LAND O'LAKES — Elementary school teachers throughout Florida let out a collective groan last spring when state lawmakers required them to provide students 150 minutes of weekly physical activity, preferably in daily doses.
Many complained that they already had too many things packed into a six-hour day. But in time, they found ways to make the mandate work.
"We did it in two pieces," said Brandy Lambert, an intermediate special education teacher at Lake Myrtle Elementary School in Land O'Lakes. "We extended recess after lunch for 15 minutes. … And at the end of the day we gave them 15 to 20 minutes."
Lambert's solution of fitting the activity flexibly around her existing class schedule — which also includes 90 uninterrupted minutes of reading, an hour of math, an hour for social studies and science, and 30 minutes for social skills — became the accepted norm for teachers around Pasco County and Florida.
But some teachers stretched the law to its breaking point, counting the minutes they used walking students to and from the cafeteria, for instance, as part of the 150 minutes of physical activity. News reports documented their creative interpretation of the law, and the Legislature struck back.
During the recently ended legislative session, lawmakers rewrote the law so that on any day that kids receive physical education instruction, it must be for "at least 30 consecutive minutes per day."
"That needed to be clarified," said Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who sponsored the initial legislation in 2007. "In elementary school, part of the battle is just getting the kids outside to work out."
A tradeoff for activity
Few educators argue that getting the kids up and moving isn't worthwhile. Many do contend, though, that the newly "clarified" bill could have adverse effects on the academic accountability efforts that the same state lawmakers have pushed so hard for schools to adopt.
"Our school district was meeting the intent of the original legislation that required the 150 minutes per week," said Sean Brock, Pasco's supervisor of physical education curriculum.
Students received 90 minutes weekly with their physical education teachers, he explained, and classroom teachers provided the remaining 60 minutes. It didn't always come in 30-minute doses, Brock said, but neither did teachers try to count 2-minute bites.
If Gov. Charlie Crist signs the measure as expected, he said, "The activities that the teachers were doing are going to have to be lengthened. … And if you put something in place like that, then something else has to be taken out."
State Rep. John Legg, R-New Port Richey, voted against the bill, which also expands the P.E. mandate to middle schools.
"You are requiring these middle schools and elementary schools to do these 30-minute blocks that they already don't have the time to do," said Legg, who runs a K-8 charter school when not in the Legislature. "You can't keep putting requirements on a school day ... without extending the school day. It handcuffs the administrations and the schools themselves in their ability to implement high academic standards."
Lawmakers continued to press for higher standards this spring. They also decided to cut the education budget, though, with improvements to the FCAT writing exam becoming one of the many casualties. In such tight financial times, no one is talking about extending the school day in Florida.
Already, Pasco school leaders have begun looking at their 2008-09 schedules to find ways to make the 30 consecutive minutes of P.E. fit in.
"It's going to take scheduling wizardry," said Cheryl Estabrook, assistant principal at Lake Myrtle Elementary.
One thing is certain — existing P.E. instructors can't handle the load, and no one is looking to hire more.
"If they put it on the P.E. teachers, I can see them saying, "You're going to have to double classes,' " said Chris Gorman, a physical education teacher at Wesley Chapel Elementary School.
Search for loophole
Many schools will be strapped to provide additional physical education supplies to meet the added demand, said Melody Johnson, a P.E. teacher at Cotee River Elementary who recently was Pasco's teacher of the year. Plus, schools cannot expand their size to meet the need for activity space, she said.
"I'm sure it's going to be a burden to have to pick up the time," Johnson said, adding that in the best scenario, trained P.E. teachers would lead the classes.
The hunt already has begun for flexibility within the new language.
Brock recently sent a memo to elementary principals noting that the law does not require 30 consecutive minutes per day, but rather that when schools offer P.E., it cannot be for less than 30 consecutive minutes. How schools reach the 150 minutes per week could then vary.
Legg also noted that the law provides parents the ability to get a P.E. waiver for their children if the child is enrolled or required to enroll in a remedial course, if the parents want their child to choose a different course offered by the school, or if the student participates in physical activities outside school equal to the 150-minute weekly requirement.
"It is definitely better than the original version," which gave families no wiggle room at all, he said.
Adjusting for everyone
At the same time, educators also are looking for ways to make the new rules work.
"There's all kinds of ways to integrate physical activity into almost anything," Gorman said.
"We're not going to leave the teachers high and dry," said Holly Mitchell, Lake Myrtle Elementary teacher who taught in the classroom eight years before becoming a P.E. instructor. "We're going to make sure they have a bag of tricks."
That's important in meeting the true intent of the law, Johnson said. Because just as she didn't go to college to learn to teach reading, many classroom teachers don't have the training to teach physical education.
"We want to make it so it's not just one more thing on their plate," she said. "We want to make it consistent, convenient and for the good of the students."
Lambert said she actually looked forward to finding ways to integrate physical activity into her content instruction — the only likely way she'll be able to fit the mandate into her daily lessons without running out of time. Her reason is simple.
"Our kids love P.E.," she said. "That's their favorite special."
And if you don't believe that, just head out to any school play area and ask.
"It's great because I get to exercise," said Lake Myrtle third grader James Schwenn at that day's P.E. tennis lesson.
Classmate Corbin Anderson, a fourth-grader — and just about every other kid on the playground — agreed.
"It's fun," Corbin said. Why? "You get to play."
And that's why schools need to fit the time for P.E. in, Weatherford said.
"Is there an abundance of extra time? No," he said. "But is there enough time? It may be tough for them, but they'll get through it."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.