Aug 10, 2020 - Sports

The cost of kids losing gym class

Illustration of a child looking forlorn with an abandoned soccer ball in the background

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

With a growing number of schools opting for online-only classes this fall to limit the spread of COVID-19, physical education will be severely limited, if not suspended altogether.

Why it matters: While classroom-based learning can be done virtually, it's nearly impossible to replicate physical education — which plays a crucial role in kids' physical and mental health — through a screen. And with sports on hold in most states, PE is the only physical activity outlet some kids have.

  • Even schools offering in-person instruction this fall must re-imagine what gym class looks like amid a pandemic, with kids unable to share balls or equipment and with strict social distancing and sanitation guidelines in place.

The backdrop: Youth sports organizations helped ensure that kids got their daily 60 minutes of exercise this summer by hosting Zoom workouts, offering virtual training and providing parents with tips and ideas.

  • Some organizations will continue in that role once school resumes, but with youth sports participation on the decline — particularly among lower-income families — the majority of students will rely solely on PE.
  • By the numbers: Only 38% of kids aged 6 to 12 played team sports on a regular basis in 2018, down from 45% in 2008, per the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.

The state of play: In addition to the wide disparities in students' access to laptops and other digital resources, the ability to lead a successful online PE class will largely depend on how comfortable a teacher is with technology.

  • While tech-savvy teachers have been hosting live workouts on apps like Facebook and Instagram, others wouldn't even know where to begin.
  • And unlike virtual education (i.e. classroom-based learning), virtual training is a relatively new industry and has seen far less investment and innovation.
  • Services like Microsoft Teams can simulate what it's like to be in a classroom, with one person talking and others taking notes and asking questions. But how do you simulate dodgeball?

The big picture: Physical activity has been linked to higher academic achievement, elevated self-esteem and reduced stress and anxiety, according to the CDC.

  • Whether that's still true when students are participating virtually, rather than running around with classmates, remains to be seen. But it's clear that PE is an important source for more than just physical activity.
  • Our thought bubble: The social interaction alone is something kids desperately need, particularly when they've been cooped up for months and won't be chatting with friends in hallways or socializing in lunchrooms.

The bottom line: While teaching math or science virtually is no easy feat, keeping kids physically active and participating in PE through the confines of a computer or phone screen is arguably even harder.

  • If schools fail to encourage some sort of physical outlet, America's youth — most of whom don't play organized sports, and almost all of whom are currently unable to participate in them — will suffer.
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