Originally published Oct. 21, 2020 by The Herald News.

By Greg Sullivan

For many children, out of school also means out of the gym. Or off the playing fields. In other words, less exercise. Maybe none.

With childhood obesity already a national problem, many fear it is being worsened by the restrictions related to COVID-19 fears. Some schools are in full remote mode, others in hybrid (semi-remote) mode. High school and middle school athletics have taken a hit. Physical education classes taught remotely run the risk of low attendance and/or participation.

Michele Sharpe, health and physical education director for Fall River’s public schools and Durfee High School’s health and physical education department head, says she’s “very concerned” about the potential for COVID-19 fears and related restrictions to spark an upswing in the already disturbing trend of childhood obesity. More computer screen time, lack of routines, stress, anxiety, boredom, lack of physical activity, decline in energy expenditure and a desire for all kinds of unhealthy foods, she said, can be expected to contribute to a surge nobody wants.

She also noted obesity and its connection to increased risk of severe illness.

“May seem dramatic to say,” Sharpe said in an email to The Herald News, “but having increases in childhood obesity rates may create life and death circumstances for our children. Therefore ensuring support is in place for students and families to successfully combat the surge needs to be a top priority for our community.”

Perhaps as never before, physical education teachers are in the spotlight.

“COVID-19 has certainly made it more difficult for everyone to get proper exercise,” Jason Pacheco, director of athletics and activities for Westport Junior/Senior High School, said in an email. “For many children, Physical Education classes along with recreational and school sponsored sports have been the way in which they have stayed in shape. We have seen many cities and towns in the area postpone entire recreational seasons, and certainly a good number of schools move traditional fall sports to the ‘Fall II’ season.”

Westport public schools are operating in full remote.

Pacheco said he is encouraged to see his children’s phys-ed teachers, through Google Meet, encouraging students to get active, and to see the junior and high school phys-ed teachers demonstrating workouts in an otherwise empty gym with students mirroring them at home.

“This is like nothing we have ever seen, but at the same time I think it has pushed many people to think outside of the box and to do their best,” Pacheco said.

Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m., Westport High graduate Mike Fernandes, owner of Infinite Fitness in Fall River, conducts outdoor strength and conditioning workouts for students grades 7-12 at his alma mater. Fernandes, Pacheco said, uses agility ladders to increase speed and mobility, and body weight to strengthen core muscles. The six-week camp is free. Attendance has been around 20.

The emphasis at the strength and conditioning sessions, Pacheco said, is twofold: For participants to push each other to improve, and for them to encourage friends to join the camp. “All too often now we see self-promotion over team-building, and that’s exactly what we don’t need during this time,” Pacheco said.

Fernandes ran a similar strength and conditioning camp at Durfee High School over the summer, and the attendance reached the 80s on some nights.

Last spring, after school buildings were shut down and with his gym building closed for business, Fernandes provided Westport students free online workouts.

Fernandes said he is acutely aware of the problem of childhood obesity. He said mental health experts he’s brought to Infinite Fitness to speak to parents have shared how some children, who had been active pre-pandemic, no longer show an interest in getting outside to be physically active. Lives can become bed-centered — for classes, for video games, for social media.

“These kids,” Fernandes said, “can suffer from depression, from anxiety.”

Brad Bustin, Durfee High School’s director of athletics, is a former phys-ed teacher. Number him among those very concerned about childhood obesity and inactivity. He says the march deeper into autumn could spell even more trouble if children do not get back into school consistently. Fall River public schools are in hybrid mode.

“I do think this is a great concern, not only physically but mentally,” he said in an email. “PE, especially in the younger grades, is a way for the kids to get exercise and learn how to deal with different social issues in school. With the weather getting colder the kids might not get the exercise they were getting outside at home during the summer and fall. Remote learning does not help with this. Many kids were spending too much time in front of computers before remote learning, now it’s even more.

“Physical Education and Athletics plays such an important role in the development of students that often gets overlooked. Unfortunately, I think we might see an even bigger increase in the childhood obesity rate while this pandemic continues. It is really important that students find a way to stay active at home during this time.”

Those sentiments are echoed by Joseph Francis, athletics director/wellness coordinator at Somerset Berkley Regional High School in Somerset.

“Students are facing a lot of anxiety in having to adapt to a whole new way of learning,” Francis said in an email. “Regardless, it is still so important for students to take time out of their day to exercise. Our Health & Physical Education teachers are working hard to come up with creative ways to keep kids moving. Within DESE & DPH guidelines we can continue to engage students in physical activity, whether they are remote, hybrid or in-person learners.”

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