Thirty bored students bask in the glow of aging computer monitors under the hum of fluorescent lights. Some scroll through articles on health and fitness and fill in bubbles on multiple-choice quizzes. Others furtively scour the web for online flash games that haven’t yet been blocked by Dade County’s X-STOP internet filter. At the front of the room, a supervisor distractedly reminds them to have their school IDs out, or he’ll have to write them up for detention.
This was a typical day in Angelika Menendez’s online P.E. class at Coral Gables Senior High during the 2013-14 school year. As South Florida students start their next academic year (today in Palm Beach County and next week in Dade and Broward), many will fulfill their high school physical education requirements in classrooms much like Menendez’s.
Last year, 3,777 Broward high school students took the one mandatory year of P.E. through Florida Virtual School. In theory, the “Health Opportunities through Physical Education” course should teach students about the science of healthy living and guide them through a year-long personal exercise regimen.
But Menendez says she doesn’t remember much of anything from skimming through enough of the required reading to ace her multiple choice quizzes – and she certainly never did any of the exercises the computer program asked her to keep track of.
“You’re supposed to be doing sit-ups and push-ups, but all you really have to do is type numbers into a chart,” Menendez says. “It sounds like a joke, basically, because it is one.”
The class has changed slightly since Menendez took it. Now, according to an online course description, students are “highly recommended” to purchase a MOVband, which tracks their movements and physiological responses to exercise. Still, doubts remain about whether students may be cheating the system.
“Call me a cynic,” says Matt Schroeder, Broward County’s P.E. curriculum supervisor, “but I’m pretty sure I could stick that arm band on my cocker spaniel for a day and set a world record for exercise.”
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Menendez only took online P.E. because in Florida, all students must take one online course to graduate. This was the easiest way for her to fulfill that requirement. Schroeder says many students wind up in ineffective virtual P.E. courses for the same reason.
“You can’t really blame the kids for taking the class,” Schroeder says. “I’m afraid that the kids who could really benefit from P.E. might miss out by not having a P.E. teacher there to embrace and engage them.”
Administrators for Florida Virtual School in Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach Counties did not respond to calls for comment by the time this story was published. However, Gary Chartrand, chair of the Florida board of education, did.
“It seems like sitting at your computer and taking a P.E. course is not really what the objective is,” Chartrand says. “That seems silly to me.”