This is what remote physical education looks like in our house. And what it sounds like? Thundering footfalls from the bedroom above my office, as my third-grader runs through games her PE teacher is using as a warm-up.
The coronavirus pandemic and the resulting widespread shift to remote learning have brought major changes to physical education. Games like Turkey Ninja Warrior and water-bottle bowling and solitary pursuits in spaces as small as a studio apartment have replaced class in open fields or gyms. Rolled-up socks and laundry baskets have replaced balls and nets.
The PE instructors I spoke with said the students seem to be having fun — the ones they can see on video, at least. Privacy policies in many districts bar teachers from requiring students to keep their cameras on, and some students don’t.
But it’s hard to gauge whether they’re getting the same benefits from online PE as they did from in-person classes. Some students lack the equipment, space or parental support to participate fully. Instructors say it’s tough to teach and assess motor skills, like catching and kicking, online.
Meanwhile, public health experts say kids need exercise more than ever.
“PE is so important, because our kids are sitting from 8 to 3,” said Michelle Huff, a high school PE teacher in New Jersey who has taken to posting TikTok videos inviting kids to join in on PE activities.
In a majority of districts, students are spending some or all of their school days online. They’re missing out on recess and extracurricular sports, many of which have been canceled for safety reasons. Public health experts are worried about unhealthy eating, too.
Compounding these issues, many students live in crowded apartments or in neighborhoods where it’s not safe to exercise outside. In some cities, parks are closed because of the pandemic.
In places where schools remained closed through 2020, childhood obesity rates were predicted to climb by more than 2 percent, according to estimates in a recent study by a researcher at Washington University in St. Louis.
Yet, even before the coronavirus shut down schools, fewer than half the states set any minimum amount of time that students must participate in PE, according to the Society of Health and Physical Educators (SHAPE), which represents PE and health instructors.
With much of PE now online, some kids are getting even less time in class than before. Because of the pandemic, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) waived the state’s time requirement in March, prompting some districts to eliminate PE as a stand-alone class or make it an elective. Portland, Ore., nearly laid off its elementary adaptive PE instructors, who work with children with disabilities, before teachers defeated the move. At least two Massachusetts districts have eliminated elementary PE altogether this year, according to the president of the state’s SHAPE chapter.
Advocates for physical education fear more cuts could be coming, as districts grapple with looming budget cuts stemming from the current economic downturn. And if the Great Recession is any guide, those cuts could fall hardest on high-poverty districts, where students already have less access to after-school sports than in wealthier ones.
“Not all students have the privilege of taking ballet classes or sports clubs,” said Julia Stevens, the president of Oregon’s SHAPE chapter.
For now, though, PE instructors are focused on finding creative ways to keep their kids engaged. They’re sending kindergartners on scavenger hunts that have them running around their homes to collect items. They’re challenging high-schoolers to “beat the teacher” by performing more push-ups in a minute than their instructor.
“We’re disguising fitness,” said Brett Fuller, the president of SHAPE’s national board of directors and a curriculum specialist for health and physical education in Milwaukee Public Schools.
Because most kids don’t have a whole lot of gym gear in their homes, SHAPE’s reopening guidance recommends that teachers ask students what they have on hand and provide a checklist of common household items that could be repurposed as sports equipment.
Some substitutions are simple — cut plastic gallon milk cartons for catching, or unopened canned soup for weights. Others are trickier. Kyle Bragg, an elementary school PE instructor in Scottsdale, Ariz., said he’s yet to find an acceptable alternative to a jump rope; nothing rotates at the same speed. He’s told kids to ask their parents to buy one, but he can’t force them. So for now, he’s stuck with some students jumping over pillows.
“It’s kind of like taking a pencil away from a classroom teacher,” he said. “It’s nearly impossible to meet a jump rope standard without a jump rope.”
Some districts are purchasing take-home kits containing jump ropes, balls and beanbags. But the kits can be pricey, and not all districts can afford them.
Some instructors are offering students choices: If they don’t have the equipment they need for one activity — say soccer — they can try another, like running. The alternative might not target the same skills, but at least it gets them moving.
And in the midst of a pandemic that has upended nearly every aspect of education, some standards may simply need to be set aside for a bit, instructors say.
“You gotta be okay with okay,” David Daum, an assistant professor of kinesiology at San Jose State University in California, said he tells teachers.
The hardest things to teach and evaluate online, instructors say, are the skills, strategies and collaboration involved in team sports. There’s just no way to play soccer alone in your living room.
That’s why online PE courses — which have existed at the high school and college levels since at least the late 1990s — have historically favored fitness-based instruction, like interval training, over the development of gross motor skills like kicking. Covid-era classes seem to be following the same trend, said Daum, who researches online PE.
While some teachers have been asking students to send short video clips of themselves performing individual skills, like jumping rope, there are limitations and drawbacks to that approach: Some parents aren’t comfortable with their children sharing videos of themselves, and some students send clips that are far too long. With dozens of students per grade, reviewing the submissions can take an instructor hours.
The alternative is to conduct assessments in live-stream classes, but that can open students up to ridicule and cyberbullying. Some districts have policies stating that students can’t be required to keep their cameras on.
In such districts, it can be hard to tell whether students are participating at all. They might be doing jumping jacks, or they might be watching YouTube.
To gauge participation, many instructors are asking students to answer a question in a chat box or complete an exit ticket with questions about the lesson and their own performance. Some schools with fully asynchronous PE are relying on the honor system, with students using logs to report how much exercise they get each day.
It’s unclear how many students are actually doing the portions of PE that aren’t live-streamed. Are busy working parents enforcing it?
Despite the challenges involved in remote learning, Fuller, SHAPE’s president, sees the pandemic as an opportunity to show that PE is not only about team sports. Teachers are learning technological skills that “none of us ever dreamt they’d have,” he said. And students are discovering that fitness can be fun, even without group games.
Still, many PE instructors said they’re eager to return to the gym and sports fields.
“I became a PE teacher because I needed to keep moving,” said Andrew VanDorick, an elementary PE teacher in Maryland. “Sitting on a couch in front of a computer may be some people’s dream job, but it drives me crazy. I can’t wait to be back in front of the kids.”
Oh, and that missing tennis ball? Turns out it isn’t essential after all. When it vanishes again, just in time for water-bottle bowling, my 11-year-old substitutes a lacrosse ball — and rolls a spare.
Field is a reporter for the Hechinger Report. This story about physical education was produced by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.