Back to School: Hazards of the blackboard jungle

Germs, bullies, killer schedules and lousy lunches. What can a parent to do? Plenty, actually.

August 01, 2011|By Melissa Healy, Los Angeles Times
  • Schools are a minefield of health hazards  arguably one of the most dangerous possible places for children to be.
Schools are a minefield of health hazards arguably one of the most dangerous… (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)

No doubt, summer has its dangers for kids: its Code Red air-quality days, its risk of sunburn, heatstroke, drowning and food poisoning, its poison ivy and whatnot. As conscientious parents reapply sunscreen to their young ones for the 4,000th time, they might well savor the prospect of a return to the safe, secure routines of school.

They do so at their children's peril. Schools are a minefield of health hazards — arguably one of the most dangerous possible places for children to be. Spending their days there may not kill our children outright, but a number of recent trends, on top of some long-standing truths about packing children together tightly, makes schools a contributor to the health problems of many children.

No, I have not been sniffing felt-tip markers (we haven't done our back-to-school shopping yet either). I draw this alarming conclusion from a growing chorus of public health warnings about school lunches, squeezed time for recess and physical education, crumbling public infrastructure, mounting curricular demands and germ incubation in schools.

From the moment our children drag their overloaded backpacks up the school bus steps to the late-evening hour at which many finish their homework and send their last text, school imposes sedentary behavior on them, plies them with lousy nutritional choices, exposes them to myriad communicable diseases and environmental toxins, primes their stress-hormone pumps and messes with their internal clocks.

And those backpacks? Kids who should only encounter the word "sciatica" in a spelling bee are flocking to orthopedists' offices complaining of back pain and nerve compression because they have little choice but to tote a full day's worth of textbooks on their backs. It's a wonder they can hobble up to the stage at the end of it all to collect a diploma.

Don't get me wrong: I truly identify with that old TV ad in which a dad rolls his shopping cart giddily up and down the school-supply aisle to the strains of "It's the most wonderful time of the year!" My kids' first day of school is circled in red on my calendar: The return to class will be good for my mental health, even if it may not be a boon to theirs.

Still, though experts have a lot of concerns about the effect of schools on students' health, they also have lots of suggestions on things we all can do to minimize risks.

Inactivity

In elementary schools, children are admonished not to run in the halls. In middle and high schools, students might sprint through a throng to reach their next class on time, often with a 40-pound backpack slung on their shoulder because they don't have time to stop at their lockers. That's about as much exercise as many of them get. Second only to the couch in most kids' homes, school has become a no-exercise zone.

According to figures released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2006, only 3.8% of elementary schools, 7.9% of middle schools and 2.1% of high schools provide daily physical education or its equivalent for the entire school year. And 22% of schools do not require students to take any physical education at all.

Since 2002, when the "No Child Left Behind" law began imposing penalties for schools that failed to show academic progress, there's widespread evidence that many struggling schools — often in lower-income communities where obesity rates are high and opportunities for outdoor play after school are limited — have curtailed and canceled recess and physical education classes to concentrate more on the subjects that standardized tests would measure.

The Institute of Medicine and the CDC — joined by such national organizations as the American Heart Assn., American Cancer Society and American Diabetes Assn. — recommend 150 minutes of physical education a week for children in elementary school and 225 minutes a week for middle school and high school. At least 50% of P.E. class time should be spent in moderate to vigorous physical activity. It's a target that very few schools meet.

Meanwhile, safety- (and litigation-) conscious school districts are imposing ever-more stringent limits on where and what children can play during free time on the playground. Rough-and-tumble is strictly out. And in many school districts, recess is canceled when the temperature dips into freezing territory or there's even a trace of precipitation.

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