The Intersection

Physical Education During COVID-19

May 7, 2021

The Challenge

Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages.

The US Department of Health and Human Services recommends children and adolescents ages 6 through 17 years old engage in at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity daily. Regular physical activity in children and adolescents not only promotes health and fitness but also builds a foundation for healthy habits. Studies show that physical activity also has benefits for childhood brain health, including improved academic performance, memory, and reduced depression symptoms.

For many students, physical education classes play a critical role in getting active and establishing healthy routines. But when schools closed last spring, these classes became some of the most difficult to adapt to an online setting. Space, weather, social distancing, and other constraints continue to limit what physical education teachers can do in-person and with students learning from home.

Patricia Suppe, president of the California Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, explained, “P.E. [physical education] has been one of the most challenging subjects to teach online, but the irony is, students need P.E. now more than ever, not just for physical health but mental health.”

A recent study conducted at the Washington University in St. Louis predicted childhood obesity rates would increase by more than 2 percent in cities where schools remained closed through 2020. Research has also found that children, especially racial and ethnic minorities, are at greater risk of weight gain when they are not physically at school. Additional compounding factors may exist for some students who live in crowded apartments or neighborhoods where it is not safe to exercise outside. Some cities and towns even closed their public parks for safety regulations.

Physical education instructors understand the importance of creating meaningful and enjoyable activities to encourage students to live an active lifestyle. Teachers have urged students to go on bike rides, hikes, jogs, walks, or complete any physical activity that can be done safely outdoors. However, during online learning, instructors had to adapt and implement creative opportunities for students. Some instructors have designed workouts that can be done safely indoors using common household objects. For example, children have substituted water bottles for soccer goal posts, soup cans for weights, and running up and down stairs for a visit to the park. Some districts implemented school-to-home equipment projects, distributing equipment kits for each student, based on age, and suggested PE program activists. Other educators have streamed synchronous fitness classes from their homes, encouraging students to follow along.

Fitness and physical education promote healthy living and give students an opportunity to connect with peers. Though in-person and team interactions have been limited, the pandemic forced educators to embrace remote learning. Many educators did their best to prioritize connection building among classmates, though they were apart. In Downers Grove, Illinois, Joe Schallmsoser, the Avery Coonley School’s athletic director, tried a different strategy. Schallmoser allowed students to opt-in for physically distanced visits, which allowed him to see more students face-to-face. Through a Google Forms, he encouraged families to sign up for home visits. He then traveled to each student’s home to complete a socially distanced fitness routine outside their homes.

While the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted traditional physical education, teachers have encouraged students to remain active, which is more important during the pandemic, as students are likely to be more sedentary during online learning. Policymakers should work to support physical education and a healthy lifestyle for all children.

Policy Recommendations

Physical education remains important for the health and wellbeing of students. Therefore, policymakers and education stakeholders should consider how to support physical education.

Communicate Appropriate Practices: Districts should ensure that educators understand the appropriate practices and regulations for physical education during the coronavirus pandemic. Besides following the necessary state and federal guidelines to ensure the safety of students and staff, districts should continually assess and revise online courses to keep up with trends, technology, and content. Districts should review the National Standards for K-12 physical education to ensure educators are providing each element.

Promote state and/or national physical education standards: Students need physical education now more than ever, but in many districts, students are spending some or all school days online. Students are missing out on physical education classes and extracurricular sports, many of which have been cancelled due to COVID-19 safety reasons. Students may be getting less required physical education than before the pandemic. California Governor, Gavin Newsom, waived state time requirements for physical education in March 2020, prompting some districts to eliminate PE as a class. According to the Society of Healthy and Physical Educators, districts from all over the country, such as Portland and Massachusetts, eliminated elementary physical education for the 2020 school year. Therefore, policymakers should consider promoting physical education standards to ensure students receive the recommended 60-minute exercise period.

Allocate necessary resources to physical education: As students return to traditional in-person learning, some districts are cutting programs in schools – specifically physical education. School districts are considering laying off or reassigning PE teachers. Policymakers and education stakeholders should advocate for physical education and provide necessary funding to continue these programs. Further, districts should ensure that physical education instructors have the necessary funding to promote activities that promote student fitness.

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