Once taken for granted as a byproduct of children's playtime, physical fitness is now a state mandate for schoolkids through eighth grade.

Once taken for granted as a byproduct of children's playtime, physical fitness is now a state mandate for schoolkids through eighth grade.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski signed a bill last week requiring 150 minutes of physical education a week for grades kindergarten through 5 and 225 minutes a week for grades 6 through 8 in an attempt to combat prevalent childhood obesity.

The law, effective in fall 2017, specifies that half of that time must be used for exercise.

Most elementary schools in Jackson County don't include formal physical education in the school day. Physical activity comes as a part of recess or informal activities initiated by teachers. Recess cannot be counted as physical education under the law.

All middle schools in the county have a physical education requirement, but most would have to increase the amount of time spent on it.

By enacting the new requirements, Oregon joins a national movement toward mandating physical fitness for schoolchildren to curb obesity.

Oregon's adult obesity rate stands at about 22 percent, the highest of any state west of the Rockies.

While acknowledging the need for more physical activity among children, school officials say the requirement would likely decrease instructional time.

In the Medford School District, the amount of time spent on physical education differs from school to school at the elementary level, ranging from 30 to 45 minutes twice a week to daily.

"The requirement means we have to give up teaching something else," said Rich Miles, Medford district elementary education director. "The day is too short as it is to teach what we are expected to teach."

Medford seventh- and eighth-graders are required to take physical education for one period half of the school year.

"It would put a cramp on gym and field space," said Doug Jantzi, Medford district secondary education director. "Staff would virtually have to double. It just costs more."

The bill provides $860,000 statewide for staff development and hiring in the next biennium, more than $5 million short of what state education officials say would be needed to assist every district in the state to meet the standards.

Instead, the money will be divvied out as competitive grants.

At the elementary level, state law allows licensed teachers to teach physical education without an authorization. However, the time spent on physical education can detract from preparation time, Jackson County school district officials noted.

"We agree kids should be more active during the day, but this (requirement) will cut down on the amount of time teachers spend on reading and writing," said Prospect schools Superintendent Don Alexander. "We are going to have to make some sacrifices somewhere."

Prospect Elementary pupils don't have organized physical education but have two 15-minute recesses. Prospect Middle School students get about 180 minutes of physical education per week.

Rogue River seventh- and eighth-graders already exceed the state requirement, logging about 240 minutes a week of physical education. Students in grades kindergarten through six have no structured physical fitness program.

"Hiring teachers for that could be a challenge," said Rogue River schools Superintendent Harry Vanikiotis. "For some schools having the facilities and buying all the equipment could be a burden.

"Fortunately, we have 10 years to plan for it."

Ashland middle schoolers receive about 137 minutes of physical education per week.

Their elementary counterparts have about 55 minutes per week led by a physical education specialist. But many teachers hold informal exercise sessions at the beginning of the school day, said Ashland schools Superintendent Juli Di Chiro.

"Obviously the requirement comes down to budget limits, but we are committed to the goal," Di Chiro said. "We know kids need to be active, and we have that in our wellness plan."

About $140,000 has been earmarked in the next biennium to track how much time schools across the state have been spending on physical education. A report to the state Legislature is due in October 2008.

"The Legislature wanted to know what is the status now because we have a high obesity rate and a high rate of Type 2 diabetes, and they wanted to see if schools are contributing to that by not having enough physical activity," said Margaret Bates, specialist with the Oregon Department of Education.

The National Coalition for Promoting Physical Activity in Washington, D.C., has proposed adding such a requirement to the No Child Left Behind Act, which is being considered for reauthorization this year.

The act sets specific goals toward students' proficiency in reading and math but doesn't address physical fitness.

Studies show exercise increases alertness and blood circulation, which could boost learning.

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 776-4459 or pachen@mailtribune.com.