Keeping students active is crucial for their mental and physical health – especially now, teachers say

Imagine trying to work out in a crowded living room, with no exercise equipment besides rolled-up socks and soup cans.

For many students in California, that’s what physical education class looks like these days. Since campuses closed in March, P.E. teachers are scrambling for creative ways to keep students physically active — with no gymnasiums, sports fields or playgrounds — at a time when experts say students’ physical and mental health is paramount.

“P.E. has been one of the most challenging subjects to teach online. Teachers are working incredibly hard,” said Patricia Suppe, president of the California Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance. “But the irony is, students need P.E. now more than ever, not just for physical health but mental health.”

Even before the pandemic, children in California suffered from higher-than-average rates of obesity. According to 2019 data compiled by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 17.1% of children ages 10-17 in California are obese, compared to 15.5% nationwide. Now, with children spending more time in front of screens and less time engaged in physical activity, the obesity rate is expected to jump in 2020.

Schools are required to provide physical education while campuses are closed, but in March, Gov. Gavin Newsom waived the minimum number of P.E. minutes schools had to offer. Previously, the law required that students receive 200 minutes of physical education every 10 days in elementary school, and 400 minutes every 10 days in middle and high school.

Most schools in California are offering some sort of virtual P.E., at least a few hours a week, Suppe said.

The challenges are many. Some students live in neighborhoods where it’s not safe to run or walk outside. Others live in apartments with no yards. In many cities, parks are closed due to the pandemic. And in much of California, extreme heat or smoke has limited students’ access to the outdoors, regardless of other issues.

A survey of 489 P.E. teachers in California, conducted this fall by Suppe’s organization, found other obstacles, as well. Students often turn off their cameras, so teachers can’t see if students are exercising; many districts have eliminated P.E. as a stand-alone class or made it an elective; and teachers are worried about liability if students injure themselves while exercising at home.

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