranda Bucker, was just happy her students were willing to try them.

“Everyone who went through the lunch line on Tuesday had to get a fruit and vegetable regardless of if they liked it or not and at least try it,” Bucker said. “I’m not sure if they will get them again, but they branched out, tried something new and I’m proud of them for that.”

Water Wednesday

Wednesday, students and staff were challenged to drink the recommended 64 ounces of water during the day. To encourage this, School Nutrition provided water bottles to all students and staff who ate in the cafeterias.

Northwest Georgia College and Career Academy’s Health Occupation Students of America (HOSA) determined the events for Wellness Week for their school and chose to pass out fruit infused water on Water Wednesday.

“Even if you don’t like drinking water, you can add fruit and make it more interesting and healthy,” tenth-grader and HOSA student Octavia Woodward said.

Thinking Thursday

Thursday focused on mental and emotional health, with many schools and administrative buildings choosing to participate in mindfulness activities, such as breathing exercises, quiet time, nature walks and positive affirmations. Some schools also used Thursday’s theme as a way to remind students to practice good hygiene, get plenty of rest and make good life choices.

According to Tracie Simmons, lead social worker for Whitfield County Schools, “a lot more of our kids are experiencing anxiety because of COVID-19 and the current instability in the world.” Physical fitness is very important, but oftentimes mental health and overall self-care is put on the backburner. Thinking Thursday is an “important reminder to adults to model good self care,” said Simmons, “so our kids can grow up knowing its importance.”

Staff in the Whitfield County Schools administrative buildings chose activities to calm their minds and bodies for Thinking Thursday. The Operations Department blew off some steam by blowing bubbles outside, while staff at the Whitfield County Central Office enjoyed time away from their computer screens by participating in a yoga class taught by Laura Lagania, an Eastbrook Middle teacher and certified yoga instructor.

Fitness Friday

Similar to Moving Monday, Fitness Friday encouraged exercise and physical fitness, with many schools leading the entire student body in one group fitness activity. Cedar Ridge Elementary students and staff hiked around their school campus and Cohutta Elementary School had everyone dress in their ‘80s attire for a school-wide dance party.

There were even a few staff members who chose to sweat it out on Fitness Friday, thanks to Tim Marks, the owner of United Karate Studios. Marks instructed two free kickboxing classes for staff, one during the work day at the Career Academy and another that evening where staff from all schools could participate.

Each year it seems Wellness Week gets bigger and better, but the goal always remains the same: to encourage our students, staff, families and community to live healthy, happier lives. This year’s One Whitfield Wellness Week “was the best yet,” said Brown. “It brought a smile to my face to see all the activities students and staff were not just participating in, but really enjoying. Even if students learn one healthy habit from participating in Wellness Week we have succeeded in our purpose.”

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