Wellness Policies: School Districts Are Only One Year Away from Their First Triennial Assessment

Many educators have said: “There’s no need to reinvent the wheel.” The next time I hear this assertion, I am going to ask: “Have you ever invented a wheel?”

Take wellness for example. The word “wellness” is part of our vocabulary so much; Time published a hundred-page special edition in March 2019, titled “Wellness – Finding a Healthier You.”

Yet, nowhere did the manuscript mention two federal laws passed in 2004 and 2010, which require that every school district in America participating in school lunch and other nutrition programs must have local wellness policies.

The first law required written policies by July 1, 2006, and the second law of 2010, along with accompanying rules
in 2016, obligated more comprehensive policies to be implemented by June 30, 2017.

Too many school districts saw the original mandate as an unfunded requirement with minimum or no penalties, so thousands of the country’s approximately 14,166 school systems took the words “at a minimum” literally, and wrote policies at the last minute, that were too brief, too vague, or too wordy.

Goals were to be established in Public Law 108-265 for “nutrition education, physical activity, and other school-based activities that are designed to promote student wellness.”

The goal “other school-based activities” was the chance for local education authorities to review and to change their foods, programs, and building spaces.

I wrote articles for School Planning and Management, posted items on www.projectclean.us, requested assistance from small and large school systems, and even persuaded a state department of education to include a reference to healthy restrooms as a part of the original federal foray into local school wellness policies and programs.

I had a minimum amount of success with a handful of districts around Atlanta and with the State of Georgia Department of Education.
Districts around the nation did their required minimum. One state even spent $75,000 just to collect 180 policies from its respective school districts, only to have the report not even make the storage shelf.

Think tanks and NGOs came up with what one could call “kitchen-sink” policies. That is, nutrition and physical education professionals loaded so many items into their generic policies that the documents could forthrightly be compared with the remains in the kitchen sink after cooking for a family of seven.

It took an Act of Congress and a Presidential signature on Dec. 13, 2010 for the second and now-outdated local school wellness legislation to promote student health and reduce childhood obesity (P.L. 111-296).

The second wellness law included additional requirements about public participation, information, and updating stakeholders on periodic measurements of the activities stemming from the policy. And yes, again, the same three goals were codified: “nutrition promotion and education,” “physical activity,” and my favorite, “other school-based activities.”

Yet, too many school districts went into another seven- year somnabulation, almost without improving policies, until the United States Department of Agriculture wrote proposed rules in 2014 and published the final federal rule on local school wellness policies on July 29, 2016.

At that point, the existing 13,544 school districts began to wake up, yet this is when the adage of Henry Ford, “You can have any color Model T Ford you want, as long as it is black,” came into force in too many locales.

Consider one state school wellness policy crafted by the centralized school boards association and made available to several hundreds of fee-paying school systems throughout the width and breadth of the state.

This “School Wellness” policy, finally revised Jan. 16, 2019 by one district in a state’s capital, was 13 pages long, with 29 side citations of federal and state laws, the Code of Federal Regulations, and State Board of Education policies under the categories of “purpose, authority, delegation of responsibility, and guidelines.” And these were just citations in the margins.

The content of the policy which was rolled out to dues-paying districts by the school boards association legal team cobbled together wording from private health alliances, vagaries from the earlier law, and components for each section of the policy which read like a litany from a brainstorming session of tired professionals in the fields of nutrition and phys ed.

“Other school-based activities” listed 15 items, covering students, parents, water, fundraising, and community members, often couched in the weasel words so familiar to school folks, like “to the extent possible.”

And because a 12-page policy was not enough, the last section adds the flavor of the month “safe routes to schools,” including seeking funding “when appropriate.”
Then the policy repeats the legal references, this time in six categories in 18 references. The policy is too legalistic, too long, too complicated, too immeasurable, and too unworkable. Who can say if a small district with fewer than 5,000 students actually helps 10 kids lose weight or have decent restrooms?

Maybe it was too much to expect of beleaguered school administrators, who draft the text of policies, or school boards who hear first readings and then give final approval of a staff committee’s efforts. Maybe one cannot expect special purpose governments to connect wellness to student health, let alone see restrooms as definitely wellness spaces.

Yet it wasn’t because I didn’t try.

Articles on school restrooms and wellness have appeared in School Planning and Management from 2001 through 2016 plus numerous articles on the web page www.projectclean.us under the “Publications” link.

I even offered a one line, 12-word sentence to accompany the wellness goal of “other school-based activities.”

Schools shall provide safe, clean, and hygienic restrooms to foster personal responsibility.

Setting aside the issue of sanitation, or the inclusive opportunity under “other school-based activities,” the real issue is that too few districts knew how, tried to learn, or actually wrote their own unique policies. Rarely did they state measurable goals, and too many missed the June 30, 2017 deadline when the first revised policy had to be in place.
Now school districts are only one year away from when the first triennial assessment must be completed, which is June 30, 2020. What should a district do?

Some will attend to their requirements and will report on actual measurable activities done to help student be more healthy and engaged in wellness activities. We do have a few handfuls of school systems with bare bone resources doing a bang up job.

We also have the procrastinators who, given their past tardiness, might be late for their every-three-year assessment. We also have some who will adopt an attitude spoken by some census taker or military officers when confronted with a difficult task who simply say, “I think I’ll take a SWAG (Simple Wild A__ Guess) at it.”

A better approach would be if each district had a copy of the current law, the final rule with correcting amendments, and the latest guidelines and Q and As published by the USDA Food and Nutrition Service.

I would also recommend that in annually reviewing policies, a checklist document could be helpful. The Wellness Policy Assessment Tool modified by a staff member in a district of a western state with 41,000 pupils, presents all required aspects of a wellness policy in eight simple categories, with boxes to check, circles to bubble in, or brief blanks for notes.

Manuals of limited activities from each school can be compiled, scored, reported on, and improved annually.

In short, take the cliché, “we are doing it for the children,” and the opportunity the local school wellness policy” offers each school district. By a minimum of effort at formulating a real district policy, local education authorities can affect the health of all students in schools. Invent a way to concentrate on helping those kids eat better, exercise more, and eliminate properly in healthy schools. Make even restrooms, wellness spaces – a real new wheel.

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