Originally published April 30, 2020 in The Chicago Tribune.

By Karen Ann Cullotta

As a physical education teacher at Winston Campus Junior High in Palatine, Emmie Galan used to lead spirited volleyball matches and handball games in the school gym. Now she’s hosting Instagram Live workout sessions for students from her living room.

“My first thought was, I need to engage them in a way that will lead to maximum participation for all of my students, which is always sort of difficult, even when PE is not online,” Galan said. “We’re trying to keep our students’ spirits high, and we don’t want to penalize them, because they’re going through a difficult time right now, and they need our positive support more than ever.”

From her home, phys ed teacher Emmie Galan conducts a virtual workout via Instagram Live for her eighth grade students from Winston Campus Junior High in Palatine. She usually has about 20 students join her live session and about 100 view it over the next day. (Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune)

So far, Galan estimates that of her 180 students, which includes six eighth-grade classes, about half the kids are consistently responding to her daily questions, including “What was your workout like today?”

While joining in the Instagram Live workouts is encouraged, Galan said they’re not mandatory, and her primary goal is to encourage her students to stay active and healthy during the sudden halting of their daily PE classes at the Palatine school.

“Some of the kids send me videos of them doing their workouts, and I send feedback, and they love it,” Galan. “But it’s kind of an honor system, because I know there are students who are home alone, and have to watch their younger siblings when their parents are at work.”

While it’s no simple feat to teach students the finer points of adjectives or algorithms from a Google classroom, keeping kids active, moving and participating in physical education from the confines of a computer screen has its unique challenges.

Still, teachers and other experts agree that ensuring students of all ages stay physically active and embrace a healthy lifestyle is more important than ever during this uncertain and anxious time in their lives.

“Remote learning does not allow us to offer kids a typical PE class, but we know how important it is for both their bodies and minds that they’re getting exercise right now,” John Dolniak, a PE teacher at Patton Elementary in Arlington Heights, said.

“Any time the kids turn on the TV or their phone, they’re getting bombarded constantly with everything that’s going on in the world with the coronavirus right now, and that’s certainly not uplifting for their social emotional health,” Dolniak said.

A provision of the Illinois School Code that mandates fitness assessments for students was recently suspended because of the COVID-19 school closures. But given Illinois’ reputation as a national leader in PE and health instruction, teachers like Dolniak say even during school closures, the classes remain a priority.

In Illinois, public schools must offer students a PE class three days a week, but some school districts choose to surpass the requirements and many hold daily PE instruction for students in sixth through 12th grades.

Dolniak said he and his fellow District 25 PE teachers aim to offer virtual instruction that is fun, healthy and creative. That has included using a digital platform to post links to online yoga practices and “minute-to-win-it” challenges, like flipping a water bottle, and holding drop-in fitness classes and pep talks on Zoom.

“We’d love to see kids up and active for 60 minutes each day, but we have to ask ourselves, is this realistic? And maybe instead, we need to look at how many kids looked, clicked and tried it, even if it took only 20 minutes,” said Dolniak. “I also try to jump in their regular classroom meetings, which is my opportunity to touch base with the kids, and remind them to try and stay active with their families.”

Across the U.S., there are roughly 200,000 physical education and health teachers in kindergarten to 12th grade schools, according to the Maryland-based Society of Health and Physical Educators, and many of them are now teaching virtually.

Senior Program Manager Michelle Carter said that in addition to wide disparities in students’ access to digital resources, the ability to lead a successful online PE class also varies dramatically, and often hinges on a teacher’s level of expertise and confidence with using the technology.

“I think teachers are making a heartfelt effort to really come together as a community, to tutor each other in things like Google Classroom and how to record and upload videos for their students,” said Carter, adding PE teachers are also sharing advice and lessons on Twitter at #HPE@home.

As teachers rally to bolster their students’ physical, social and emotional health during the global pandemic, Carter said some educators worry that the economic downturn could prompt budget cuts that threaten PE programs nationwide.

“Unfortunately, in many parts of the country, health, PE, and music and art classes are already marginalized, and we might have to fight to prevent them from being cut,” Carter said.

For students like Winston Campus eighth grader Kate Macias, who on a recent morning participated in a 20-minute high-intensity interval training workout led by her teacher, Emmie Galan, on Instagram Live, PE class has always been a favorite part of her school day.

“I’ve always loved Ms. Galan’s class … playing lacrosse, basketball and volleyball, and coming together as a group is really fun. So following her Instagram workout makes me feel like I’m doing something productive, instead of just walking around the house procrastinating,” Kate said. “I do it because staying fit makes me feel good about myself, which is really important during this whole quarantine.”

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    A long way from dodgeball: How the coronavirus school shutdown has changed PE class
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    A long way from dodgeball: How the coronavirus school shutdown has changed PE class
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