Opinion: open school facilities lead to healthier public

West Virginia is in the midst of a health crisis like nothing this state has ever seen.

We lead the nation in the incidence of multiple devastating illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, COPD and diabetes.

Even our children are at greater risk here than elsewhere: it is estimated that as many as one in five West Virginia fifth graders has hypertension, one in four fifth graders has high cholesterol and one in six kindergartners is obese.

This is unacceptable. And while we want all our citizens to be in better health for the simple reason of reducing their suffering, statistics such as these have far-reaching effects.

Given this health crisis, the cost of providing health insurance to West Virginia workers is so high it becomes prohibitive. This discourages our own people from opening new businesses and out-of-state companies from coming here. In turn, the lack of new job opportunities only furthers our state’s decline, both physically and financially.

We do need to put a greater emphasis on educating our children to make healthy choices, but when children are being raised in the very homes where these diseases and associated behaviors abound, lessons in school can have only a limited impact.

One of the most affecting things we can do, however, is to encourage fun physical activity for all West Virginians, young and old alike. Physical activity provides numerous benefits.

Along with dietary improvement, physical fitness reduces not only obesity, but also stress. It keeps diseases like diabetes in check, enhances self-esteem and increases longevity. On a statewide basis, it can improve our productivity and reduce everyone’s health care costs.

While many of our communities lack public gyms, private health clubs or even specified walking trails, every community has schools and every school has some level of athletic facilities. Over the years, access to these facilities for unorganized public recreation has been hampered by liability lawsuits and increased regulation.

To remove some of these barriers, the West Virginia Legislature passed a Shared Use Limited Liability Protection bill.

This new law, reducing liability for local schools that want to open their tracks, gyms, fields and other facilities, went into effect last year.

It means that a group can play pickup basketball in the gym every Monday night, kids can play soccer on a school field after hours or some local residents can get together every evening and walk around the high school track, all without the school administrators being worried about being sued over an accidental injury due to no fault of their own.

The dozens of schools that have adopted shared use – like Marmet Elementary, which is being recognized today at 4 p.m. – and opened their doors are already seeing the benefits in their student and adult populations.

Parents report that their children are more active after school, and the teachers are seeing less delinquency and improved academic performance from their students. But we need to encourage even more schools to adopt shared use.

To that end, we introduced a bill in the House in the 2016 regular session that required the West Virginia Department of Education (DOE) to create a program to add further incentive. It would have created a fund to provide schools with relatively small grants they could use to repair or upgrade their playground and athletic facilities.

Secondly, it would have required the DOE to keep a database of which schools participate in the program and how those communities are using those facilities, so we could track and measure its effects. Unfortunately, we faced resistance on several fronts and were unable to get it passed.

We will, of course, continue our efforts in the next (2017) regular session. Health-minded legislators – together with our allies at the American Heart Association and the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition – are determined to introduce a similar bill.

The adoption, growth and success of the shared use program can be, and is, a relatively simple and inexpensive component in the fight for a more healthy, happy and prosperous state. Public awareness and support can only help ensure a brighter future for all our citizens.

Stansbury is an owner at West Virginia Eye Consultants and a member of the West Virginia House of Delegates.-by Chris Stansbury, Charleston Gazette-Mail