State law promoting physical activity in school causing confusion in local districts

TRI-CITIES, TN (WJHL)- A recent Tennessee law meant to keep kids more active in school is causing confusion in districts across the state, including in the Tri-Cities. Starting this school year, kindergarten and first graders are required to get 225 minutes of unstructured physical activity a week while second through sixth graders must get 160 minutes per week.

But a News Channel 11 investigation found out that some kids might not legally be getting enough exercise because of confusion with the new state law.

“We really can’t say we’re meeting the requirements right now,” said Ridgeview Elementary Principal Kelley Harrell. “We thought we were. We thought we were doing everything right.”

The Washington County principal said her school started planning for the new law over the summer, rearranging schedules to accommodate the mandates. “Students need so much time for English, language arts and so much time for math and science and social studies so it was a real balancing act to fit all of that in.”

Harrell said since August teachers at her school have used classroom activity breaks that encourage movement like Go Noodle to meet the requirements. But a few weeks ago, Harrell said she found out her school was not in compliance with the law. “We found out those indoor activities that we had been doing like Go Noodle, which our students really enjoy and get a lot of physical activity out of, wouldn’t actually count towards the new physical activity law because it isn’t considered non-structured physical activity.”

It’s the definition of unstructured that has been causing confusion. Harrell said, “Unstructured physical activity, we were thinking that was just a break from normal school work and that’s what originally we had been told and that makes sense. Kids need brain breaks.”

But the Tennessee physical activity law defines non-structured physical activity as a “temporary withdrawal or cessation from usual school work or sedentary activities during which an opportunity for rigorous physical activity is provided.”

In an August opinion, the Tennessee Office of the Attorney General agreed, stating that Go Noodle “appears to be a program of structured, teacher-led or teacher-coached physical activity, some of which may be tied to, or integrated with, core academic instruction,” and therefore did not meet the standard of the law. Instead, the law encourages districts to use activities such as walking, jump roping and playing volleyball to meet the non-structured requirement.

“Based on the guidance we received in January Washington County made every effort to comply and meet the regulations of the law,” said Karla Kyte, the assistant director of schools for Washington County Schools. Kyte said the guidance from the Tennessee Department of Education was vague at times.

In a June memo, the DOE said school districts could use “any type of classroom physical activity breaks, such as Go Noodle, Fit Wizard, Take 10!, SPARK.” In September the department released a revised memo after the AG’s opinion. But Kyte said it wasn’t until the district received a December email from the department that they realized Go Noodle could not count. “I just feel like there was clarity needed and we’re getting it now and it may not have been evident in September.”

Greene County schools are facing a similar situation. “I think our kids are getting physical activity based on number of minutes, yes. Could there be some question about non-structured and structured, yes,” said Greene County Director of Schools David McLain. He said not only is it hard to change schedules mid-year to accommodate for the clarification, but he believes structured physical activity is more beneficial than non-structured physical activity. McLain said, “When something is non-structured sometimes it’s very difficult to get kids heartbeat up to get them physically active because many of them want to stand, they want to sit.

School leaders are also concerned about not having enough space to accommodate non-structured physical activity for hundreds of students several times a day. “Cold weather and rain really inhibit our ability to meet these activity requirements because we don’t have a location in our building to go and do these things,” Principal Harrell said. But Harrell is already working hard to adjust schedules so students get the mandated minutes. She said “The time that we were spending doing those go noodle activities we would just replace that with recess time.” Kyte said leaders across Washington County are also hard at work. “We’ll be meeting with our physical education teachers as well. We’ll make every effort now that we have more succinct guidance on what we need to do.”

The DOE is conducting an annual physical activity survey to hopefully continue to problem solve with districts having implementation trouble and bring them into compliance. The department said in its communications to local school districts it included a direct link to the AG August opinion but said it is up to local districts on how the information is circulated.

Copyright 2017 WJHL. All rights reserved.

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