Department of Education officials pushed back Wednesday as members of the City Council debated a bill that would require the city to release more information about students’ access to physical education.
The bill, introduced by Council member Elizabeth Crowley in February, would force the city to produce an annual report that would include data on the number of full-time, certified physical education teachers, the average frequency and amount of physical education provided for each grade level in each school, and the facilities each school uses for those classes.
This bill is a reaction to the reality that many city schools fall short of state requirements for keeping students active. In May, Comptroller Scott Stringer found problems with the way the education department reported how long students spent in physical education and where the classes were located. That report found that 32 percent of schools do not have a full-time certified physical education teacher on staff, and 29 percent do not have a designated space for the class. (A 2011 audit also found dismal compliance rates, and the city promised then to better inform principals of state requirements.)
“This is a health crisis unfolding right before our eyes and it’s affecting our children,” Crowley said. “Our schools are just not making the cut.”
At Wednesday’s hearing, city officials acknowledged that some schools don’t have the dedicated gym space that many students and teachers prefer, and that the city needs more certified physical education teachers, especially in elementary schools. Deputy Chancellor of Operations Elizabeth Rose said that while the city is already working to improve gym access, the city supports the bill’s goals, though she said she wanted to ensure that new reporting requirements wouldn’t place an unnecessary “burden on schools.”
“We believe in a comprehensive approach to supporting wellness,” Rose said. “We have already been working on training teachers and helping schools use whatever available space they have.”
State law requires that elementary school students participate in physical education for at least 120 minutes per week. Students in grades 7-12 must be taught by a certified physical education teacher, while elementary students can be taught by a classroom teacher under the supervision of a certified physical education teacher.
For Rafaela Vivaldo, a parent who attended the Council hearing, schools’ lack of space and equipment is the biggest problem.
Vivaldo’s nine-year-old son attends P.S. 19 in Corona, Queens, where she said he is often sent to the school auditorium to watch movies with his class during physical education time because the school’s gym is overcrowded and low on equipment.
“It doesn’t make sense for a child to face obesity at such a young age,” Vivaldo said in Spanish. “This bill could really help children get active and feel more motivated in the classroom.”
Chancellor Carmen Fariña acknowledged similar concerns at a parent forum in May, citing lack of available gym space as a problem for schools citywide.
“This is an issue that is of great concern for us,” Fariña said. “Obesity, nutrition, these are all things that we have on our plate. The reality is, that it’s one of the few things that I feel that sometimes, private schools have over us.”
She mentioned that city officials had looked into building more gym spaces on school roofs but found that to be prohibitively expensive. Instead, the city has encouraged school custodians to shovel snow earlier to ensure more school yards were useable in winter, increased dance and yoga classes available for students, and is looking to add high school sports programs.
“This does not have an easy solution,” Fariña said.
Note: This story was updated to more clearly explain the city’s position on the bill and its reporting requirements.