My son Charlie‘s still on summer vacation for three more weeks (in fact, tomorrow is his first day of one-week summer day camp). But the next week is back to school for many children across the US — and, for many children, school is full of hazards. The Los Angeles Times notes seven ways that “school is hazardous for your child’s health,” not to mention that of the teachers, administrators and other staff who work in US public schools — and ways that you can do something about it.
Here’s the Los Angeles Times‘s list of school health hazards.
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These figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention really shocked me as I remember having PE almost daily up till fourth grade in northern California public schools: Only 3.8% of elementary schools, 7.9% of middle schools and 2.1% of high schools have daily physical education or its equivalent for the entire school year. 22% of schools don’t even require students to take P.E..
The CDC and the Institute of Medicine recommend 150 minutes of physical education a week for children in elementary school and 225 minutes a week for middle school and high school, and that 50% of that be spent on moderate to physical exercise — recommendations that very few schools actually meet.
The Los Angeles Times points out that No Child Left Behind requirements that all students meet standards for reading and math have led to a greater focus on standardized test scores and many schools, especially those in low-income and urban areas, have canceled P.E. and gym class. Furthermore, school districts have been retiring jungle gyms “in droves,” eliminating a key way for children to gain muscle strength and, according to some studies, learn about “risk-taking and overcome natural fears.” First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! offers many suggestions about how to “school a more active place,” which has benefits not only for fighting obesity, but for helping students’ in-classroom behavior and overall learning.
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Schools are not healthy environments in a very literal sense. “As a gathering place for hundreds — sometimes thousands — of individuals who are, as epidemiologists put it, ‘immunologically naive,’ schools are veritable Petri dishes for germs,” the Los Angeles Times points out. Genes are readily transmitted from student to student and then brought home:
For the lucky virus that makes its way into school attached to a student’s hands, lips, nose or respiratory tract, the prospects for finding new hosts for its offspring are virtually limitless. Students share everything: desks, books, writing implements, lunch and — in some dark corners — saliva. Hugging among teenagers has become such a routine form of greeting that schools have begun to set limits on the practice, lest it get out of hand or make students late for class.
One simple solution: Wash your hands.
Also, kids should be up to date on their vaccinations, eat a healthy diet and get enough sleep (though see #3 and #5).
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17 percent children and adolescents are obese today, says the CDC. 31.6 million children in 99,685 public schools eat lunch in public schools but, despite efforts to introduce more whole wheat, fruits and vegetables and outlaw products like flavored milk, students aren’t really getting a healthy lunch in the cafeteria:
Last year, an anonymous Midwestern teacher calling herself “Mrs. Q” ate a school lunch every day and posted a daily blog about the experience. She chronicled a pretty typical lineup of offerings: mushy canned vegetables, bagel dogs, tater tots, pizza and bright-red slushies, which she reported her students regularly ate first, since they had a mere 20 minutes to eat and didn’t want to miss out on it.
The Los Angeles Times suggests having your child bring his or her own lunch. My son does this — he’s a picky eater but it does mean I pack him plenty of fruit and even brown rice (ok, with Chinese sausage) and most of it gets eaten (well, sometimes, sometimes not). The Let’s Move! campaign also calls for parents to push for school gardens and nutrition education as other ways to encourage students to eat well, a difficult task. But if students have healthy options that actually taste good, and the likes of pizza and chicken nuggets (both to be banned in LA schools come this fall) are not on the menu, the chances of their at least trying something that’s good for them increase. (I’m hoping.)
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More troubling statistics courtesy of the CDC: A 2009 nationally representative sample of students in grades 9 – 12 students reported that 19.9% said they were bullied on school property in the twelve months preceding the survey. 11.1% of high school kids had been in a physical fight while on school property, with boys more likely to be involved in such (15.1% versus 6.7%). But girls were more likely to report being bullied than boys (21.2% versus 18.7%).
Further, cyberbullying happens to a whopping 3 in 4 teenagers, according to a 2008 UCLA study. Parents should take a pro-active approach. The Stop Bullying website recommends that parents be on alert for changes in a child’s behavior and health (stomach pain, headaches, trouble sleeping) as possible signs of bullying; another site, End the Bullying, is by my friend Emily Willingham. Common Sense Media offers advice about protecting your child from cyberbullying.
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Children should get about nine hours of sleep per night according to the National Sleep Foundation but most get maybe six. Many students, especially in middle and high school, end up staying too late to complete homework (after coming home from sports and other after-school activities) and, says the Los Angeles Times, because of television, Facebook and other digital technologies.
Students who’ve entered puberty especially struggle to get enough sleep: Just as school is starting at earlier hours (7:30 am in some cases), their body clocks are set for them to go to sleep later. Some school districts in Minnesota and Kentucky have instituted a later starting time for high school, between 8:30 and 9:00 am, with a decline in motor vehicle accidents and students reporting to the school nurse due to fatigue and stress. The National Sleep Foundation also recommends not letting teenagers sleep excessively late on weekends, in order to keep their body clocks from getting too out of whack.
My son Charlie is 14 and started having problems going to sleep and waking up three years ago, just when he entered puberty. He’s autistic and many autistic children do have serious sleep problems. Charlie’s difficulties getting to sleep caught us by surprise as, before turning 11, he never had any big trouble getting to sleep. Daily aerobic exercise helps a lot as well as trying to keep him on pretty much the same sleep schedule all the time. We also give him a small dose of melatonin most nights. Sometimes, as the night he couldn’t sleep till 7:00 am, everyone does get a bit sleep-deprived.
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In 1999, the US Department of Education reported that it would take $127 billion to make all US schools in “good operating condition.” In an era of shrinking school budgets, the necessary renovations seem even less likely to happen for problems including
crumbling ceilings, leaky roofs, broken pipes and moldy basements are part of that picture; overcrowded classrooms and the widespread use of temporary “portable classrooms” linked to a wide range of indoor air-quality problems.
In addition, 1 in 13 US school children have asthma and bad air quality in again school buildings doesn’t help. Los Angeles Times suggests parents check out the EPA’s Indoor Air Quality Tools for School Action Kit which contains suggestions for how “parents and school administrators can, at little or no cost, address classroom air problems that can worsen students’ asthmatic or allergic symptoms.” Also, parents need to stay alert about the buildings their kids go to school in and, budget crisis and all, still press school districts to perform repairs and upkeep.
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School is stressful. The Los Angeles Times says that 2 out of 3 students at 20 high-achieving schools said they felt stressed about school work and other students. With schools and teachers pressed to raise test scores under NCLB and with calls to peg teacher evaluations to students’ test scores, the stress gets “passed on” to students, says Boston writer Alfie Kohn, author of such books as The Homework Myth (2006) and Feel-Bad Education (2011).
It’s been two years since my son started attending a public county autism center. He had spent most of his school years in autism programs in various local public schools. But being in a large public middle school was just too much for him, partly because of his own challenges but also because the middle school school he was at had a stressed-out, glum atmosphere. The emphasis was very much on preparing for college, with the day starting at 7:30 am. Students found themselves in a low-slung brown building with, of course, no playground. The contrast from their elementary schools, with parents showing up with trays of cookies and bright decorations on the walls, was palpable.
Charlie has been happy at his current school. Highly trained and very compassionate teachers and staff are the main reason. He school program includes daily P.E.; lots of attention to hygiene (in part because some students have medical conditions and because a lot of students, Charlie included, are working on life skills); a quite new and large facility. There’s a cafeteria and the food options are healthy (though Charlie doesn’t care for any of them) and no bullying as it’s a school only for kids with disabilities. School starts at 8:45 am so the kids can get in that extra bit of sleep, though most of them, Charlie included, have to get up early as they take buses. Charlie’s school is very different from that which most students attend but it’s something that many of the factors on the Los Angeles Times‘ “school is bad for your health” list aren’t huge factors — if schools could address just a few of them, what a difference it might make.
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