Health and Physical Education in the Midst of a Pandemic

This blog was first posted at and has been modified with permission for PHE Canada.

Across Canada, provinces and territories have implemented school closures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although each jurisdiction has taken a slightly different approach, most have focused on ‘at-home’ learning.

For example, on March 20th, the government of Alberta released: Student learning during COVID-19: Guidelines for continuing K to 12 student learning while in-school classes are cancelled due to COVID-19. Essentially, the guidelines state:

  1. All Alberta K-12 schools will focus on ‘at-home’ student learning opportunities for the indeterminable future. 
  2. Education content will focus on:
    • Grades K-3: language/literacy and mathematics/numeracy
    • Grades 4-6: language/literacy, mathematics/numeracy with an opportunity to incorporate science and social studies cross-curricularly
    • Grades 7-9: mathematics, language/literacy, science, and social studies curriculum outcomes
    • Grades 10-12: language (English, French, and French-language arts), social studies, mathematics, biology, chemistry, and physics

You have, no doubt, noticed the glaring omission of Physical and Health Education (PHE) in these guidelines. In contrast, Prince Edward Island recommended home learning that focuses on three key areas: health and wellbeing, literacy and numeracy. Well done!

We have also heard from a number of PHE teachers that they are NOT being allowed to provide at PHE home learning experiences and are limited to supporting other subject area teachers or being assigned classes in literacy and numeracy.

At the same time, public officials and others are making statements like:

  • “Although this virus has been characterized and spoken about largely in terms of physical impacts, I believe we need to acknowledge and respond to the sense of fear and concern that your children may be feeling, especially our younger learners.” Steven Lecce, Ontario’s Minister of Education
  • “People underestimate how important (exercise) can be to manage anxiety.” Dr. Peter Silverstone, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Alberta
  • “Take care of your body. Take deep breaths, stretch, or meditate. Try to eat healthy, well-balanced meals, exercise regularly, get plenty of sleep, and avoid alcohol and drugs. Make time to unwind. Try to do some other activities you enjoy.” Center for Disease Control

Given the value of physical and health education at ANY time (and particularly THIS time), we wanted to share some things we know.

WE KNOW that Canadian PHE teachers WANT to provide ‘at-home’ student learning opportunities.

  • They have the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to contribute and make a difference in the health and wellbeing of students during this time of crisis.
  • Allowing them to do so indicates value and respect for their commitment, expertise, and subject area.
  • Allowing PHE teachers to deliver PHE is an important step to meet the guidelines for staying healthy, as shared by provincial and federal leaders.
  • Parents want support to help their kids be happy and healthy.

WE KNOW that school is an important place to learn about WHY and HOW to be healthy and active.

  • Many school authorities, in their mission and/or goal statement(s), include a focus on student health. For example, Edmonton Public Schools states:
    • A Focus on Well-being and Student Citizenship: Our learning and working environments are welcoming, inclusive, safe and healthy.
    • Supports for the Whole Child: Community partnerships are established to provide supports and services to foster growth, wellbeing, and success of students and families.
  • A time of crisis is EXACTLY when we need to prioritize these types of goals (whole child, wellbeing, citizenship, etc.).

WE KNOW that school is about more than ‘reading, writing, and arithmetic’.

  • Providing students with health literacy related skills, such as the ability to read and understand health information, access valid sources of information, and implement information in health-enhancing ways allows COVID-19 to become a valuable learning experience. 
  • Life, unfortunately, includes things like COVID-19. Kids who are supported on a journey of physical literacy learn to value, take responsibility for and take care of their need to move and prioritize it when the going gets tough. 

WE KNOW that the content in our PHE programs is CRITICAL to helping students deal with the stress of COVID-19.

  • In Canada, an estimated 14%-25% of children and youth suffer from significant mental health issues (School-Based Mental Health in Canada: A Final Report).
    • Health education is the only subject that includes outcomes targeted at positive mental health; teaching students about stigma, strategies to support positive mental health and resources and supports to cope with mental health issues. 
    • Physical education is the only subject that provides students with opportunities to be physically active which is a critical component of holistic health - physical activity is a valuable approach to supporting the mental health of young people (Halliday, Kern & Turnbull, 2019). 
  • PHE differs from other subjects, as the curriculum encourages opportunities to develop social and emotional skills such as communication, leadership, cooperation, self-awareness, and self-management.
    • “Arguably, physical education class is one of the best contexts to develop social and emotional competencies” (Ciotto & Magnon, 2018).                                
  • Education can’t be considered “whole-child” unless it includes education of the physical. 
    • “…physical education is important because movement is joyful, pleasurable, provides intrinsic satisfaction, and can be personally meaningful and central to the human experience” (Blankenship & Ayers, 2010)

Therefore, we encourage:

  • school leadership to find a way for our excellent PHE teachers to continue to support the development of healthy, active lifestyles with their students through PHE learning delivered at home.
  • school administrators to demonstrate leadership and model whole child education (i.e. supporting more than academics) during the pandemic.
  • schools and districts to recognize and support physical and health literacy for Canadian students.
  • school administrators to recognize and access the valuable support that health and physical education curricular content can provide to a province struggling to cope with a pandemic.

Thanks for reading.
Wash your hands.
Practice physical distancing and social connecting from a distance.
Teach health and physical education.
Stay well.

Doug Gleddie & Lauren Sulz
The Healthy Schools Lab
Faculty of Education, University of Alberta