Marching bands and high school PE

The Millard Public Schools in Omaha, Neb., will not allow its students to substitute marching band for its requirement that students take three semesters of physical education.

The proposal would save about $75,000 a year, according to the administration. But, the administration also said if the proposal was implemented it would negate the district’s emphasis on wellness and promoting physical fitness.

There are two issues here.

First, as almost everyone who ever was a member of a marching band knows, it’s physically challenging. Every member must not only march, sometimes at a rapid pace, but also read music, do maneuvers and play an instrument at the same time.

Some parades are a mile; the Rose Parade is 5.5 miles. Students train not just to march, but to march the entire distance.

For majorettes, it means marching, throwing and catching batons, a feat not many can do if they are not physically fit.

Waiving PE credit is reasonable.

But, the second issue is physical fitness.

Many school districts, dating back many decades, required physical education every semester. Exceptions were made for athletes.

The reason for PE dates to the ancient Romans—Mens sana in sano corpora—a sound mind in a sound body. Until the past few years, junior high and high school students took PE classes every day for all semesters. For many, it meant frustration at not being able to climb ropes and accepting being hit and possibly injured by participating in dodge ball; it could also mean embarrassment and towel snaps in the locker room if the teachers weren’t paying attention.

However, for a nation fixated upon iPads, smart phones, and video games, requiring PE makes sense. The classes also helped acquaint students with recreational sports—bowling, volleyball, swimming, and other activities they could enjoy long after high school.

Requiring only three semesters seems to be a compromise between requiring PE every semester and not requiring it at all. Schools should require students to take PE, possibly every semester, just as they require students to take English, math, and history classes.

However, requiring physical education classes in college may not make sense for students who are now adults. These classes—some colleges require three or four classes as part of graduation requirements—may sometimes be nothing more than a place to put varsity coaches who are better at blowing a whistle than delivering academic content in a classroom.

But, give the high school students in marching band a break—they already are physically fit and contributing every bit as much as varsity athletes who get waivers from taking PE.

Walter Brasch was in his high school marching band and orchestra and was also a tennis player before beginning a career as a journalist and college professor. His latest book is Fracking America: Sacrificing Health and the Environment for Short-Term Economic Benefit, available through,, and local bookstores.

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