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The return of PE in schools in the COVID-19 era

Solicitor Emma Hall discusses what guidance has been put in place for PE lessons when schools return to full-time teaching.

Posted on 28 August 2020

For many children, this will be the first time they have stepped inside their schools in over five months. COVID-19 has meant many pupils have been home-schooled by parents and other family members, with some lessons taking place on Zoom and other virtual platforms where possible and PE has been taught virtually by Joe Wicks.

However, next month children will finally return to the classroom full time to be taught a broad, if not full, curriculum of subjects.

The government has released guidance on how individual schools can manage teaching in the classroom. The main aspects of this include children should be grouped together, there should be no contact between different groups, and desks should face forward to limit the risk of transmission of the virus.  It is also re-iterated that any child displaying symptoms should stay at home. 

With this guidance, it is believed that many teachers should be able to resume their teaching without too much difficulty.

However, the guidance regarding PE is much more vague, with the Government advising that “schools have flexibility to decide how physical education, sport and physical activity should be provided”.
The only guidance offered recommends that pupils should remain in consistent groups, contact sport should be avoided and equipment should be cleaned after use. It is recommended that where possible, outdoor sport is prioritised. If that is not possible then a large indoor space should be used instead.
It is clear therefore that responsibility has been placed on the individual schools to ensure that they offer physical education in a COVID-19 secure format.

However, the guidance raises more questions than answers. Whilst some schools have the benefit of large outdoor and indoor spaces, some schools do not.

What options are available for children in smaller rural schools with limited indoor space who may not be able to play sport outside during adverse weather, or inner-city schools with limited outdoor space who may struggle to maintain social distancing when exercising indoors due to the high number of pupils per class?

It seems many schools could be heavily disadvantaged due to the lack of available space, meaning students will be limited in what physical education they receive.

With regards to equipment, who is responsible for ensuring the equipment is cleaned after every use? Will this responsibility fall to the teacher in charge who may have a class of pupils to manage also?  Will additional cleaning supplies be provided to schools to ensure that they can effectively clean the sports equipment regularly throughout the day?

And will the lack of contact sport limit what exercise children can get? If contact sport is to be avoided, this clearly will mean rugby and football cannot be taught. But what also of sports such as netball and hockey where contact can occur, albeit unintentionally?

The guidance appears to place the onus on the school to decide what sports can and cannot be taught in this new COVID-19 era.

On a wider scale, where will this lack of participation leave children who wish to compete in their sport at a higher level, for example in county or nationwide championships?

Whatever the future holds, it seems clear that COVID-19 could have a long-lasting negative effect on our children’s physical education.

There is no doubt that a return to school is vital for a child’s education and physical and mental well-being. However, more support and assistance needs to be offered to schools to ensure that they can offer quality physical education to their pupils whilst ensuring their safety at this difficult time.  It seems likely that the Government will need to update its guidance to help schools adapt to the imminent challenges.