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For Physical Education During COVID, Adaptation Is the Name of the Game

siblings enjoying online yoga class with laptop computer at home

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Key Takeaways

  • Between school restrictions and social distancing guidelines, the standard physical education curriculum has been upended during the pandemic.
  • Teachers and students have been forced to get creative to ensure that fitness needs are met.

As this past summer came to a close, school systems around the country worked overtime to solve the impending logistical issues posed by COVID-19. Whether it was virtual learning, in-person learning, or a hybrid of the two, kids needed to return to school without compromising their health and safety.

While much of the focus has been on maintaining our kids' social and cognitive development during this difficult time, COVID guidelines have also complicated an oft-forgotten part of the school day—physical education. Between social distancing and remote learning, PE teachers have had to adjust to the new realities of this school year just as much as their peers in the classroom.

"When the school closures happened in March, it was a test for all of us. A test of patience, a test of willingness to adapt, and a test of perspective," says Timothy Gill, a K-5 PE teacher at Tobin Montessori School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is following a hybrid learning model.

Teaching During a Pandemic

According to the National Center For Education Statistics, there are about 3.7 million elementary and secondary school teachers this year, and every single one of them has likely faced disruption to their normal workflow. Gym class has been no different.

"The standards and objectives that students should practice in PE class change drastically when you subtract equipment, space, and a social aspect," says Gill.

Like many teachers, Gill has had to adjust to ensure that students continue to meet those goals. His classes are a mix of "live" classes over Google Meet; pre-recorded videos; and outdoor, socially distant in-person classes. This means a lot of extra prep work, and a lot more screen time.

Timothy Gill, K-5 PE Teacher

The standards and objectives that students should practice in PE class change drastically when you subtract equipment, space, and a social aspect.

— Timothy Gill, K-5 PE Teacher

For teachers with children of their own, the extra work that goes into teaching remote classes is exacerbated, as professional and personal worlds collide at home.

"It takes a long time to write a script, film yourself, edit the video, upload it, and then engage in meaningful feedback and redirection for student learning," Gill says. Lessons must also be crafted around the fact that students at home will not have the same tools that would normally be available to them in a normal gym class setting.

Kristin Lovering, a K-5 PE teacher in the Boston, Massachusetts area, followed a similar strategy, creating a YouTube channel for students at home. "The most rewarding thing has been seeing our remote students continue to want to participate in PE and make the most out of at-home learning, even if they are following gym class from a small space."

Making It Work

Through it all, PE teachers are finding new ways to help their students stay active, even when they have to stay home. One benefit of providing students with pre-recorded videos is that they and their families can choose the time that works best for them, and rewind or replay videos as needed.

The increased reliance on technology can be tough for the mobile and tactile lessons of a PE class, but it has also provided opportunities for extra creativity and engagement. Gill says that he has received great feedback on his videos "if there is personality, silliness, music, and eye-catching graphics." He's even used slide presentations to allow students to create their own Yoga Flow for a full mind and body workout. Lovering also preaches the use of music, which she says "really gets the kids excited and moving."

While many households lack the same exercise equipment you might find in the standard gym class, Lovering has been impressed by the ingenuity of her students. "A lot of students have found creative ways to mimic our lessons in the gym," she says. "We used stepping boards in class to work on stability one week, and students were finding stepping stools, pillows, water cases, and folded towels to use instead."

Kristin Lovering

The most rewarding thing has been seeing our remote students continue to want to participate in PE and make the most out of at-home learning, even if they are following gym class from a small space.

— Kristin Lovering

Strategies like this may sound familiar to adults who have had to adapt their own workouts following gym closures. Whether it means trying out resistance bands, body weight exercises, or cardio fit for small spaces, many of us have been forced to adapt to new circumstances.

Instilling this sort of intent and fitness creativity in kids at a young age could have major benefits as they grow. Making exercise a lifelong habit—and committing to finding joy in whatever physical activities we choose—sets the stage for lasting physical and mental health benefits.

Are Kids Getting Enough Exercise?

While students and teachers alike are doing their best under the circumstances, COVID-19 presents a barrier to meeting the exercise needs of kids of all ages.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, preschool-aged kids should be active throughout the day, while older kids should be getting 60 minutes of physical activity per day. Between youth sports cancellations, social distancing guidelines, and other restrictions, there are fewer avenues to hit those goals.

Timothy Gill, K-5 PE Teacher

When the school closures happened in March, it was a test for all of us. A test of patience, a test of willingness to adapt, and a test of perspective

— Timothy Gill, K-5 PE Teacher

"Considering some families can't afford to get sick right now, the exercise available to those students is limited to the space inside their home," Gill says, noting also that fitness may be taking a backseat to other priorities.

In many homes, however, parents are doing their best to engage directly with their children's physical education and set a good example by exercising right alongside them, time-permitting, of course. "The amount of work that some parents are currently putting into their student's learning is incredible," Gill says, noting the struggle of those who are now working from home full-time while keeping their children on track during virtual classes.

Lovering recommends that parents keep their children’s physical activity levels up outside the classroom by going for a walk, going on a bike ride, or simply kicking a ball around. "It is such a critical time for students who attend school either physically or virtually to continue to practice healthy habits inside and outside of school," she says.

Staying Safe and Healthy

This year, students have become responsible for their own educations in an unprecedented way, and that extends to the safety measures put in place to prevent infection. "From what I've noticed, younger students are respectful of the 'new normal'...[and] are holding each other accountable when they see someone not following the new guidelines," Gill says.

These guidelines often include clearly marked spaces for each student to help maintain social distancing, limiting lessons to calisthenics or other exercises that don't require equipment. In most cases, this means no sports or other cooperative activities that might require close contact.

At ages when developing social skills is crucial to positive development, some of these activities are being left behind for now. "A lot of the games and sports that we would regularly teach have been modified and even deleted from our curriculum due to social distancing," Lovering says.

COVID-19 has disrupted many aspects of our lives, and it's crucial that we continue to show enough adaptability to help our kids (and ourselves) get whatever exercise is possible during this time.

What This Means For You

While multiple vaccines may be on the way, widespread availability is still months in the future for people at lower risk of severe infection. In many cases, that includes children, so a full return to the gymnasium and a regular PE curriculum will likely have to wait until next school year for many students around the country.

As winter approaches, teachers, students, and parents will have to keep doing their best to make sure that kids stay on the move, even if they can't spend as much time outside.

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