Originally published Nov. 17 by World.

By Lauren Dunn

When physical education teacher Ashley Belmer’s school in O’Neill, Neb., went virtual in March 2020, she wanted to do more for her students than send them home with homework packets. So she put together an activity website for them and their families.

“I flooded them with other options,” said 33-year-old Belmer, who teaches kindergarten through sixth grade PE at O’Neill Elementary. “Maybe, just maybe, they would find something on there that they enjoyed and do something to stay active.”

Belmer’s school returned to in-person learning in fall 2020. But even though the school was closed for only a short time, Belmer noticed a difference in some of her students when they returned: “You could tell they really hadn’t done anything outside of school for physical activity.”

As schools work to catch students up academically, some teachers also see a need to address their physical education. Data released in September showed the number of children diagnosed with obesity rose five times faster during the pandemic than before.

A study by the California Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance earlier this year found 20 percent of California elementary schools did not have a physical education program during the pandemic. Over half of California PE teachers felt that pandemic restrictions limited their programs.

“A lot of the impacts of COVID aren’t visible,” said Terri Drain, president of the Society of Health and Physical Educators, or SHAPE America, a professional organization providing national standards for health and physical education. She noted concerns like obesity are more apparent than mental needs: “All this has been going on for so long. COVID’s just accelerated things.”

Drain is concerned children have spent less time being active and more time in front of screens during the pandemic. Research backs that up: A study from JAMA Pediatrics found recreational screen time doubled among U.S. 13- and 14-year-old children during the pandemic—and that doesn’t count virtual schooling hours.

Physical education is more than just dodgeball or kickball, Belmer noted. Standards in Nebraska, where she teaches, include basic skills for kindergartners such as jumping or kicking a ball with the inside of the foot and more complex field game and rhythmic skills for sixth graders.

Pandemic losses of those skills have real impact. Drain said teachers have told her about second and third grade students who lack fundamental physical skills such as throwing. “Second graders are now doing, you know, kindergarten content,” Drain said. Foundational skills like throwing, jumping, catching, kicking, or skipping prepare the child for physical activity later in life.

“The impact on students has been just as dire as any other content area, and yet it’s not on people’s radar,” Drain said. Some physical education teachers have been reassigned to academic classes long-term, while others are juggling larger PE class sizes so that academic classes can be smaller, she added.

Physical education also provides other learning opportunities for students, particularly as they process changes during the pandemic. Belmer focuses on teamwork and sportsmanship with her classes, alongside health topics like muscle groups, bones, heart health, social and emotional health, and food groups. According to Drain, 40 percent of SHAPE America’s national standards include social and emotional skills like self-regulation, cooperation, goal-setting, conflict resolution. “Physical education is very well positioned to play a role in healing kids,” she said.

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