Virtual Physical Education: “A Whole New World”

Physical Education––a class known for its interactive aspect––has switched over to a virtual setting. Stuyvesant Physical Education teachers and students share their opinions about the new format.

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Cover Image
By Francesca Nemati

Running laps. Floating in the cool waters of the pool. Rollerskating in the first floor lobby. Under normal circumstances, the school gym was one of the liveliest rooms in the Stuyvesant building. Whether students were participating in a fierce volleyball tournament or spectating a soccer match on the sidelines, physical education (PE) was a class period unlike any other.

But since COVID-19 forced schools to adopt a virtual platform in March, PE classes have become nearly inactive due to the sudden change and absence of a cohesive department-wide curriculum. With such short notice between the transition from in-person to virtual learning, figuring out an online format for PE was no easy feat.

Over the summer, PE teachers became resources and motivators for each other as they collectively tried to jog classes back to life. “My department has been tremendous, kicking ideas off of each other during this time. We’re working Saturday night. Look at this lesson. It’s great. And everybody’s been pulling together during these difficult times, and we’ve really been resourceful as far as that,” PE teacher Howard Barbin said.

Rather than teachers devising individual solutions themselves, the Health and Physical Education department teachers have collaborated to develop a plan for the start of the academic year. “We did a ton of planning those first two or three weeks in September as a department. We really came together as a group,” PE teacher Vincent Miller recalled. “We really put our heads together and tried to come up with […] lessons for the whole course of the semester, being that we were going to see each class every four days.”

With remote learning leaving students without many opportunities to get out of their chairs, the PE teachers have made it their mission to get their students up and moving. Assistant Principal of Health and Physical Education Brian Moran believes that the pandemic has reinforced the importance of health and PE. “We are giving students the tools needed to go out and continue physical activity, sport, fitness, and mental health—to find an activity that they enjoy and can continue it for a lifetime,” he said.

One aspect of achieving this goal is having a synchronous portion for live workouts during PE classes. Students are expected to turn on their cameras and follow along with the exercises demonstrated by the teachers. “Some of [the students’] parents are really strict about not going out [and] mingling with groups,” Barbin said. “The [PE] class that you’re getting right now might be the only exercise you get. Especially during a pandemic, it’s really important to keep moving and stay strong.”

Miller has recognized the importance of exercise during these times through his own experiences as well. After staying home more frequently and often sitting in a stiff chair for hours, his back started hurting. “I felt like I was 20 years older than I was […] It was because I was getting so stiff and not moving around that I just started going out and running. And every day that I ran, my back felt better and better,” he recalled. Miller also told this story in his own classes, hoping to inspire his students to look for ways to stay active as well.

In fact, many students feel that their health has greatly benefited from these live classes. “When you’re in Stuy, and you’re actually running up and down the stairs; you get exercise. But right now, it’s so rare to actually be able to walk around and exercise in your own room. And it’s hard to motivate myself, so I'm taking the opportunity to be motivated by Mr. Miller,” senior Yume Igarashi, one of Miller’s students, said.

Though there are some positives to virtual PE, there are also many drawbacks. Some students find themselves struggling to actively engage in PE. “We all know PE is a […] class with no real weight, so that doesn't encourage participation, and most people don’t really care,” an anonymous sophomore said. “I really only do what [my teacher] says for the grade, though. I still need to pass.”

In addition, the transition from in-person to virtual PE classes often forgoes many enjoyable aspects of in-person PE. One of PE’s most appealing features is its relaxed environment which allowed for—and even encouraged—social interactions between students. “[PE class is] where people develop their best friendships, and it’s upsetting to know that our students [didn’t] have that opportunity for the last eight or nine months,” Miller said. Senior Victoria Yu agreed, revealing that she preferred in-person class for that reason. “It’s just more comfortable, and I get to see my friends and talk to them so that I don’t feel as awkward as I’m doing the exercises,” she said.

Though PE class may have lost its interactive aspect, teachers have added new topics to the curriculum. Teachers have introduced health-related topics that students encounter on a daily basis such as stress, meditation, flexibility, and sleep. These lessons are not only informative but also add a new dimension to the average online PE class. “Sometimes I’ll think back to the stuff I watched in class and think, ‘maybe I should sleep more’ or ‘maybe I should start stretching more,’” Yu said.

Other new additions to the curriculum include introducing discussion questions that students answer and share at the beginning of class. These discussion questions, used to take attendance, range from lighthearted to serious (examples include “what is your favorite drink?” to “how many hours of sleep do you get per night?”). Miller especially looks forward to this part of class. “I get to know the students on a different level rather than just seeing them physically,” he said.

While virtual PE has brought teachers closer to students through the newly implemented discussions, the physical distance between them has brought up a new concern: academic integrity. PE teachers assign “Fitness Logs” for homework, which lists different sets of workouts and stretches for students to complete. Students then check off which days they exercised, with a requirement of two days per week, as well as which stretches and exercises they completed.

Because teachers have no way of guaranteeing that students actually do these workouts, students can easily check off the assignment without completing them. “I feel like even the most hardworking teacher’s-pet-type students don’t even do them,” the anonymous sophomore explained.

An anonymous senior echoed this sentiment: “Maybe if I had to show some proof or something, then maybe I would try to do them. I’d rather not spend 30 minutes looking through a Google Form, trying to do these exercises.”

But for some students, the struggle to meet these expectations extends beyond a lack of motivation. Many students live in apartments or small spaces where they do not always have the freedom to jump or make big movements. As a result, they need to exclude certain exercises in their workouts or find alternatives. “Personally for me, when I do things like mountain climbers, I stomp on the ground, and it isn’t realistic right now. So I feel like I try to pick up exercises that are easy to do in this environment or ones that I can actually do properly,” Igarashi said.

In response to these challenges, the PE teachers have devised exercises that can be done easily in difficult environments. “I’m really trying to have the students be as creative as possible,” Barbin said. “I’ve taken exercises that handicapped people or seniors use, and I try to incorporate that for students who don’t have the room or are worried about making noise. I had to be creative too.”

Despite efforts to accommodate students in special circumstances, some students find that these restricted activities have become monotonous. “It seems kind of circular since we do very similar workouts constantly, whereas in normal PE, you have different units for stuff,” an anonymous freshman said.

“The highlight of pre-quarantine gym classes would be getting the hands-on experience and playing with a group of friends, but this year, the best situation is to play with the wall and hope that it is sturdy enough to bounce volleyballs back,” freshman Rebecca Bao added in an e-mail interview.

The removal of electives for this year added to the monotony of PE that some students described. Yu was one of the many upperclassmen who looked forward to taking a PE elective this year. “I wanted to take roller skating this semester, but I was kind of bummed that all the gym classes were the same now,” she expressed.

Presenting a different point of view, Igarashi feels that current circumstances have introduced greater diversity into the curriculum. “We just did kickboxing in the air the other day, and I feel like it’s more diverse, the things that we do, because we can’t just do the more generic options like playing basketball or practicing for the FitnessGram,” she said.

Barbin, who usually teaches a boxing elective to upperclassmen, had a similar take. With PE electives cut this year, he tries to instead incorporate exercises from those electives into his regular classes. “It’s not boxing per se, but I try to incorporate some of the exercises and counterstetics that we did remotely,” he said.

In fact, Moran revealed that students can expect more aspects of the electives to be brought into the class. “In the spring term, we hope to introduce some lessons in our elective areas (kickboxing, cycling, rollerblading, etc.) just to give students a sampling of the classes they can choose when we return to in-person instruction,” he explained in an e-mail interview. He also added that freshmen are not yet exempt from swim gym. “When we are permitted to do so, swimming will return to Stuyvesant. Freshman will be given the proficiency test at some point,” he revealed.

While in-person PE undoubtedly remains the more popular choice between two formats, virtual PE has come a long way from when schools first shut down. The opportunity to engage in physical activities—whether that is via arm circles or air boxing—is invaluable. As Igarashi said, “I think it’s good to, every other day, have a chance to just exercise and be forced to exercise in a good way.”