Shortly after Laura Dice moved back to West Virginia in 2012 and took a job as the Coordinator for Keys 4 HealthyKids in Charleston, she attended a Kanawha County School Wellness meeting, where a parent came forward to say that his son wasn’t getting any exercise at school. His complaint was just one of many that Dice was hearing. Keys 4 HealthyKids advocates physical activity for children, so Dice began to really look at the claims.
What she found was troubling. Overall there was a lack of data about activity for students in the state’s public schools. For example, statewide, there is no requirement for recess, and sometimes it is taken away during testing periods. With no data, there was no information about which schools had recess and which didn’t. Anecdotally, Dice heard when there was bad weather, students wouldn’t go outside, even if they did have recess, for months at a time. Meanwhile West Virginia is the fourth most obese state in the nation, and about 18.5 percent of its young people age 10-17 are obese.
Keys 4 HealthyKids was already committed to working for physical activity in schools. When Stephen Smith, the Executive Director of WV Healthy Kids and Families Coalition suggested that they submit a proposal to the Our Children Our Future Southern Regional Policy Workshop, they began to get more serious about planning for possible legislative options.
The policy workshops were created to involve all West Virginians in creating legislative policy. Community leaders submit issues that have an impact on the well being of the state’s children for work at any of four regional workshops. Participants sign up for free and choose the issues they want to work on. They learn about how to get the change they want and connect with legislators who will support and fight for those issues. In fact seven of the policies submitted for work at the workshops in the last year have become state policies.
Dice went to the workshop in Beckley, and she and her colleagues built a team to work on physical activity for children in schools. At first the undertaking was daunting. “ I felt intimidated because when I started, I didn’t think legislators would actually listen to anything we had to say,” Dice said. “So that’s been a huge lesson. They actually do.”
The team proposed that all students are given the opportunity for 30 minutes of activity every day, and gym classes had to consist of at least 50 percent moderate to vigorous exercise. They enlisted the support of Senator John Unger (D – Berkley) whose lawyer, Rita Pauley drafted the official bill. In the legislative session, the team’s bill passed through the senate but was not heard in the house.
But the story didn’t end there. It wasn’t a legislative victory, but the publicity the proposal got caused the state Board of Education to take notice, and they voted to implement everything in the bill. “At first we saw this as a defeat, but now we think this was better,” Dice said.
Both of Dice’s parents have worked through the school system for the health of children, her mom as a school nurse and her dad as a dentist performing dental screenings throughout the state. Dice herself, who started out as a personal health coach, quickly realized that changes to a system had the potential to have greater impact on more individuals. She said all too often, you can’t change a person’s habits until you change their environment. One of the primary environments for kids is school.
This year, Dice will be a participant at the Lewisburg workshop on July 17, and she will be sharing her experience with the participants at the Central Regional Policy Workshop in Hurricane, where she is a lunchtime panelist on July 24.
Policy issues on the schedule for the Hurricane workshop include: Erin’s Law: Child Sexual Abuse Prevention, Sustained Funding for the Children’s Trust Fund, Farmers Market Policy Issues, Workforce Development, Ban the Box: Removing barriers to employment for the previously incarcerated, Paid Sick Days/Family Leave, Parental Drug Abuse, Solar Hollow: Solar Panel Installations in Logan Co
The West Virginia Regional Policy Workshops are organized by the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition, West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, and West Virginia Community Development Hub.