Much has changed in the schools for the better of our students. Ways of teaching and learning have changed. School environments have also transformed to absorb the changes in teaching and learning. Despite these changes, one thing has remained unchanged, and that is the excessive weights of school bags that our students lug to their schools.
It is a common sight to see students carrying school bags that are unnecessarily heavy and often larger in size than their backs. Scientific studies offer a range of adverse implications on students, as they grow into adulthood, from carrying heavy school bags. It is time that parents and policy makers also understand both the short- and long-term impacts as reported in these studies because our students carry their school bags from home to school and back, six days a week, nine months a year, for thirteen years of their developmental period.
Some of the commonly discussed effects are: fatigue, muscle strain, back pain, distortion of the spine’s natural curves, rounding of the shoulders, poor body posture, and short attention spans. Heavy school bags are also known causes of cervical and lumbar pains. Convincing claims also point out that reduction and shortening of the lumbar spine in proportion to the weight of the school bag will result in overloading and degenerative changes in the spine. Such changes are known causes of back pain in later years. It has also been reported that growth points in the bones from which bones grow will be damaged by carrying excessively heavy school bags, resulting in abnormal or stunted growth.
The above impacts are alarming in various ways. Firstly, the impacts will have a huge burden on our health system, and some studies term these impacts as healthcare time bombs. Secondly, the toll of excessive weight of school bags on our school children will result in under-developed human capital because some studies have made a persuasive claim of causality between healthy bodies and high student achievement.
While our country is unusually quiet on the silent struggle of our students to carry heavy school bags, other countries have not only recognised the socio-economic problems associated with their students carrying heavy school bags but also implemented diverse solutions to the problem.
In Australia, some state governments provide their public with advisory information about the risks of heavy school bags, ways of reducing the risks, alternatives to carrying school bags, and ways of reducing the number of books students carry.
In India, some courts have issued orders to state governments to formulate policies for averting students from carrying heavy school bags. In the USA, health specialists have recommended the critical ratio of the weight of school bag to the student’s body weight.
In the United Kingdom, health specialists have called for a review of the weights students carry.
In some countries, the media awakened the public on the issue. All these concerns show that the impact of carrying heavy school bags by our students needs quick intervention as the concerns are no less relevant to our country.
When the body weights and the weights of school bags of one hundred students from a Middle Secondary School in country were randomly measured, the average weight of the school bags that the students carry to their schools was 17 percent of their average body weight of 40.20 percent. This falls outside of the recommended range of 10-15 percent of the body weight. As the number of participants is small, this finding may be only the tip of the iceberg of diverse ill effects of heavy school bags that our students experience on a daily basis as they traverse between their schools and dwellings over a few thousand metres of rough, uneven footpaths. The risk is too obvious to pretend not to know.
It is a fact that students cannot go to the schools without books. Therefore, health experts do not say that students should not carry school bags. The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons recommends that it is alright for students to carry less than 10-15 percent of their body weights. This implies that our children can still carry some books in their school bags, which will allow them to complete their home tasks and other extended learning activities. Within this permissible limit of the weight of the school bag, countries have implemented many measures.
Some countries provide students with locker facilities in their classrooms for keeping their books. Some countries require schools to formulate student homework timetables so that students get homework in no more than two subjects in a day. Some countries mandate schools to develop class timetables which requires students to use only some subjects on a day; not all the subjects. Some countries prescribe ergonomically designed backpacks for students to reduce weight hazards. Some countries provide specifications for the size of note books. These remedial measures have no less potential, in our country as well, to address the ill effects of carrying excessively heavy school bags by our students.
Our children, born in the GNH country, should not only learn happily in the GNH-oriented schools, but also develop into adulthood with healthy bodies, free of the ill effects of heavy school bags, as they graduate from their schools.
Gembo Tshering, (PhD)
Paro College of Education