Utah school board in ‘pause mode’ on making middle school health, PE and art classes optional

After objections were raised at a public hearing in September, the board votes to return its new policy to a committee for additional review and discussion. <br>

(Chris Detrick | Tribune File Photo) Seventh and eighth-graders at West Lake Junior High School run a mile around the track Wednesday, September 20, 2017.

The Utah Board of Education will take another pass at a divisive policy making art, PE, health and career awareness classes optional for middle school students.

After a series of false starts, the board voted 12-3 to strip the policy of its effective date, placing it in limbo, while the board’s Standards and Assessment Committee considers potential revisions.

“Right now the rule stands,” board Chairman Mark Huntsman said, “but it‘s in a pause mode.”

In August, the board removed the minimum credit requirements for middle school classes, shifting to a policy that promotes content mastery over course completion.

The policy also ended the requirement that middle school students complete art, health, physical education and career awareness courses, instead requiring that school districts make those subjects available as electives, and deferring to local administrators on whether to require participation.

Several community groups requested a hearing on the new rule, which was held in September and saw a capacity crowd lobbying the school board for more than three hours to uphold, delay or rescind it changes.

On Thursday, school board members initially struck down a motion to delay implementation of the policy. But they reconsidered after a potential compromise revision was suggested by board member Brittney Cummins.

Brittney Cummins' draft would restore the requirement that students be taught in the arts, health sciences and physical education. But those topics could be combined or integrated into other courses at a school district’s discretion.

“They do not have to offer it in a class form, but they have to be able to have access for all students,” she said. “The flexibility lies in the creativity of a district or charter board.”

Board member Carol Lear spoke in favor of the revision, saying the move to elective courses is a “sea change” that warrants a more incremental approach.

“I think that’s just a respectful way to go and have more discussion for a really major policy change,” she said.

Other board members were skeptical of Brittney Cummins’ proposal that subjects be combined. Lisa Cummins, no relation, said it would be inappropriate to mix the content of a health class, like sex education, with an English or mathematics course.

“How can a parent opt out of that class?” she asked.

And Michelle Boulter said the revision would only give school districts the illusion of freedom while reverting back to the status quo, in which course requirements are dictated by the state school board.

“You can do whatever you want in this 10 by 10 cell,” she said.

With the board’s action Thursday, the policy is delayed indefinitely, with a future vote required in order for it to become formally required of public schools in the state.

It is expected that the Standards and Assessment Committee will review Brittney Cummins’ proposed revisions — and other potential alterations — before making new recommendations to the full board.

“I need to be able to get input from everybody,” said board member Linda Hansen. “It‘s very difficult when somebody just hands you something.”