Originally published Nov. 5, 2020 by Daily Southtown.

By Jeff Vorva

During recent parent/teacher conferences, Hillcrest High School teacher Amy Trench had more than one conversation with parents on a topic that she thought she would never hear.

The physical education teacher is one of many teachers trying to be creative under the shackles of remote learning. One of the things that Trench does is to do her own workouts online while her students are at home trying to match her step-by-step and grunt-by-grunt.

But as she found out during the parent/teacher conferences, it’s not just the students watching and working out.

“I found out that so many parents are doing the workouts, too,” she said. “They said ‘my son won’t let me get in the camera view but I’m right next to him on the mat doing the workout.’ That’s pretty cool. I tell the students that siblings and parents are welcome at any time.”

So, on a given day, her audience could be a lot bigger than expected.

“There are moms, dads, older siblings, younger siblings and babies,” she said. "I have one student whose younger brother is 7 and he has cerebral palsy and they have a hard time getting him to do much of anything.

“But every morning when she logs into my class, he is right next to her and he says ‘Good morning Miss Trench’ like he is in the class and ready to go. It’s really, really neat.”

For those who think physical education is just about running, jumping and climbing ropes, think again. The remote learning caused by the COVID-19 pandemic goes far beyond that. Sure, there is the “physical” part of physical education but now “education” is getting some equal time.

Oak Forest High School junior Alexys Dowling praised her teacher, Stacy Faulkner, for incorporating education on the mind as well as the body.

“We learn a lot about the body and muscles. We learn what foods we should be putting into our body.”

Audra VanRaden, curriculum director of physical education, health, driver education and JROTC for High School District 218, said that there was a game plan created when it appeared remote learning was going to be a reality.

“We’ve focused on teaching the health-related fitness concepts in our classes,” VanRaden said. “Health-related fitness concepts are the baseline for all of the courses we teach and are needed for students to understand how to lead a healthy lifestyle.”

She said the students at Richards, Shepard and Eisenhower high schools learned and reviewed five components of fitness, engaged in physical activity, learned the benefits of and practiced mindfulness plus learned how to set healthy goals.

Eisenhower teacher Neil Miguez said students need physical education and health at all times, but it’s even more important during a pandemic when students are at home learning from a screen.

He said he was happy with how they took to Zoom workouts.

“I was scared that 14- to 18-year-olds wouldn’t want to be on screens at all, let alone doing full-body workouts in front of their peers,” Miguez said. “I eased them pretty slowly with some light workouts to get them used to it early on but the last four weeks or so I have really increased the intensity. Overall, they have done an incredible job doing these workouts and I am proud of them.”

In Bremen High School District 228, teachers at Hillcrest, Oak Forest, Bremen and Tinley Park high schools are embracing the challenge of teaching physical education remotely.

“I love that I can talk about nutrition so much,” said Bremen and Tinley Park teacher Cassie Gaines. “I’ll never have an opportunity like this where students are in their own kitchens.”

This fall, her students made protein bars, salsa, healthy toast, smoothies and kale chips.

Oak Forest teacher Heather Manzke has her students make protein bars and she has distributed her batches to the few students who have actually been at school.

“These are some of the things I’ve always wanted to do but we were so limited in school,” Manzke said. “This is the perfect time for me to do this type of thing. I was excited about it.”

She also enjoys working out with the students remotely.

“It’s stuff you would pay for and I told the kids ‘you guys are getting this for free,'” she said. “I have all of my kids up on the screen where they can see me and I can see them and we do all our workouts together.”

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