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As we enter our third year of the pandemic, forecasters are predicting another ugly winter. But this time, children as well as adults are being affected by the COVID variant Omicron. Though healthy eating and exercise is a scientifically proven way to prevent hospitalizations and serious symptoms of COVID-19, these measures have been largely ignored by California public schools.
In addition to a lack of emphasis on exercise, San Diego Unified School District leaders shut down all “extracurricular” and “out of season” sports including football, weightlifting, baseball and softball conditioning, band or cheer practice.
From what is an intention to mitigate the spread of the Omicron variant, these measures do much more harm than good. To keep our students safe, it is imperative that there be a greater emphasis on healthy exercise habits in California public schools, especially here in San Diego.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that about 78 percent of people who have been hospitalized, needed a ventilator or died from COVID-19 have been overweight or obese. The CDC also states that 20 percent of children and adolescents in the United States have obesity. Instead of focusing all their attention on other prevention strategies such as wearing a mask, staying at least three feet from others and handwashing, schools should promote the importance of eating right, exercising and managing weight as a way to prevent COVID.
Research suggests that people who exercised regularly and then tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 were less likely to experience more severe COVID-19 outcomes. Therefore, it is imperative for schools to implement comprehensive physical activity programs with quality physical education as the cornerstone. Children and teens should be given at least 60 minutes of supervised physical activity every day and be encouraged to participate in after school sports. The San Diego Unified School District’s decision to shut down extracurricular and off-season sports limits students’ ability to exercise in an organized and supervised environment. The district’s actions are counterproductive and go against research indicating that more exercise means less risk of developing severe COVID.
Research has also confirmed that being overweight is a contributing factor in exacerbating the ill effects of COVID and it appears that this deadly virus may be around for a long time so it is imperative that educators promote a healthy life style to prevent COVID. Schools need to begin to integrate nutrition education into their daily lesson plans across the curriculum encouraging healthy choices. Regular physical activity to lower COVID illness severity should be promoted by school districts and public health agencies.
School closures intended to keep students safe during the pandemic ushered in a different set of dangers: anxiety, stress, depression and other serious mental health conditions that negatively affect students and their families. Many public school teachers will agree that they were not prepared to deal with the mental health issues and other impacts that distance learning had on their students when they returned to in person instruction. The lack of physical activity during school closures and the abundance of screen time during distance learning only worsened physical and mental health issues among students.
Most front-line educators are already vaccinated against COVID and while public health experts say that vaccines are an important component of keeping schools safe and avoiding quarantine disruptions, school districts should also provide “employee wellness programs” that includes healthy eating and physical activity services for teachers and all school staff members. Worksite wellness programs can improve staff productivity while decreasing absenteeism and employee health care costs such as those associated with COVID.
To help prevent the ill effects of COVID variants and boost our student’s immune system, schools must support healthy eating and physical activity from the playground to the classroom so we can beat COVID and other illnesses in the future. By adopting sensible guidelines, schools can educate students in more than just reading, writing and arithmetic. Instead of knee jerk reactions such as cancelling extracurricular and out of season sports, schools can offer the tools and resources students need to live healthy, active lives and reduce childhood obesity.