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School District Recognized for Keeping Students, Staff Healthy

“America’s Healthiest Schools” is supported by Kaiser Permanente. Pictured, Virginia Lee Rose Elementary P.E. teacher Rachel Noia does virtual warmup exercises with her students.

A fitness and activity pack filled with foam balls, bean bags, jump ropes, and juggling scarves is helping each of the 7,500 elementary students in the Madera Unified School District stay active during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s one way the district, just north of Fresno, California, is continuing to focus on improving the health of its students, staff, and teachers while they are distance learning. And it’s one reason why all 23 of its comprehensive schools were recently named “America’s Healthiest Schools” by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation.

Healthier Generation recognized 518 schools as being the healthiest in the nation. Madera Unified is the only district in California to have all of its comprehensive schools recognized with the bronze award for being America’s Healthiest Schools in 2020.

“We really want our teachers to be empowered and have the tools they need to be healthy so they can model that behavior for students.”

Healthier Generation is a partner of Kaiser Permanente’s Thriving Schools effort, and Kaiser Permanente is a supporting partner of the America’s Healthiest Schools campaign.

Focusing on physical and mental wellness is a commitment the district started 4 years ago and one that continues today even though a worldwide pandemic is preventing students from being on school campuses.

Modeling Healthy Behavior

Being recognized for having some of the healthiest schools in the nation is an important accomplishment for Madera Unified, which resides in a county where nearly 40% of children are overweight.

In response, a districtwide wellness policy ensures teachers and staff have the tools they need to be physically and emotionally healthy, including flavored waters at school sites, yard game equipment such as bocce ball and archery equipment for staff to use, and even cardio equipment on site for teachers to use on their breaks at some schools.

“We really want our teachers to be empowered and have the tools they need to be healthy so they can model that behavior for students,” said Jaime Brown, physical education program grant coordinator for the district.

“I could not be more excited for Madera Unified and all of our partners who helped collaborate in order to achieve this distinguished accomplishment,” said Marty Bitter, Madera Unified’s director of athletics. “It has always been our goal to create an environment that is safe, active, and healthy for our students, staff, administration, families, and community.”

Keeping the Healthy Activities Going

The health and wellness efforts in Madera Unified have continued through the COVID-19 pandemic, even though students aren’t attending classes in person.

  • Elementary students are still receiving one 30-minute block of P.E. per week and are given at-home, movement-based assignments to complete each week.
  • Teachers who are on site during the pandemic participate in a daily “Walk and Talk” where music is played outside as they take 15-minute walks.
  • The district is also emailing regular health and wellness tips to families and employees with ideas for how to stay active even as traditional recreational spots like community centers and gyms are closed.

The changes are making a difference in the overall health and wellness of students with student obesity rates declining, Brown said.

“This has really been something positive for us to focus on as we deal with the pandemic and changes to the way the school year looks,” she said. “We are really honored to be recognized with this award.”

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