It has long been known that schools, including those in rural areas, have the ability to play a unique role in improving the health and fi tness of community members. Not only do they create opportunities for students to stay fi t and active throughout the day through physical education, recess and athletics, they are a huge, potential resource for older community members as well who do not have easy access to fitness centers.
However, health advocates in West Virginia found, as have advocates in other states, that for schools the liability risk of someone being hurt on school property far outweighed the benefits of opening the buildings and grounds to the community. That reality was especially troubling when coupled with the fact that West Virginia has the second highest adult obesity rate in the nation, right after Mississippi.
Working with health champions in the legislature, advocates—including the American Heart Association, the West Virginia Department of Education, the West Virginia Education Association and the American Teachers Federation—saw legislation introduced that provided liability protections for schools that made available their recreational facilities after school hours for community members or local organizations.
To support the effort, the advocates prepared a citizen-shared-use toolkit to help educate the public and decision makers alike on the benefits of changing the law. The hard work paid off. In an era when it seems as though the political challenges of getting anything done are insurmountable, the bill unanimously passed the West Virginia Legislature with support from all 134 members.
To add icing to the victory cake, passage of the law was highlighted at a ribbon cutting at a formerly gated elementary-school playground in Charleston. West Virginia State Senator and physician Ron Stollings, who attended the ribbon cutting, called the new law a step forward in the effort to fight the “epidemic of physical inactivity in West Virginia.”