ANNAPOLIS — A Maryland lawmaker’s bill proposing several mandates to help improve physical fitness and health in public schools statewide is nearing passage.
The legislation, sponsored by Del. Jay Walker (D-District 26) of Fort Washington, was unanimously approved last week in the House. A public hearing on the issue will be held March 20 in the Senate.
The bill requires every elementary school with children in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade to provide at least 150 minutes of physical activity per week, including 90 minutes of physical education.
“We’re also going to collect the data,” Walker said Tuesday. “Instead of looking at it by school system, we’re going to look at it by school. That way we can look at whether a school is not hitting the goal and then we can implement some steps on how to hit this goal.”
The bill, which aims to ensure children in public schools get daily physical activity, calls for local school systems to adopt a wellness plan that encourages, assists and identifies effective practices for health-related activities.
Per the legislation, the Maryland Department of Education would hire a full-time director of public education to oversee and create guidelines for physical education programs.
One point of contention is how each jurisdiction designates time toward physical activity. For instance, seven jurisdictions offer the maximum of at least 100 minutes per week with Wicomico County at 135 minutes.
Six counties — Allegany, Anne Arundel, Cecil, Montgomery, Queen Anne’s and Somerset — currently offer 90 minutes or fewer of physical activity per week. Those jurisdictions would have to hire extra personnel to meet the bill’s requirements.
A fiscal analysis shows it could cost those school districts nearly $20 million next fiscal year and $21 million by fiscal 2023 to pay for the additional staff and resources.
According to the fiscal note, Prince George’s and Caroline counties are the only jurisdictions statewide that offer the minimum of 40 minutes per week of physical education as of January.
“Doing 40 minutes a week is just not acceptable,” Walker said. “We’re doing a disservice to the kids in the state of Maryland.”
The proposed guidelines also call for the creation of an Advisory Council on Health and Physical Education. The council members would include representatives from state PTA, local school boards, Special Olympics of Maryland and health organizations such as the American Cancer Society.
The American Cancer Society Action Network stated 17 percent of children ages 2-19 are obese, a number that increases to 32 percent when adding overweight children.
Although public school systems incorporate physical education programs, Walker’s legislation would mandate a specific amount of time designated for physical activities.
All 23 counties and city of Baltimore could face potential costs with a proposed regulation requiring any public school building built or completely renovated on or after Jan. 1, 2013, to include a gymnasium or “adequate support space for physical education instruction.”
However, any school system in the process of renovating a building may request a waiver “based on land or zoning constraints from the requirement to include a gymnasium.”