Originally published May 2, 2020 in The Press Democrat.

By Lori A. Carter

English, history, culinary arts — all are subjects that translate well to online learning. But PE? Physical education teachers in Sonoma County have had to get creative to keep their students active and engaged during this time of distance learning.

“We are on the fly designing these lessons,” said Ernesto Aubin, a Piner High School PE teacher for the past nine years. “We’re definitely not doing what we normally would. Our goal is always to make it relevant to our high school students and to make it relevant for today.”

Piner High School physical education teacher Ernesto Aubin now teaches his students on the internet from his home in Sebastopol, on Tuesday, April 28, 2020. (BETH SCHLANKER / The Press Democrat)

Online PE is not doing group jumping jacks on Zoom. There’s no such thing as video dodgeball.

When the coronavirus threat became real locally, PE teachers throughout the area had to quickly adapt their typical lesson plans, which might be playing in a lacrosse tournament this week in a normal year, into the new normal — distance learning, where teachers and students are on their phones, a laptop or a PC.

As spring break approached in March and it appeared school might be out for a few weeks, many teachers took the time to learn Google Classroom and Zoom teleconferencing so they could keep their classes on track during the extended break.

Santa Rosa High physical education department head Kenny Knowlton’s staff set up Google Classroom together.

“We share offices, so we sat together, collaborated and discussed how we might do this,” he said. “We set up assignments for students, ask them to check in, set up a fitness challenge.”

Teachers give students an outline of the tasks in the challenge and YouTube links to certain exercises. They fill out Google forms with how they did. Some are taking videos of their workouts.

“We’re learning as we go,” Knowlton said. “You have to be creative, give kids options.”

Last week, Aubin’s class watched and discussed a news video about the broader financial impact of the shutdown of professional sports.

“It’s not just the wealthy athlete. We talked about the trickle-down effect to the common person, the vendors, the stadium workers, hundreds of employees at every event,” Aubin said. “That’s relevant to every student — people out there just working hard to live in Sonoma County. It’s about COVID and the impacts on us.

“That’s never an assignment we’d normally ever have contemplated in the normal class setting.”

Aubin hosts Zoom classes every Tuesday with his students. They discuss the new class requirements: a daily activity log and a weekly assignment.

“We do require our students to perform a minimum of 20 minutes a day of physical activity, Monday through Friday. The students are logging that information into Google documents, which they submit at the end of the week in Google Classroom,” he said.

“They have the ultimate freedom to choose an activity they relate to, something they enjoy doing. It could be anything, walking with their mom 20 minutes a day,” Aubin said.

Several students are playing video game workouts like Ring Fit Adventure, where characters in a fantasy world defeat enemies using real-life exercise. Others are doing yoga, and some have set up workout areas in their garage.

“We are for the most part trusting that what our students are putting in their logs is honest. It’s not a perfect system,” Aubin said.

Knowlton said that’s OK. PE classes in this unprecedented time, and always really, should be an escape.

“We’ve encouraged them to do an activity with a sibling, a brother or sister, or mom or dad,” he said. “We set up the parameters of what we’d like them to do. But as PE teachers, we want to create lifelong learning ­— just go do something active,” he said.

Knowlton posts three different workouts for the week, and students are to fill out a Google form about them for accountability. He asks them to describe what muscle groups they worked and which was their favorite workout.

“It’s been received pretty well,” he said. “Sports is an outlet. We’re hoping kids use it as an outlet when they get bogged down writing essays or English or history. Kids need to be creative.”

Aubin and his colleagues, too, prepared for more online accountability before the pandemic closed California schools.

In fact, the move to Google Classroom has been occurring for the past few years.

“Kids were already coming in with a background in Google Classroom from a lot of their teachers in the middle school level,” he said. “We weren’t doing it, so we decided maybe it was time to go electronic. … It immediately was a lifesaver. We looked back and said we should have done this years ago.”

Having all the kids in an electronic classroom saves time, money, waste (binders and supplies), and it allowed students who had legitimate absences to review classes online.

The majority of his students are English-language learners, Aubin said, so having documents online that can be translated into any number of languages also helps kids learn.

A teacher for 20 years, Knowlton said he’s fairly tech-savvy, but certainly not as much as new teachers. He said he’s a Google Classroom convert now: “Every year I’ll have Google Classroom. This is how I’ll start my year going forward.”

As stressful as this forced stay-at-home school quarter has been, Aubin said there are lessons to be learned.

“Now we are so much better prepared for future times that we have to go to distance learning,” he said. “With the flooding, air quality problems, evacuations, it’s safe to assume we will probably have to do this again in the future.

“We have been forced to learn a whole new system. But we can essentially resume education — albeit in a different manner — at any time in the future,” he said. “In PE, distance learning will never be ideal. It will never replace hands-on kinetic learning. But in a crisis, we now have a plan that we can use.”

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