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It will be some time before the full impact of the pandemic on children’s health and fitness is known. In the first few months of 2020, the proportion of children aged 5 to 11 who are overweight and obese rose by nearly 10 percentage points.
Amtmanis’s “Miles Club”, which records students’ running in and out of school and rewards them with Pokemon cards when they reach certain goals, is an example of how PE teachers across the country are trying to get kids fit again.
But bad weather is not the only problem PE teachers face, as they may be facing “physical learning loss”. Sport as a subject has long struggled to gain the same attention as academic subjects. Even before the pandemic, fewer than half of states had set a minimum time for students to participate in physical education, according to the Society of Health and Physical Educators (SHAPE), which represents PHYSICAL education and wellness teachers.
Now, as schools try to help kids catch up academically, there are signs that PHYSICAL education is once again taking a back seat to core subjects. In some California schools, administrators are switching physical education classes to academic sessions or eliminating classes altogether and replacing classroom teachers with PHYSICAL education teachers; In other places, they’re increasing class sizes in the gym so they can downsize in the classroom.
Meanwhile, innovative teachers like Amtmanis, who has worked in her district for more than 20 years, are working to get their ideas off the ground. This summer, the principal at Macdonough Elementary approved her request to run in another program called the Daily Mile. In the program, children walk or run for 15 minutes a day during school hours.
Amtmanis believes that daily running breaks can “improve concentration, which can have a positive impact on learning.”
But two weeks into the semester, none of the teachers agreed with the idea.
“The problem is they have a full schedule,” Amtmanis said.
Last year, many schools offered physical education classes remotely, with students taking part from their bedrooms and living rooms.
The online format presents several challenges. Many students lack the equipment, space or parental support to participate fully. Many teachers struggle with how to teach and evaluate motor skills and online teamwork.
While teachers have found some creative ways to keep students moving — rolling up socks instead of balls, “masquerading as healthy” with scavenger hunts and beating teacher challenges — they still worry that online fitness doesn’t offer students the same benefits as face-to-face classes.
To add to their concern, many students also miss out on recess and after-school sports.
In March 2021, nearly half of PE teachers, schools and district administrators responded to a survey conducted by the Cooper Institute, the maker of the popular fitness graph assessments, that their students were “significantly less physically active” during school closures.
Schools that reopened last year also faced a number of challenges, including a ban on sharing devices that made even a simple game of catch impossible. Schools that open face-to-face learning are also more likely to reduce or eliminate physical education classes altogether, the survey found.
The consequences of reduced physical activity are hard to quantify, especially since many schools have suspended fitness tests and have yet to resume them during the pandemic, but some physical education teachers say they are seeing more children with slower movement and weaker physical strength.
“Sophomores are like first graders, some of them even kindergarten kids,” said Robin Richardson, a Kentucky elementary school physical education teacher. ‘They can jump, but they can’t jump,’ she says. They were exhausted after 20 seconds.
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