By Sascha Murillo, Community Organizer – Health Justice Program
New York State requires that all schools provide students in all grades with physical education (PE). However, in New York City, the majority of schools are failing to meet the state PE mandate. Several reports demonstrate the breadth of the problem. A New York Times article found that about 1 in 5 NYC high school students reports having no gym class in an average week. An audit conducted by former Comptroller Liu reported that none of the 31 NYC elementary schools visited was meeting the New York State PE mandate.
While the problem affects nearly all NYC schools, schools in neighborhoods that are predominantly low-income and Black or Latino are even more unlikely to provide adequate PE. The disproportionate lack of access to PE for low-income students of color only exacerbates existing racial disparities and inequities in child obesity and academic achievement.
Ensuring access to PE for all students in NYC could go a long way to addressing these health and educational inequities. There is a plethora of evidence demonstrating that PE improves student health, reduces child obesity, and improves academic performance, including test scores. Yet with all that said, why are schools failing to provide their students with adequate PE instruction?
The cause of the problem is manifold. Many schools are simply unaware of the requirements. The PE standards as laid out by the state require that students in grades K through 6 receive 120 minutes of PE per week. The students in grades 7 and 8 should receive at least 90 minutes of PE per week and all students in grades 7-12 should have at least three gym classes per week in one semester and two classes per week in the other semester. Recess cannot be counted toward meeting these minimum time standards.
Yet even when schools have knowledge of the requirements, many struggle to meet them. Some schools utilize non-certified instructors for PE, which may prevent students from receiving quality physical education instruction. And space limitations due to co-location of multiple schools in buildings with one gymnasium also impede a school’s ability to provide all students with adequate PE time.
So what can be done? With a new mayoral administration bent on tackling the city’s widening inequities, education and health advocates alike are coming together to raise the importance of providing quality and comprehensive PE to all of NYC’s students. New York Lawyers for the Public Interest has teamed up with a wide variety of stakeholders, including Bronx Health REACH, to advocate for improved access to PE in all NYC public schools.
The NYC Department of Education (NYC DOE) has the opportunity to reverse the trend in PE and work to support and ensure compliance with the state PE mandate. The NYC DOE should provide schools with resources on the PE requirement by posting information on their website and sharing best practices across the five boroughs, including examples of co-located schools that have coordinated schedules to meet the PE time requirements. The NYC DOE should also document and regularly report schools’ compliance.
The NYC DOE should also adequately staff the department with professionals who can provide schools with support and technical assistance with offering a comprehensive PE curriculum. The NYC DOE could work toward these goals within the Office of School Wellness, which it jointly oversees with the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
The new mayoral administration is in charge of one of the largest public school systems in the nation, with one of the most diverse student populations. We hope that the new mayoral administration will improve the physical and academic well-being of millions of students and take a step to advance health and educational justice by making improved access to quality physical education a priority.