To date, this is the first study to examine the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on PE and physical activity in youth as reported by a national convenience sample of physical educators, school/district administrators, and others. We showed that during the pandemic, respondents reported that youth across the US spent less time in both PE and physical activity. This finding, coupled with the dramatic relaxation of PE requirements, suggests a substantial reduction in opportunities for physical activity in youth during the pandemic. Although no other research regarding PE during a pandemic exists, previous literature has clearly demonstrated the negative impact of extended breaks from school on the health of youth (Brusseau et al., 2019; Carrel, Clark, Peterson, Eickhoff, & Allen, 2007; Moreno et al., 2013). For example, Carrel et al.(Carrel et al., 2007) showed that in obese, middle-school children, a nine-month fitness-based PE intervention improved cardiorespiratory fitness, BMI, and insulin levels. Unfortunately, when the intervention was stopped during a 3-month summer break, all improvements were lost. This highlights the importance of ensuring continuation of PE and exercise during prolonged school breaks. Our survey discovered that a sizable percentage of respondents reported a reduction in or having no PE requirements during the pandemic. This “PE dumping” is likely multifaceted arising from acute health-related precautions, economic concerns, and the necessity to maintain academic programming.
The pandemic did not only impact PE, but also played a role in the amount of physical activity and exercise undertaken by youth across the nation. The results showed that 78.8% of survey participants believed their students were obtaining either “significantly less” or “somewhat less” physical activity compared to their typical school day. These findings demonstrate the need for at-home resources and solutions, so that youth can continue engaging in physical activity despite stay-at-home orders. Our findings were consistent with that of Pietrobelli et al. (2020) who showed that, children and adolescents enrolled in a longitudinal observational study in Verona, Italy, decreased their time spent in sports by an average of 2.3 hours/week and increased their screen time by approximately 4.9 hours/week during the COVID-19 pandemic. Similar trends were observed in Shanghai, China among 2,426 youth who participated in the Global Physical Activity Questionnaire developed by the WHO (Xiang, Zhang, & Kuwahara, 2020). The authors found that the median time spent in physical activity decreased from 540 minutes/week to 105 minutes/week during the pandemic. Additionally, the prevalence of physically inactive youth increased from 21.3–65.6% during the same time period. Based on these findings, it is clear that opportunities for physical activity have decreased around the globe, and it is imperative that all youth are provided with safe, simple and easily implemented physical activity programs during the various phases of this pandemic (Chen et al., 2020).
The ramifications of decreased physical activity, school closures, and social isolation extend beyond declines in physical health. Mental health, specifically anxiety, stress, and depression, are negatively impacted when school-based resources are removed, leading to a worsening of these conditions (Lee, 2020). As such, it is of utmost importance to support youth facing bereavement, parental unemployment, and drastic losses of household income. A possible method of improving mental health during the pandemic is to implement a structured exercise program that the child or adolescent finds enjoyable. Previous literature has shown that depressed adolescents treated with exercise were able to significantly reduce symptoms, improve psychosocial functioning, and maintain improvements at one-year follow up (Hughes et al., 2013).
Finally, the findings of the present study identified and confirmed the substantial challenges experienced by teachers in both open and closed schools. While the concerns vary greatly between the two settings, this work provides great insight to educators and administrators for the upcoming school year. First, for schools that remained open, the PE curricular requirement was largely zero. This is not surprising as most of the US has been under social distancing orders, and as such, it is likely that schools removed activities where a student could break the “6 feet of separation” guideline and have to share exercise and/or sports equipment. For the schools that remained open, the biggest challenges were social distancing, access to a gymnasium, and concern for personal health and wellbeing. These challenges are especially important, as they should be utilized to inform educators and administrators returning to campus in the future. It will be critical to identify curriculum, activities, and equipment that allow youth to be physically active while avoiding close contact or use of uncleaned equipment.
In the closed schools, the most frequent challenge experienced by teachers as well as school/district administrators during the pandemic was “student access to online learning.” Considering that 60.4% of the respondents were from Title 1 schools, it is possible that the resources to carry out virtual learning were not immediately available to a large percentage of students. It was reassuring to see that an emphasis was put on having at least 1 hour/week of PE in the at-home environment, which supports expert guidelines that everyone should remain physically active with appropriate precautions. Nonetheless, the general impression from the respondents was that there was a moderate to significant decrease in physical activity. This may be driven by economic, social, and environmental factors that prevent children from engaging in physical activity. If the pandemic continues, it will be critical to ensure that all children have access to physical activity motivating materials.
A strength of this study is the inclusion of a national convenience sample of survey respondents across each of the 50 US states, including the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. An important benefit of this study was that 60.4% of the respondents were from Title 1 schools, which is comparable to the reported 2015–2016 national average (Statistics, 2020). Another strength of the study was the ability to gather information from various sources within the educational hierarchy including but not limited to physical educators, district and school administrators, athletic directors, grade teachers, coaches and nurses. The individually reported data reflect the unique respondent’s personal experience of their school environment and curriculum. Additionally, data were collected in a limited time frame after most schools have been working remotely for at least a month, and in general, were unaware of plans for returning to school. Hence, the accuracy of the perceived experiences was likely high. A limitation of the study is the lack of a scientifically validated questionnaire for school-level information that would answer the proposed aims. However, face validity was considered. Another limitation of the study is that a single survey respondent answered the questions based on their perception of the school environment, which could lead to biased responses. However, most participants who completed the survey were physical educators and thus the local expert on the topic.