It’s almost time for gym class, and my fifth grader can’t find her tennis ball.
“Adrienne, did you take it?” she demands of her younger sister, who swears she didn’t (though she probably did).
“How about a soccer ball?” I ask. They’re practicing dribbling skills.
“No, Mom,” she says firmly. “We’re indoors.” It has to be a tennis ball. She searches under the coffee table and behind the couch; scours her sister’s cluttered room. No tennis ball.
This is what remote phys ed looks like in our house.
And this is what it sounds like: Thundering footfalls from the bedroom above my office, as my third grader jumps over virtual dinner plates, dodges pixels of pumpkin pie and karate-chops cartoon carrots in a Thanksgiving-themed online fitness game that her PE teacher is using as a warmup.
The coronavirus pandemic and the resulting widespread shift to remote learning have brought major changes to phys ed in the United States. Gone are the team sports played in wide-open fields behind the school. In their place are Turkey Ninja Warrior and water-bottle bowling, solitary pursuits conducted couch-side, in spaces as small as a studio apartment. Rolled up socks and laundry baskets have replaced balls and nets, as schools seek everyday alternatives to stranded sports equipment.
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 if 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.
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 cancelled for safety reasons. And they’re eating more junk food, according to research from Ireland and Italy. Public health experts here are worried about unhealthy eating too. Compounding these issues, many students around the country live in crowded apartments or in neighborhoods where it’s not safe to exercise outside. In some cities, parks are closed due to the pandemic.
If school closures continued through the end of this year, childhood obesity rates would climb by more than 2 percent.
If school closures continue through the end of this year, childhood obesity rates will climb by more than 2 percent, according to estimates in a recent study by a researcher at Washington University in St. Louis.
And though there’s little hard data on how much exercise kids are getting right now, the anecdotal evidence is that they are not moving as much as they should. In surveys Huff conducted this fall with 200 students at Metuchen High School, students said they had headaches from staring at the screen, that their backs hurt from sitting, and that they weren’t retaining anything.
Related: How a growing number of states are hoping to improve kids’ brains: exercise
School-age children should get an hour or more of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity daily, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Students in elementary school should spend 150 minutes a week in PE while students in middle and high school should receive 225 minutes a week of PE instruction, according to recommendations from the Society of Health and Physical Educators (SHAPE), which represents PE and health instructors.
The benefits of exercise for children are well-established. Children who are aerobically fit are not only physically healthier than their sedentary peers — their brains are more developed, too, said Charles Hillman, a psychology professor at Northeastern University. His research indicates that fit children appear to have more mature prefrontal cortices and hippocampi — the parts of the brain associated with attention, memory and self-regulation, and by extension, academic achievement.
Exercise can also alleviate depression and anxiety — conditions that have intensified in many students during the pandemic. And it’s critical to combatting childhood obesity, which affects one in seven kids between the ages of 10 and 17 nationally, with even higher rates among low-income children and children of color.
“You have to keep them moving, because if they aren’t focused, if they have too much energy, they aren’t going to learn anything.”
Leslie Monterrosa, a second-grade teacher in Concord, California
Yet, even before COVID-19 shut down schools, fewer than half the states set any minimum amount of time that students must participate in PE, according to SHAPE.
With much of PE now online, some kids are getting even less time in class than before. In March, California’s governor waived the state’s time requirement, prompting some districts to eliminate PE as a stand-alone class or make it an elective. At least two Massachusetts districts have eliminated elementary PE altogether this year, according to the president of the state’s SHAPE chapter.
Portland, Oregon nearly laid off all its elementary adaptive PE instructors, who work with children with disabilities, before teachers defeated the move. Neighboring Hillsboro, a diverse city, was less lucky: The district reassigned all but one of its 15 elementary PE instructors to classroom positions to meet Oregon’s pandemic class size guidelines. That left the lone remaining gym teacher to teach 11,000 students asynchronously by creating Google slides for them to use.
Advocates for phys ed 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 afterschool 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.
Related: Immigrants find hope in soccer, but some states won’t let them play
For now, though, PE instructors are focused on finding creative ways to keep their kids engaged. They’re sending kindergarteners 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 ed within Milwaukee Public Schools. “You can’t just do a fitness class, because kids will say it’s no fun.”
Back in New Jersey, Huff is working hard to make her classes fun. She’s created Tik Tok dance and exercise challenges, some of them with her sister, a PE teacher in another school. (And she’s not the only gym teacher embracing Tik Tok.) She’s also teaching students movement and mindfulness exercises they can perform, even during Zoom classes.
Since 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 do 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, Arizona, 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 bean bags. But the kits can be pricey, and not all districts can afford them. In normal times, the median budget for PE equipment and supplies is just $764 a year per school, according to a 2016 report by SHAPE.
So some teachers are soliciting supplies online, through sites like DonorsChoose.org. Between July 1 and Dec. 1, teachers submitted 860 requests (out of 181,000 total) that referenced virtual PE, according to Christopher Pearsall, the website’s vice president for brand and communications. The most sought-after items, by far, were jump ropes.
“It’s kind of like taking a pencil away from a classroom teacher. It’s nearly impossible to meet a jump rope standard without a jump rope.”
Kyle Bragg, an elementary school PE instructor in Scottsdale, Arizona
One of the requests came from Leslie Monterrosa, a second grade teacher in Concord, California. She knows her low-income, English language learners tend to live in small apartments and have busy working parents, so she asked for equipment they could use on their own, in small spaces — jump ropes and bean bags. A donor stepped up within days.
“You have to keep them moving, because if they aren’t focused, if they have too much energy, they aren’t going to learn anything,” she said.
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 OK with OK,” David Daum, an assistant professor of kinesiology at San Jose State University in California, said he tells teachers. “If you are trying hard, your students will see it. Just do your best.”
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.
Related: Ed tech can transform physical education classes, too
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 and biking, over the development of gross motor skills like jumping and throwing. Covid-era classes seem to be following the same trend, said Daum, who researches online PE.
This neglect of motor skills in online PE courses has been one of the chief criticisms of the delivery of classes via the internet. In its guidelines for online PE, SHAPE argues that the development of motor skills competence is “the highest priority of physical education,” and should be a “central component of any online physical education course.”
During the pandemic, some teachers have been asking students to send short video clips of themselves performing individual skills, like jumping rope. (Cooperative skills, like passing a ball, are harder to measure, since not everyone has a partner.) But 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 livestream classes, but that can open students up to ridicule and cyber-bullying. 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 if 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 livestreamed. Are busy working parents enforcing it? Given the hassle involved — one lesson in our house required my daughter to collect no fewer than seven household items — should parents just send their kids out to play instead?
No, said Stephanie Morris, the CEO of SHAPE America. Outdoor play is great. But PE is about more than just being active, she said. It’s about “learning skills to be healthy.”
Related: Schedules for distance learning are all over the place (and it’s making parents crazy)
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.
“Sitting on a couch in front of a computer may be some people’s dream job, but it drives me crazy.”
Andrew VanDorick, an elementary PE teacher in Maryland
“I see this as an opportunity to do things differently, to really showcase what we should be about,” he said, “and that is developing physical literacy: the skills, knowledge and attitudes to be physically active for a lifetime.”
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.
This story about phys ed was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.