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Physical activity during the pandemic

What will recess and activity in schools look like this fall? / Play Every Day blog

This post was originally featured in the Play Every Day blog and developed in partnership with the department's COVID-19 response team.

JULY 15, 2020 — School districts are working on plans to reopen schools this fall for Alaska’s 130,000 students and thousands of staff after closing in March for the COVID-19 pandemic. Depending on the level of virus spreading in the community, those plans include in-school instruction with physical distancing, distance learning from home, or often a hybrid model combining the two. 

As schools use Alaska’s Smart Start 2020 Framework to create these new models for learning, finding different ways to support students’ and staff’s physical, mental, and social-emotional health is more important than ever. Participating in physical activities can improve all of these types of health.

“Physical activity and education are essential for the health and well-being of Alaska students,” said Rochelle Lindley, public information officer for the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development. “However, physical activity and education may look different during a pandemic. Through the Alaska Smart Start 2020 guidance, school districts will be responsible for developing plans for physical education and activity in low-, medium-, and high-risk environments.”

Planning the 2020-21 school year during a pandemic is a significant challenge for these school districts. Schools are figuring out how to be a place where teachers and staff feel supported as they go back to work, and where parents feel secure sending their kids into a group setting. Many questions need answers, and one of those questions is how to offer students physical activity, physical education (PE) class and recess in different scenarios that could vary during the year, depending on the spread of virus in the community served by the district.  

How do teachers provide time for activity with shorter school days that are proposed in some Alaska school districts? If kids are in school, what physical activities are easier — or harder — to offer when it’s so important to avoid close contact with others? How will the Healthy Futures program provide its free physical activity challenge in more than 100 elementary schools across the state? And if we enter a high-risk period, what will school-supported physical activity look like when kids are learning only from home? Many of these questions don’t have complete answers yet. Play Every Day will be exploring them in more depth as we approach and start the new school year. 

Active students learn better

These questions are important to answer because physically active students can focus more, think more clearly, react to stress more calmly, and perform and behave better in class. All of these positive outcomes of activity are shared in a review of research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The national recommendation for school-age children has been at least 60 minutes of daily activity for the best health. The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans emphasize that regular activity has benefits beyond physical health. It also can decrease the risk of depression, reduce anxiety and improve sleep. Even if time at school is limited, using some of it for physical activity could help the rest of the seated instructional time be more efficient.  

“Will we get to go back to recess?”

One of the common questions parents are asking about school is whether recess will be on or off in the fall. With the proposed shortened schedule, there won’t be enough time for all the usual subjects and activities. Not only is recess a kid-favorite, it helps students practice social skills such as following rules, cooperating, problem-solving, negotiating and communicating. Recess can give kids and staff a chance to spend time outside and have in-person social connections — something many have been missing during recent months — while maintaining appropriate physical distance. Each district will make its own decision in the weeks and months to come. Dr. Mark Stock, Deputy Superintendent at the Anchorage School District, shared his support for including recess and outdoor time in school schedules this fall.   

“ASD recognizes the importance of recess and the opportunities it provides to get fresh air and exercise every day,” Stock said. “It is more important than ever in these days of ‘hunker down’ and social distancing brought upon us due to the pandemic."

“While plans and schedules are still being finalized, daily recess and exercise outdoors will remain an important part of the school day, even with a shortened schedule. In fact, being outdoors will be encouraged for all classrooms even beyond recess. We encourage teachers to provide opportunities to teach outside in the fresh air as a great alternative to the four walls of the classroom.”

Tools to help schools plan during the pandemic

The CDC provides guidance in a series of Considerations for Schools documents to support schools during the pandemic. This includes the K-12 Schools Readiness and Planning Tool, a practical way to monitor and maintain necessary actions to promote healthy behaviors, environments and procedures that reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus.   

SHAPE America (Society of Health and Physical Educators) recently released the 2020-2021 School Reentry Considerations: K-12 Physical Education, Health Education, and Physical Activity with specific recommendations for recess, including:

  • Have students and staff wash or sanitize hands before and after recess. Use CDC downloadable resources on handwashing as visual cues and reminders. 
  • Identify multiple areas where recess can be held for different cohorts of students to minimize crowding. Whenever possible, use outdoor spaces for recess. 
  • Develop a plan for moving students from the classroom to the designated recess areas. Give students guidance on how to safely move between areas while still maintaining physical distance from others. Plan time to practice these transitions with students.
  • Limit or eliminate the use of playground equipment or play structures. If playground equipment is used, it requires normal, routine cleaning. Targeted disinfection may be appropriate for high-touch surfaces like railings. Consult CDC guidance on playground and recess play equipment sanitation procedures.
  • Use painted play spaces or create play areas with stencils or cones to designate zones to help students identify how to safely follow physical distancing guidelines and to provide sufficient opportunities for free choice of activities during recess.

Local groups in Alaska are exploring more ways to support physical activity in schools this fall. SHAPE Alaska is looking at how to develop trainings to support physical education teachers across the state, and the Alaska School Activities Association recently released guidance about sports-related practices and events. The association’s executive director talked about this guidance on a statewide webinar earlier this week

The state Departments of Education and Early Development and Health and Social Services, along with other partners, will start a webinar series to address questions about reopening schools.  Weekly sessions for superintendents, principals and school health leaders will begin July 21. To learn more and register, visit https://echo.zoom.us/meeting/register/tJAvduqorTgqGdIldKANttMHl-el85qrH_s0. The Alaska Smart Start Summer Virtual Summit 2020 will begin in August for teachers, parents, district staff, tribal leaders, community members and more. To learn more and register, visit aklearns.org/smartwebinar/.

The Play Every Day campaign will continue to share information about physical activity, recess and physical education during the pandemic as more details become available. Please contact playeveryday@alaska.gov to share how your school district is working to support the health and activity of Alaska students.    

Additional resources 

For additional information, please go to:  

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) 

Alaska Department of Education and Early Development 

Alaska Department of Health and Social Services