03/18/2013 01:27 EDT | Updated 05/18/2013 05:12 EDT

More than half of Ontario elementary schools don't have phys-ed teachers: survey

TORONTO - A shortage of physical education specialists in Ontario elementary schools could have long-term repercussions for the overall health of the province's students, a report released Monday suggested.

A survey from advocacy group People for Education said a dearth of teachers qualified to offer health instruction, particularly in more remote areas of the province, means students are falling well short of provincial curriculum guidelines on physical activity.

Worse, they said, is the fact that students are missing out on a comprehensive health education that could greatly bolster their future prospects.

The survey of a thousand schools across Ontario found that only 45 per cent had a specialized physical education teacher on staff. Those instructors often work part-time and are often unable to offer their services to all students, the report said, adding remaining staff often feel ill-equipped or unable to take on the health lessons prescribed in the provincial curriculum.

Annie Kidder, Executive Director of People for Education, said the shortfall is simply a result of skewed priorities. Everyone from the provincial government on down needs to adjust their thinking to give health education as much weight as reading, writing and math, she said.

"We need to put health and well-being up there and say 'this has to be a priority too,'" Kidder said in a telephone interview. "We could be measuring it. We could be setting targets and goals and measuring our progress towards those goals, because health and well-being, they're all interconnected."

The report found some basic tenets of the health curriculum were falling by the wayside as a result of the teacher shortfall.

The government currently prescribes 20 minutes of daily physical activity for all elementary students, a survey of principals in the greater Toronto area suggest fewer than half the students are receiving even a portion of that time.

Those results came from an area that has more than its share of physical education specialists. The report found 75 per cent of schools in the provincial capital had phys-ed staff on the payroll compared to just 22 per cent of schools located in more remote regions of northern Ontario.

Principals surveyed for the study said they lacked the time and resources to fit the requirement into an already-packed school day, an argument that received little sympathy from Education Minister Liz Sandals.

The minimal time commitment requires little specialized equipment and no expert staff to be implemented across the board, Sandals argued.

"Twenty minutes of daily physical activity isn't something that requires a highly skilled phys-ed specialist," she said. "It's just having one teacher or a few teachers that are physically active and willing to lead something."

Kidder agreed the lack of staff need not stand in the way of providing a comprehensive health education, which she said must include more than physical activity guidelines.

But she said the province must focus on equipping classroom teachers to offer Instruction on mental, nutritional and sexual health.

Such instruction doesn't have to come from a phys-ed expert to be effective, she said, adding that all aspects need to be considered in order to provide a valuable health education.

"You have to do it as part of a comprehensive strategy, which should be located in schools, but it has to be looked at all of a piece," Kidder said, adding schools could consider establishing partnerships with community programs to help close the education gap.

The issue requires attention from the provincial government as well, she said.

The province's health strategy is currently divided into several clearly defined areas, an approach Kidder said does not offer the comprehensive framework that would allow children to develop healthy habits at an early age.

NDP health promotion critic France Gelinas echoed Kidder's call for action.

"Healthy bodies make for healthy minds," Gelinas said in a statement. "The government should get off the couch and get active when it comes to promoting a robust health strategy for kids. This is especially important for those students who live in remote communities."