Originally published Feb. 2, 2021 in the VC Star.

By Shivani Patel

After schools closed campuses last March, physical education teachers were left to think outside of the box to get their students active while in distance learning.

In pre-pandemic times, the teachers often focused on team-based activities. These activities would encourage fine motor skill development like throwing or catching as well as more abstract ideas like teamwork and cooperation.

Stephanie Aquino gives her eighth-grade students options with weights during a distance learning PE class on Jan. 28. She teaches from the girls' locker room. Photo by Juan Carlo/The Star

"P.E. is unique in that you need to be able to see the students and see them physically and give feedback," said Stephanie Aquino, a middle school P.E. teacher at Santa Rosa Technology Magnet School in Camarillo.

The Pleasant Valley School District teacher said she focused on a lot of independent fitness logs from March through June.

"We didn’t know what kids had available," she said. Some kids had full gyms while others didn't have much equipment.

Taking that into consideration, she would assign students general projects, like recording themselves doing a dance.

Because Santa Rosa is heavily invested in technology, Aquino was quick to create and use YouTube videos to guide students through workouts.

Ventura High School's Sierra Meyers, who mainly teaches ninth-graders, created a YouTube channel to guide her students through workouts because she wasn't meeting with students regularly when campuses closed last school year.

For Rich Rosen, who teaches physical education for Mesa Union School in Somis, it was harder to transition to the online model.

"I'm not a computer person," he said. Last spring, students would help each other troubleshoot technical issues as he got familiar with the online conferencing platform Zoom.

New school year, new perspective

In the fall, Aquino started holding live lessons for her students — a different experience from the spring.

"My whole goal for P.E. is just to teach them how to be physically fit in quarantine," she said.

Aquino has a set up where she streams a workout on her iPad and does the workout. The students are able to watch her do the moves, and copy them from their own spaces.

She has students copy her instead of the video so their internet connection isn't overloaded by both the live class session and workout video, especially because the connection can be spotty in Santa Rosa.

Like Aquino, Rosen said he uses age-appropriate workout videos in class.

Distance learning can be limiting — throwing around a ball around the house is mostly out of the question. So instead, Rosen guides students through cardio, jumping jacks, push-ups and even movements like ducking and jumping.

Rosen, who typically teaches older students, was tasked with teaching kindergartners this year. He incorporates singing and counting into the exercises for those students.

Sometimes, he said, parents or siblings of his students will join in for exercise.

While physical education over distance learning is working, Rosen said it's "definitely different."

This year, Meyers said it's been nice to educate students about why health and exercise is important, and other issues that teachers don't get to discuss in a regular school year.

"We can’t really lecture out on the blacktop," she said.

"Physical health is a direct line to mental health," she said. Parents have emailed her in appreciation for getting their kids moving, which has the added benefit of helping them stay focused on assignments.

Anna Espino, a P.E. teacher at Pacifica High School in Oxnard, said she integrated meditation and yoga on a weekly basis for students. At first, students were hesitant to participate but soon — to her surprise — they came around to enjoy the mindful activities.

Back to campus

In late October, Pleasant Valley School District leaders gave the green light for kids to start returning to campus if they chose to do so.

Aquino said it was a challenge. She taught a class of five children, plus the students online.

With the kids at home, she said her goal was to keep them on a routine. With the students in person, she focused on personal goal setting and assessments.

Rosen also teaches a small group of kids once a week at Mesa's campus, which he compared to a "ghost town" these days. Though the district has not returned to hybrid learning, certain students come to campus through the state's guidance for small cohorts.

All the teachers said it's been difficult to get kids engaged and motivated while most are still at home.

"I’d say it’s just hard to know what they’re doing behind those little black boxes," Meyers said.

Espino said attendance has been challenging this year. Some of her students have jobs to provide for their family, so they're not always able to attend live sessions.

Instead, the students will try to watch recordings and submit videos of themselves doing the workouts at a later time, she said.

Grace while grading

In April, Gov. Gavin Newsom passed an order that waived the required minimum physical education minutes required by the state for students in first through 12th grades.

So while schools don't have to meet a certain number of minutes, they do have to provide P.E. lessons to students which are graded.

Rosen said grading has been very lenient this year, especially because he doesn't know what kind of access his students have to equipment and even reliable internet.

There are some kids who don't show up for various reasons. Some older students in eighth grade, for example, take advantage of the lenient policy but otherwise it's not much of a problem, he said.

"The younger kids, they have fun and they get to see their friends," Rosen said.

Meyers said she grades based on students' fitness logs, which they're required to submit once a month.

She said that students could be doing nothing since the logs are done on the honor system. She's concerned that some of her students aren't being healthy and are sedentary while on their computers.

On the flip side, she said it's been cool to see what students are doing by reading through their logs.

Meyers said some of her students are really taking more time to do non-traditional sports during the pandemic, like surfing, taekwondo and travel soccer teams.

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