Originally published March 3, 2021 in Summit Daily.
By Antonio Olivero
Instructing physical education has been a challenge for teachers in Summit County and across the county throughout the pandemic.
Public health regulations and school rules implemented to reduce transmission risk resulted in a much different gym class for kids than many adults remember growing up. And though local teachers used every opportunity during warmer months to have kids exercise outside, where transmission risk is lower, recent colder months have made that job more difficult.
Caitlin Steele, physical education teacher at Dillon Valley Elementary School, saw that first-hand. At times earlier this year, she instructed gym class in classrooms rather than the gymnasium, due to COVID-19 guidelines and rules intended to prevent the mixing of cohorts. That created a physical education situation where kids were limited in the space and equipment they could use. Rather than roaming, free play riding scooters, playing with parachutes or climbing ropes, spider webs and walls, for example, kids were at their desks following along with technology, such as fitness videos.
“So we were just looking for some new ideas to put in the curriculum to get kids outside moving because they’re stuck in their classrooms for most of the day at the elementary level,” Steele said. “They don’t move around at school and go to other areas.”
That motivation to find something new for her students led Steele, with the blessing of Dillon Valley Elementary Principal Kendra Carpenter, to apply for the Eileen Finkel Innovative Teaching Award through the Education Foundation of the Summit organization.
Steele was approved to use a $4,000 grant to finance the purchase of 25 cross-country skis — with universal bindings so boots wouldn’t be required — and poles. The grant has enabled Dillon Valley and Frisco elementary schools to have classes at different grade levels get the experience of cross-country skiing in two-week blocks.
The recreational opportunity is a COVID-19-safe option that Steele said the kids love, especially after Dillon Valley students were confined to classroom-based gym class until after the New Year due to stricter regulations earlier in the school year before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines changed. That was followed by fully remote learning from late November through early January.
“This shows them, ‘I know the times are strange right now, but you can have some normalcy in what we do,’” Steele said.
The program, which is for kindergarten through fifth grade students, includes kids between the ages of 5 and 11 skiing on hills and obstacle courses in the school’s fields. Steele said Silverthorne Elementary also operates a similar skiing program for students.
“We’re giving them a chance to burn off the energy they have after sitting in the classroom for a lot of the day,” Steele said. “It’s so important for the kids, not only to get exercise for their health, but also for their mental state. … I see such a difference in the kids when they do have that hour of physical activity daily. They’re less jittery and a little more focused when they get back to the classroom.”