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Amanda Amtmanis, an elementary physical education instructor in Middletown, Connecticut, handed out cards with QR codes to a class of third graders, and told them to start running.

The kids sprinted off around the baseball field in a light drizzle, but by the end of the first lap, a fifth of a mile, many were winded and walking. They paused to scan the cards, which track their mileage, on their teacher’s iPad and got some encouragement from an electronic coach — “Way to run your socks off!” or “Leave it all on the track!”

A boy in a red Nike shirt surged ahead, telling Amtmanis his goal was to run 5 miles. “Whoa, look at Dominic!” another boy exclaimed.

“We don’t need to compare ourselves to others,” Amtmanis reminded him.

Amanda Amtmanis, the PE instructor at Macdonough Elementary, hands a fifth grader a card with a QR code for tracking her mileage. Credit: Yunuen Bonaparte for The Hechinger Report

The third graders finished a third lap, alternating running and walking, and were about to start on a scavenger hunt when the rain picked up, forcing them inside. Amtmanis thanked her students for their willingness to adjust — a skill many of them have practiced far more often than running these past 18 months.

The full impact of the pandemic on kids’ health and fitness won’t be known for some time. But it’s already caused at least a short-term spike in childhood obesity. Rates of overweight and obesity in 5- through 11-year-olds rose nearly 10 percentage points in the first few months of 2020.

Related: Kids are shooting hoops with rolled up socks, but pandemic phys ed is not cancelled

Amtmanis’ “mileage club,” which tracks students’ running, both in and out of school, and rewards them with Pokémon cards when they hit certain targets, is an example of how PE teachers around the country are trying to get kids back in shape.

But inclement weather isn’t the only thing PE teachers are up against as they confront what might be called “physical learning loss.” Physical education as a discipline has long fought to be taken as seriously as its academic counterparts. Even before the pandemic, fewer than half the states set any minimum amount of time for students to participate in physical education, according to the Society of Health and Physical Educators (SHAPE), which represents PE and health instructors.

Now, as schools scramble to help kids catch up academically, there are signs that PE is taking a back seat to the core subjects yet again. In some California schools, administrators are shifting instructional minutes from PE to academic subjects — or canceling class altogether so PE teachers can sub for classroom teachers; in others, they’re growing class sizes in the gym, so they can shrink them in the classroom.

Amtmanis, a 20-year veteran of the Middletown school district in Connecticut, is using running to help her students get back in shape. Credit: Yunuen Bonaparte for The Hechinger Report

Meanwhile, innovative instructors like Amtmanis, who has worked in her district for more than 20 years, are struggling to get their ideas off the ground. Over the summer, the principal of Macdonough Elementary, one of two schools where Amtmanis teaches, approved her request to participate in another running program called The Daily Mile, in which kids walk or run 15 minutes a day during school hours.

Daily running breaks “boost attentiveness, which has positive effects on academics,” Amtmanis argued.

But two weeks into the school year, not a single teacher had bought into the idea.

“The issue is their packed schedule,” Amtmanis said.

Last year, many schools conducted gym class remotely, with students joining in from their bedrooms and living rooms.

The online format presented several challenges. Many students lacked the equipment, space, or parental support to participate fully. And many instructors grappled with how to teach and assess motor skills and teamwork online.

Though instructors found creative ways to keep students moving — substituting rolled-up socks for balls, and “disguising fitness” in scavenger hunts and beat-the-teacher challenges — they still fretted that online gym wasn’t giving students the same benefits as in-person classes.

Compounding their concern was the fact that many students were also missing out on recess and extracurricular sports.

Rates of overweight and obesity in 5- through 11-year-olds rose nearly 10 percentage points in the first few months of 2020.

In a March 2021 survey conducted by the Cooper Institute, maker of the popular FitnessGram assessments, close to half the PE teachers and school and district administrators responding said their students were “significantly less” physically active during their schools’ closure than before it.

Related: The science of catching up

Schools that reopened last year faced their own set of challenges, including bans on shared equipment that made even a simple game of catch impossible. Schools that were open for in-person learning were also much more likely to cut back on PE instructional time, or eliminate it altogether, the survey found.

The consequences of these reductions in physical activity are hard to quantify, especially since many schools suspended fitness testing during the pandemic and have yet to resume it, but some PE teachers say they’re seeing more kids with locomotor delays and weaker stamina than normal.

Fifth graders run around the field at Macdonough Elementary, in Middletown, Conn. After months of remote learning, many children lack stamina. Credit: Yunuen Bonaparte for The Hechinger Report

“The second graders are like first graders, and some are even like kindergarteners,” said Robin Richardson, an elementary PE instructor in Kentucky. They can jump and hop, she said, but they can’t leap. They’re exhausted after 20 seconds of jumping jacks.

An unusually high number of Richardson’s first graders can’t skip or do windmills. Some lack the spatial awareness that’s essential to group games.

“They don’t know how to move without running into each other,” she said.

Other instructors are seeing an increase in cognitive issues, such as difficulty paying attention or following directions, particularly among kids who remained remote for most or all of last year.

“They don’t know how to move without running into each other,”

Robin Richardson, an elementary PE instructor in Kentucky, on the impact of remote and hybrid learning on students’ locomotor skills

Kyle Bragg, an elementary PE instructor in Arizona, has seen kids sitting with their backs to him, staring off into space when he’s talking. “I say ‘Knees, please,’ so they spin around to face me,” he said.

And some PE teachers say their students’ social-emotional skills have suffered more than their gross motor skills. “They forgot how to share; how to be nice to each other; how to relate to each other,” said Donn Tobin, an elementary PE instructor in New York.

PE has a key role to play in boosting those skills, which affect how kids interact in other classes, said Will Potter, an elementary PE teacher in California.

“We’re uniquely situated to handle the social-emotional needs that came out of the pandemic, in a way classroom teachers are not,” Potter said.

After rain forced classes indoors, fourth graders at Middletown elementary run around the gym. Credit: Yunuen Bonaparte for The Hechinger Report

Amtmanis, for her part, worries about her students’ mental health. She sees the little signs of strain daily — the kid who got upset because he couldn’t pick his group, for example, and the one who was distressed that his Mileage Club card had gotten mixed up in the front office.

“Their emotional reserves are low,” she said.

Yet not all instructors are reporting drops in their students’ fitness and skill development. Teachers in some middle- and upper-income districts said they haven’t noticed much of a change at all. In some communities, families seemed to spend more time outdoors.

“We saw the skyrocketing sale of bicycles, we saw families going for walks,” said Dianne Wilson-Graham, executive director of the California Physical Education and Health Project.

“My goal was to get through it without ever using the words ‘fitness” or ‘testing,’”

Amanda Amtmanis, a PE teacher in Connecticut, on her approach to giving elementary school students a required fitness test after months without any in-person physical education

But in Title I schools like Macdonough, where more than half the students are low-income, some kids didn’t even have access to a safe place to exercise or play during school closures.

“Not only are they not in soccer leagues, but sometimes they don’t even have a park,” Amtmanis said.

Amtmanis came up with the idea of doing the Daily Mile after spring fitness tests revealed drops in her students’ strength, flexibility and endurance.

But many schools still aren’t sure how much physical learning loss their students have experienced as a result of the pandemic. Most schools pressed pause on fitness testing last year, and some elementary-school instructors are reluctant to restart it. They say the tests aren’t valid with young children, even in ordinary times, and argue the time they take could be better spent on Covid catch-up.

Andjelka Pavlovic, director of research and education for the Cooper Institute, said its tests are scientifically proven to be valid for students who are 10 and up, or roughly starting in fourth grade.

Fitness testing requirements vary by state, county or even district. Some states specify how often students must be tested; others leave it largely to the teacher.

Bragg, the Arizona teacher, said he has put testing “on the backburner” because “right now it’s not at the forefront of what’s important.”

Richardson said she is avoiding testing because she doesn’t want to use up precious instructional time or demoralize her students. “I want my kids to enjoy movement,” she said. If they perform poorly on the tests, “they may not feel as strong.”

A fifth grader scans a QR code card that tracks his running mileage. Credit: Yunuen Bonaparte for The Hechinger Report

In Connecticut, where schools are required to test fourth graders’ fitness annually, Amtmanis approached testing cautiously last year. She didn’t want to embarrass her students, so she made it into a series of games.

Instead of Sit-and-Reach, they had a “flexibility contest,” in which kids broke into teams for tag then had to perform stretches if they were tagged. She measured the distances stretched with curling ribbon, tied the ribbons together, and attached a balloon to the end. The team whose balloon soared the highest won fidget putty.

Pushups became a Bingo game, with the center space representing pushups.

“My goal was to get through it without ever using the words ‘fitness” or ‘testing,’” she said.

As the pandemic drags on, some instructors are taking a similar approach to fitness remediation and acceleration.

Bragg likes a warmup called “Touch Spots,” in which first graders listen as the instructor reads off the name of a color, then run and touch a corresponding dot on the floor. It works on reaction time, cardiovascular endurance, spatial awareness and sequencing — but the kids don’t know that.

“Students are having so much fun that they don’t realize how much fitness they are doing,” Bragg said.

Differentiation — tailoring instruction to meet individual students’ needs — has become even more essential, with former remote learners often lagging behind their in-person peers, Bragg said.

Related: A video game makes math and English classes a full-body experience

When playing catch, for example, he offers his students different sized balls — the smaller ones are more challenging.

Potter, the California teacher, spent the first two weeks of school teaching his students how to connect with their partners, stressing the importance of eye contact and body language.

“When you’re on Zoom, you look at the camera to make eye contact,” he said. “It’s a very different environment.”

Bragg reminds his students how to include kids who are standing on the sidelines, modeling excited body language and tone of voice. Lately, he’s noticed that kids who were remote last year are being excluded from groups.

“Social interaction needs to be practiced, just like how to throw a ball,” he said.

Amanda Amtmanis, a PE instructor, talks to third graders about goal-setting. Amtmanis says her students are less fit than they were before schools went online in 2020. Credit: Yunuen Bonaparte for The Hechinger Report

Richardson, the Kentucky PE teacher, is trying to build up her students’ stamina gradually, through progressively longer intervals of exercise.

But she works in a school with pods, so she sees each group of kids for five consecutive days, every third week. The two weeks in between, she has to hope that teachers will provide recess and “movement breaks.” She’s trying to get them to give kids breaks “when they get glassy-eyed and frustrated.”

Recently, Richardson was at a staff training session at which depleted teachers were “popping candy in the back.” When she raised her hand and requested a break in the training, her colleagues cheered. She told them to remember how they felt when their students return to the building.

“I always say, ‘If your bum is numb, your brain is the same,’” she said.

Convincing classroom teachers to set aside more time for movement can be challenging, though. As students return from months of online learning, teachers are under enormous pressure to get them caught up academically. 

Dominic, a third-grader at Macdonough Elementary school in Middletown, Conn., says playing soccer made him a fast runner. Credit: Yunuen Bonaparte for The Hechinger Report

Kate Cox, an elementary and middle-school PE teacher in California, wishes schools would “realize what they’re missing when they cut PE because of learning loss in other areas.” Physical education is “readying their minds and bodies to be more successful in other areas,” Cox said.

Terri Drain, the president of SHAPE, argued that schools fail students when they treat physical learning loss as less serious than its academic counterpart.

“In the primary grades, children develop fundamental motor skills, such as throwing, catching, running, kicking and jumping,” she said. Unless schools commit to helping kids catch up, “the impacts of this ‘missed learning’ will be lifelong.”

In Connecticut, Amtmanis hasn’t given up on convincing teachers to carve out time for the Daily Mile. She recently sent them a list of suggestions on how to fit 15 minutes of running into the day, including by incorporating it as an active transition between academic blocks.

“While it may seem like there aren’t minutes to spare,” she wrote, “the energizing effect of the active transition should result in more on-task behavior and more efficient working.”

In the meantime, Amtmanis plans to keep using the mileage club to motivate her students to run and to monitor their progress.

“I don’t want to call attention to the fact that not everyone is fit,” she said. “This is an unobtrusive way to keep the data.”

This story about PE teachers was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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