Feb. 2, 2010— -- With a note from their parents, tens of thousands of students are trading in their gym bags for trumpets, song sheets or books, according to data from the Florida Department of Education.
State law requires elementary and middle-school students to participate in physical education classes.
This is the first full school year the middle-school requirement is being enforced. But as part of the statute, Florida legislators also adopted an "opt-out clause," allowing parents to sign waivers instructing that their children be dismissed from the P.E. courses.
As a result, many Florida children are opting out of P.E., according to preliminary numbers provided by the Florida Department of Education. In some schools, 30 percent or more of elementary and middle-school students have opted out of the courses.
Because middle-school students are required to take only one semester of P.E., the numbers will not be final until the end of the school year, Florida Department of Education officials say.
But the preliminary numbers are still surprising to some advocates of the mandate.
State Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs, who sponsored the physical education legislation, said a closer look at the numbers is needed.
While it's still too early to tell, Constantine said, he has asked the Department of Education for a statistical analysis of the data. It would worry him "if individual schools are using the waiver as a means to get around putting P.E. back in their schools," he said.
"We understood there would be a certain percentage ... we didn't really know what percentage that would be. ... But there would be a percentage that would opt out, have a waiver and that was intended that way. We never expected or hoped that schools would use it as a way to get around the entire concept of P.E. And if that 's the case, then we're going to have to do something about it."
Physical Educators React
John Todorovich, president of the Florida Physical Education Association, said it can be disheartening for educators to see children being pulled out of P.E. classes for any reason.
Todorovich stressed the importance of young people receiving physical education, adding that society as a whole is out of tune with the extent of the need.
"I think part of the disconnect is a lot of people think being physically educated is akin to being physically fit," he said. "People sometimes think P.E. is a place to just exercise and, in fact, it's a place to learn."
He said he would be open to the idea of waivers if students receiving the waivers could demonstrate that they have met Florida's physical education standards. He worried, however, that this is not happening.
"I don't mind waiving out if it could be demonstrated that something else can truly help people meet those requirements but, if not, then it's not waiving, it's replacing," Todorovich said.
William Poniatowski, program specialist for physical education at Volusia County schools, said he hasn't seen many children opt out apart from pockets of the community. He attributed that to Volusia's making P.E. a required course while other counties have chosen the elective route.
Out of about 15,000 middle-school students in the county, fewer than 1,000 kids have waived physical education, he said.
But as the waiver gains attention, more parents could take the option, he said.
"Unfortunately, as much as we believe P.E. is important for our society, we also, for some reason, offer opportunities for people to waive out of things like this as well," Poniatowski said. "You don't see things like this happening in math or science or social studies."
The National Association for Sport and Physical Education reiterates that physical education can't always be supplemented by physical activity. In its position statement, the association said, "All K-12 students should take all required physical education courses and that no substitutions, waivers or exemptions should be permitted.
"Classes and activities that provide physical activity (e.g., marching band, ROTC, cheerleading, school and community sports) have important but distinctly different goals than physical education."
Reasons for the Waiver
Students use the P.E. waivers primarily because they are enrolled in remedial courses or involved in other extracurricular activities such as band or music, education experts say.
According to the statute, the physical education requirement can be waived if the student is enrolled "in another course from among those courses offered as options by the school district," or if the student participates in physical activities outside of school "which are equal to or in excess of the mandated requirement."
Constantine said the ultimate goal of the requirement is to alter a philosophy that has been shifting for 20 years and to put physical education back in the curriculum.
The opt-out waiver was necessary in passing the legislation because of students in remedial courses and because of the strong support of the arts, he said. But, he added, lawmakers will assess the final numbers of students opting out at the end of the year.
Meantime, educators such as Poniatowski hoped students and parents consider the importance of physical education to overall health before signing the waivers.
"Yes, physical activity and physical education is important," he said. "We have curriculum, we have state standards, we have national standards, and the fact that we are seeing a rising rate in childhood obesity and chronic disease in young adolescents, it's important that we realize that we don't need to leave physical activity and physical education."