Touchless classes and absent bodies: teaching physical education in times of Covid-19


by Valeria Varea School of Health Sciences, Örebro University, Örebro, 2020

Bodies have been claimed to be an ‘absent presence’ and touch ‘risky business’ in physical education (PE). We have now witnessed how these claims are intensified in pandemic times of Covid-19, particularly in countries that have adopted extreme lockdown measures. This paper explores how PE practices have become ‘touchless’ and bodies absent using the theoretical concepts of risk and assemblage. The paper focusses on a group of pre-service PE teachers who were keen on undertaking their PE practicum experience and who were forced to switch to online mode. Data were collected through participant-produced drawings and comments on the drawings. Results suggest that the pre-service teachers are experiencing a mix of emotions during this time, miss the physical contact with students and believe the subject of PE is losing its identity as a consequence of the current situation. The conclusions of this study reveal a shift in the way that bodies are being constituted as assemblages now, and the possibility that pre-service teachers are missing out on an important aspect of their practicum experiences because of the lack of direct contact with students. We also wonder if pre-service teacher education programmes should put more emphasis on better preparing the students to teach online, and what will be the long-term consequences in the teaching of PE because of the current Covid-19 pandemic situation.

Covid-19 and lockdown in Spain

This paper was inspired by the two different (and mainly opposite) situations the two authors of this paper are living through in these Covid-19 pandemic times. Valeria lives in Sweden, where restrictions on everyday life have been minimal in relation to Covid-19. Sweden is now known worldwide for its different approach in dealing with Covid-19, but has not been exempted from critique and the number of cases and deaths remains high compared to other countries. Despite this, everyday life in Sweden remains almost unchanged, and while there are some recommendations in place, not many lockdown regimes have been imposed. On the other hand, Gustavo lives in Spain, where the government decided to implement an extreme lockdown, restricting the freedom of people’s routines and closing schools and universities. Because of this, pre-service PE teachers who were undertaking their practicum period have been affected by the lack of opportunities to go to schools and teach PE.

As of 18 May 2020, Spain has had a total of 231,606 confirmed Covid-19 cases, with 27,709 deaths and 150,376 recovered (Ministerio de Sanidad, 2020). On 14 March 2020, the Spanish government decided to declare a state of emergency in the country and go into lockdown, initially for 15 days. The lockdown was then extended until 18 May 2020, and it is anticipated that it will be further extended for at least one more month. This decision involved the cessation of all face-to-face educational activities from all educational levels, and 13 March 2020 was the last day of school and university classes.

During the lockdown, people have limited permission to be in public spaces. Going to medical centers, workplaces, supermarkets, pharmacies and places of care for the vulnerable, disabled, and elderly are the only exceptions. All types of outdoor physical activity, going to parks, and activities for children were also suspended. This is significant in a country such as Spain, given that results from a previous study suggest that Spain is a country with a high-proximity culture and where pre-service PE teachers consider physical contact with students normal and expected (Varea et al., 2018). This brings significant consequences in current times of pandemic lockdown, particularly for a group of pre-service PE teachers who were keen on having their face-to-face PE teaching experience at schools and now have to contend with the experience of teaching PE online.


Participants for this study were a group of 12 pre-service PE teachers from Spain (four women and eight men) who were undertaking their practicum in PE when the Covid-19 lockdown was imposed in Spain. Participant-produced drawings and semi-structured interviews were used for data collection for the overall project. 

The use of drawings as a catalyst for the interviews allowed participants to frame their own experiences about Covid-19 and teaching PE. Each participant was asked to make a drawing about themselves teaching PE ‘before’ and ‘during’ Covid-19 lockdown as entry to a one-on-one semi-structured online interview. Participants were also asked to interpret and explain their drawings. Results presented in this paper are drawn only from the drawings and the explanations of the drawings. The drawings and excerpts of their descriptions included in this paper are the ones most representative of the topics being discussed.

Results and discussion

Emotions while teaching PE during lockdown

One of the main changes in their emotional status is reflected in how they represented themselves as happy and with a smile when they were teaching face-to-face PE and were in direct contact with students before lockdown, and then sad when they had to switch to online teaching. The pre-service teachers also highlighted the shortcomings of teaching PE online, and how that affected their mood and feelings (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Happy to sad teaching.

Online teaching doesn’t allow me to create empathy with students, or that individualised attention that is possible in face-to-face teaching. In the second drawing I don’t represent myself as happy because I don’t like this type of teaching. (Rita)

In the first drawing I represent myself teaching PE before lockdown with a smile. I represent the class with joy and the privilege of living in a place without restrictions which allows us to enjoy every moment of the day with almost complete freedom … In the second drawing I represent working until late at night, and with a facial expression of uncertainty, burden, stress and concern because of the lockdown that we are going through. (Domingo)

As demonstrated elsewhere (González-Calvo et al., 2020), emotions are present and play a significant role when pre-service PE teachers are undertaking their practicum experiences during ‘normal times’. However, these emotions are intensified and changed during Covid-19 practicum, mainly because of the switch to online mode and the uncertainty about the future. Domingo (above) commented on his feelings of uncertainty and lack of freedom. Uncertainty has been claimed to be a characteristic of today’s society (Beck, 1992). However, in current times, we have witnessed an increase of uncertainty, and this is particularly relevant for these pre-service PE teachers, as they are not sure about how to continue teaching PE online, whether all their students are following their classes and instructions, and how they can work on the continuity of a PE unit. Covid-19 is also limiting freedom and provoking panic in people in Spain, according to what Agamben (2020) has named as a creation of a pandemic. In this sense, it brings uncertainty as it disrupts people’s routines and the future is unknown and frightening.

Another participant, Dalilo, commented on the sun as a symbol of happiness, and how the class is more productive when everyone ‘shines together’:

In the first drawing the sun shines in the class. All students and the teacher have direct contact, are happy and they can shine together … We can’t shine anymore in that way; we just conform with trying to do things in the best possible way. (Dalilo)

Cooperative and group activities have been traditionally employed in PE classes, and now these pre-service teachers are facing a situation in which they cannot make use of these activities. In alignment with Dalilo’s comment, the pre-service teachers used different colours in their drawings to represent sadness and happiness. Some of them used a grey scale to draw the teaching of PE today, representing a sad situation, and brighter colours for the drawings of teaching PE in the past (Figures 2 and 3).

Figure 2. Use of colours to represent emotions. Translation Figure 2: Yesterday – social interaction, direct contact, affective relationships.
Figure 3. Use of colours to represent emotions. Translation Figure 3: Today – interaction through screens.

“The second drawing represents the way of teaching PE during lockdown … It’s a sad and ‘grey’ situation, that’s why I didn’t use as many colours as in the first drawing. (Joaquin)”

“The first image represents PE as I believe it should be: a fun and cooperative subject where there is direct contact with students, full of colours, with dreams and a happy teacher doing her job … The second image is grey, as there is a ‘cold’ and distant teaching with no direct contact between teacher and students, or among students themselves. (Marina)”

“I can’t teach games or group activities as everyone is at their homes. This idea of PE with cooperation and group activities is essential for the teaching of PE. I’m angry now with all this situation because we have lost the most important feature of our subject. (Sarah)”

Participants demonstrated a mix of emotions while needing to switch to online practices. Predominant feelings were sadness and anger.

Missing physical contact

The pre-service teachers missed having contact with students. They commented on this on several occasions (Figure 6):

The activities with students are now individual and without contact or communication among students. That is a more passive way of teaching and with a lot of bodily limitations for movement, as we require more contact and space. (Gastón)

The only thing that keeps us in touch now is an invisible net, which I have represented with the clouds connected to my computer. (Domingo)

In the first drawing I represented myself teaching at the gymnasium before Covid. It’s a big space in which we all keep physical and visual contact … It’s a personalised and direct job, in which the smile and non-verbal gestures are as important (or more so) than words. (Santiago)

Figure 6. Lack of touch. Translation Figure 6: Very good, children!

“The left image represents closeness, visual contact and face-to-face and collective teaching with all students … In the second image I represent how I had to adapt my teaching role … everything is too ‘cold’ and ‘less human’. It’s not the kind of PE that I like to teach. (Cesar)”

“In the first image I represent proximity and bodily dialogue. The way that PE should be taught, according to my point of view. That is in the way that the teacher and the students have that proximity. In the image below I represent distance, technology dependence, remoteness and passiveness. (Matias)”

“The contact and relations between students and the teacher was something essential before for the class. Now the contact is almost nil and the relations between the teacher and students much colder. (Carola)”

Take aways :

Prior to Covid-19, teachers were keen on having their face-to-face practicum PE experiences, and they represented themselves in the drawings with a smile and teaching group activities. Now, during Covid-19, they represented their online practicum experiences with grey colors, showing themselves as sad, in front of screens, and involving almost no movement.

Movement, group activities and sporty attire were also identified as key results, as participants linked these components with the identity of the field of PE. By suppressing these characteristics in current pandemic times, the pre-service teachers are questioning the purpose and identity of PE, and by default, their professional subjectivities as PE teachers. Furthermore, they also demonstrated how much they miss their physical and direct contact with students, and their concerns regarding the teaching of a ‘hands-on’ subject, such as PE, through digital technologies.

This situation may rise some new opportunities for the field, such as the individualisation of PE and the possibility to cater more successfully for individual students. It would also be possible to give students possibilities for exploring new movement cultures on their own as part of PE.