The Covid-19 pandemic brought multiple difficulties and constraints to the entire education system and all subject areas, but Physical Education was one of the most affected. In fact, given the experiential nature and the elements of corporeality that characterize Physical Education (Quennerstedt, 2019a; O`Brien et al. 2020), associated with the imposition of new rules and conditions, to protect public health, the consequences were not only at the curricular level but also in the configuration of the practices. Given this scenario, this study aims to map the curricular reconfiguration and strategies adopted by schools and Physical Education teachers when face-to-face teaching returned and the educational implications for students. For this purpose, the thematic analysis was carried out (Patton, 2002) of the discourse of 12 cooperating teachers of the Master of Physical Education Teaching in Basic and Secondary Education of two public Universities in Portugal. Schools reconfigure spaces and schedules, adopting several hygiene and disinfection measures to prevent transmission. Physical Education curriculum was mostly restricted to physical fitness and individual skills, with some notes from other areas and formal strategies to avoid physical contact. The learning process was impoverished mainly by the absence of contact and by conditioned interactions.
Keywords: Initial Teacher Education, Physical Education, Covid-19; Curricular Development, Learning.
When the world faced the greatest public health crisis in memory, the consequent confinement and, with it, the end of face-to-face classes, the difficulties faced in all domains were immeasurable. Nobody was prepared, but it was the area of Physical Education (PE) that was most affected and the one that was called to respond to the emergence of the decrease in physical activity (AP) of students. In fact, during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, more than ever, PE represent a promising mean to promote out-of-school PA. In the meantime, teachers faced an unprecedented challenge: to promote PA while lacking direct contact with their students (Bijen & Ferman, 2020).
National PE curricula aim to provide the acquisition of motor skills and behaviour transferable to different life contexts, namely in France, Italy, and Turkey (Barkoukis, Chatzisarantis, & Hagger,2020), as well as in Portugal. Specifically, in Portugal, PE curricular components are Sports Activities, Physical Fitness and Knowledge (PE National Programs, 2001), so teachers needed to reflect not only on the subjects to teach but also on the strategies to organize the class activities without direct contact among students while cleaning spaces and materials. In this context, from the point of view of curriculum extension, PE, given its experiential nature and the elements of the corporeality that characterize it (Quennerstedt, 2019b; O`Brien et al. 2020), was also the subject that faced the greater challenges, since it is structured around social interactions among students and between students and teacher.
Attending to this scenario, this study aims to map the curricular reconfiguration and strategies adopted by schools and Physical Education teachers when face-to-face teaching returned and the educational implications for students.
This qualitative study sought to understand how schools and PE teachers developed the PE curriculum, using their speeches regarding classes reconfiguration shaped by the pandemic situation, with a focus on the experiential and corporeality nature of PE (Quennerstedt, 2019b; O`Brien et al. 2020).
Participants and settings
Twelve cooperating teachers (CTs) (six female and six males with an average of 46 years old) from a two-year Physical Education Master’s degree Program from two Portuguese Public University took part in the study. The CTs were selected since their wide range of experience in PE teachers initial training and their central role in PE teacher groups at schools.
School placement lasts for one academic year and aims to give to student teachers the experience of pedagogical practice in a real teaching context, guided by a school teacher (CT) and a teacher of the higher education institution (University Supervisor).
The Universities establish protocols with a group of cooperating schools (public and private) to host the school placement for two to four preservice teachers, each of them being responsible for teaching the PE subject to a class, as well as involved for a set of non-teaching activities inherent to the teachers’ role, always supervised by the teacher's educators (from school and university).
Each CT signed an informed consent form to participate in the study. The study was granted ethical approval by the universities in which the research was conducted.
Data collection and analysis
Data was collected through two collective interviews on a seminar with CT of the two universities (six of each one). The interviews were conducted in November, one by zoom, lasting 75 minutes, and the other face-to-face with the extent of 60 minutes.
The focus of the interview was the school decisions and PE curricular demands attending to the pandemic context and how it affects student learning.
For the thematic analysis, an open codification was carried out, line by line, to retain the relevant ideas transmitted by the CT. The second stage of codification consisted of a more focused and selective review, refinement and reorganization, combined with the elaboration of analytical memos to reflect and substantiate the decisions made and the explanatory possibilities, establishing a permanent and iterative dialogue between theory, analytical framework and data (Patton, 2002).
This recursive process of constant comparison was maintained until its saturation (Miles, Huberman, & Saldaña, 2014), resulting in the following themes: (1) School action rules; (2) Curricular structure; (3) Instructional strategies; and (4) Students’ learning.
School action rules
The schools fall back on to several strategies and ways of operating to control interpersonal contamination by COVID-19, namely, i) shifting school hours or organizing them in two daily shifts (morning and afternoon); ii) behaviour and circulation rules (avoiding students agglomerate and/or people crossing), especially in sports facilities; iii) publicizing the importance of rules compliance; iv) disinfection equipment available throughout the entire school, with special attention to sports halls which were prepared with specific ones (larger hand sanitizer dispensers; antiseptic wipes, etc.).
“Besides the hand sanitizer, the sports hall are equipped with disinfectant liquid disinfectant sprays and paper towels for cleaning the materials used by the students” (U1- CT1)
“The school looks like a maze of painted arrows showing the directions to follow” (U2- CT1)
In PE, the common changes to schools were: i) creation of individualized spaces for students' belongings, no longer having the usual “bag of values” where students kept their belongings during the class; ii) exclusion of the post-class sower with some schools closing the locker rooms, forcing students to go home with sportswear, and other schools delayed the access to locker rooms time between classes; iii) whenever possible, relocation of classes to outdoor sports facilities, or even to places surrounding the school (gardens, parks, etc.).
“(…) students have to come to school with sportswear and return home the same clothes because they do not have access to the changing rooms” (U2- CT4)
“As we are fortunate to have a green park and a tennis club in front of the school, we have used both spaces for PE classes” (U1- CT6)
Curriculum narrowing, with primacy in the area of physical fitness and isolated skills of sports activities (sports teams, gymnastics, athletics, etc.), was the main mark. The decision was based on the need to individualize the training, avoiding contact between students. So, sports with great physical contact were eliminated from the curriculum, increasing the number of individual sports and decreasing team sports.
“(…) physical fitness was considered the easiest area to teach since it is easier to avoid contact among students” (U2- CT2)
The few schools that kept sports teams on the curriculum did it to keep students motivated.
“(…) team sports have a higher risk of contact but if we do not teach them, we also face the risk of students becoming demotivated” (U1- CT4)
“… in-game situations, man-to-man defense is never an option” (U2- CT4)
At the same time, there was an option for sports that normally are not taught but given their characteristics have become good options, such as traditional games or dance.
“Traditional games have taken the place of sports, such as team sports (… ).” (U1- CT3)
“We opted for individual non-contact sports, such as Dance, and we are trying to recover old bikes so they can be used on orienteering routes, outside of school. (U2- CT5)
In most schools, the PE classes intensity was reduced so that students could do it with a mask. All the CTs said that the use of a mask was recommended in classes of low or moderate intensity, mainly for high school levels and in classes whose number of students was too high to allow a distance of 2 to 3 meters between them.
“Students are not compelled to wear a mask, but I would advise them to do so because in large classes it is very difficult to be able to keep distance” (U2- CT1)
More than half of the CTs reported that the sports spaces were marked with signs on the ground (for example X, circles, ...) so that each student remained in "their" space.
“In my school, the students of the 2nd grade because they are younger, have marked circles on the ground that they must occupy during classes (…)”(U1- CT1)
Another strategy used by the teachers was to give instruction keeping distance, which allowed them to do so without a mask and be listened by the students.
“Speaking with a mask on is very difficult for me, so I chose to give instruction keeping distance from students” (U1- CT5)
“I bought a transparent mask because it helps my communication with students, allowing me to be closer to them.” (U2- CT3)
Concerning task organization performed in students’ groups, the majority chose fixed groups and with few students, to reduce the number of interactions between them and allowing social distance.
In this sense, in the few schools where team sports remained in the curriculum, the team groups maintained the same composition and the proposed learning task game did not involve more than 4 to 5 players, with defensive actions almost always conditioned to a passive defense or little pressing.
“ (…) the games have always been in small 'bubble' groups” (U1- CT6)
Concerning gymnastics and dance, the proposals were individual choreography or in small groups, with movements of interpersonal relationship without contact, exploring different movement directions and levels (simultaneous execution, cascade, with displacements to opposite sides, ...). The CT also told that there was an increase in the use of new technologies that allowed the working groups to move forward with the projects by connecting with colleagues who were in prophylactic isolation or confined since they had contracted Covid-19.
“In the dance choreographies, some solutions emerged as students jump over each other or pass under their legs, without touching each other.” (U2- CT6)
“(…) the kids make video calls with their colleagues and continue to work on the choreography” (U1- CT4)
Stations work, with groups rotation after a certain period of practice, almost always an isolated technical gesture was also implemented, with the cleaning of each station still taking place by the group that ended it.
All the CTs said that there was a huge impoverishment of the students' learning possibilities and, consequently, in the acquisition of the skills inscribed in the PE National Program.
“I found myself proposing 2x2 game situations in Basketball, with passive defense, to students at an advanced level, aware that it was a motivating and not a learning task" (U2- CT1)
Nevertheless, the CTs highlighted some positive points resulting from these curricular adaptations, namely in dance, where the strategies called for greater creativity to find original and innovative solutions that would overcome the impossibility of physical contact, and in team sports, where the passive defense, allowed students less skilled to be more successful.
“(…) I realized that the less skilled students were playing better because, in addition to the game situations being simpler, they also had more time to decide since the defense was passive.” (U1- CT4)
In turn, the decrease of the class intensity, led to leaving the competitive orientation, favouring the pedagogical one, given that there was now more time to mediate and reflect together with the students because everything happens at a slower pace and with learning tasks physically less demanding.
The increase in the use of new technologies was a reality. This strategy allowed the students’ groups to continue working together regardless of their location since even students in prophylactic isolation could participate in the class by video call.
Final remarks and discussion
Rebuilding face-to-face teaching represented a huge challenge for schools, for teachers and PE in particular.
Schools had to create new management spaces and circulation logics, and to having multiple hygienic processes. To answer to the demands of WHO (2020), the watchwords were to clean, isolate and avoid social contact. The notion of school as a space for conviviality, playfulness, alongside the study, has completely disappeared.
PE, in its various components, from curricular to instructional decisions, faced several and complex challenges with the return to face-to-face teaching. Despite the effort to maintain the richness of the curriculum, it was evident that the curricular and instructional adjustments greatly limited its educative value, impoverishing and mischaracterizing it.
As Majumder and Mandl (2020) denote, maintaining social distance and avoiding contact to control the transmission risks of COVID-19 has been a huge challenge for all school, especially for PE. The PE curriculum was practically restricted to physical fitness and individual motor skills, with some parts from other areas, such as dance, traditional games and conditioned and reduced team sports.
The emphasis on individual learning tasks and physical fitness, in addition to impoverishing the value of motor experiences, also preclude interactions between students by removing one of the essential elements for learning in PE - learning in interaction with others. The experiential nature and the elements of corporeality that characterize PE (Quennerstedt, 2019b; O`Brien et al. 2020) were greatly impaired.
In fact, instructional strategies for activities individualization and social withdrawal have irreparably damaged students' physical literacy, as an ability to communicate and express themselves through bodies and movement (Whitehead, 2001), emphasizing PE teaching cantered on increasing PA, removing it from true learning (Heidorn, 2020). Thus, the mission that PE should assume the central role in supporting students to develop skills, knowledge and understanding of the benefits of being physically active (Quennerstedt, 2019b), was wiped out and a biological perspective takes place.
The use of technologies was a way of innovating and opening up new possibilities, giving more time and space for students with low-performance levels to have more time to learn, something that is important reflect on in the future.
Finally, it seems that even with the return of face-to-face teaching, bodies are still missing even more than before (Lambert, 2020), even the focus on the notion that PA can be learned and have a positive impact on youthful people, strengthening them as healthy citizens and impacting to sustainable well-being (Super et al., 2020; Quennerstedt, 2019b) was lost within so many rules and restrictions.
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University of Coimbra, Faculty of Sport Science and Physical Education; Research Unit for Sport and Physical Education; Centre of 20th Century Interdisciplinary Studies
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