In an attempt to keep students physically active during the pandemic, schools are replacing traditional physical education contact exercises with programming that emphasizes individual skill and strength progress rather than team achievements.

State guidance and national association recommendations say the modifications are necessary to fit with social distancing practices or for virtual learning formats, even as physical exercise for students is as important or even more so during the pandemic.

Keeping kids moving can help prevent sedentary lifestyles, reduce stress and contribute to readiness to learn, say health experts. Although the pandemic is making it challenging for schools to figure out the best instructional approaches that reach all students, some say this is the opportune time to reinvent the standard gym class.

Modifications to in-person P.E. classes may include limiting the use of ball sharing, avoiding the combination of classes, and using activities that require no physical contact or students being in close proximity to each other, according to guidance from the Society of Health and Physical Educators (SHAPE) America.

That means some group exercises and sports  such as soccer, tag and four square  are being replaced with yoga, dance, and kicking and target games. 

Carly Wright, vice president for advocacy and equity, diversity and inclusion at SHAPE, said P.E. instructors are being creative in their efforts to continue instruction during the pandemic. “Students still need to be able to receive high-quality, standards-based physical education. We wanted to see that continue no matter what type of learning is taking place,” she said.

Teachers are creating You Tube channels to demonstrate burpee techniques to remote students and asking students to report their pulse rates in chat boxes during synchronous gym class, said Brett Fuller, president of SHAPE and Milwaukee Public Schools‘ curriculum specialist for health and physical education. 

“This is our opportunity in physical education to break away from the mold of sports and create lifetime activities,” he said.

P.E. curriculum formats

In addition to the SHAPE guidance, several states have also provided districts with guidance for P.E. curriculum that offers ideas for the three types of learning formats: in-person, hybrid and remote. 

For example, guidance to Maryland schools suggests teachers use megaphones for in-person lessons to communicate with socially distanced students. For virtual learning scenarios, students could keep a record of physical activities they complete at home, such as number of sit-ups and push-ups.

The Minnesota Department of Education recommends that P.E. teachers rotate to classrooms if students are required to stay in the same classroom for all instructional periods. For remote learning, Minnesota advises schools to have clear communication with parents and students about learning expectations, to connect with students who are not engaging, and to offer students choice in physical activities they’d like to pursue.

That recognition of student voice and choice in physical activities during the pandemic could have positive, long-term effects on youth, said Keri Schoeff, Title IV-A safe, healthy and active student specialist at the Arizona Department of Education, which also issued guidance for physical education programs during the pandemic.

“It’s our job as physical educators to teach students to be physically literate and that means to be physically active no matter what,” Schoeff said. “It’s how we teach students to be fit throughout their lifetime.”

The national and state recommendations also promote P.E. learning approaches that are equitable, inclusive of all students, and have trauma-sensitive approaches. 

Wright said while these efforts existed pre-pandemic, attention to these factors has been heightened because of the stress students are under and the deliberate efforts instructors are making to connect with them.

The SHAPE guidance, for example, encourages teachers to better understand the barriers students face when learning from home, such as lack of access to the internet, as well as asking each student about their interests and concerns. SHAPE is following up the guidance with professional development opportunities and examples of best practices.

“P.E. educators are creative, innovative, and flexible,” Wright said. “They are giving students options about what motivates them.” 

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