Originally published Aug. 31, 2020 by CNN Health.
By Matt Villano
For students from Meraki High School outside Sacramento, California, staying fit during the coronavirus pandemic has been as easy as playing solitaire.
Since the school shutdown this spring, students have taken part in a modified physical education class with the help of a special deck of cards. Dubbed "Super Fitness Fun Cards," the deck is comprised of cards with different exercises on each one: push-ups, squats and crunches. There are multiple games students can play with the deck; with most, students can shuffle the cards, take a predetermined number of them, then do the exercises that the cards depict.
The tool is the brainchild of Dan DeJager, physical literacy and wellness advisor at the school in Fair Oaks, California. DeJager is a self-proclaimed "gaming nerd," and he uses the deck in conjunction with instructional videos, Zoom meetings and scavenger hunts to keep kids interested in physical education while they're engaged in virtual learning.
"It's a great brain break," he said of the cards. "Even if you don't feel like you're working hard, just getting regular exercise can make a huge difference in your day."
While DeJager's strategy was creative, it was surprisingly not that unusual. At a time when Covid-19 has turned many long-standing pedagogies upside down, physical education teachers across the country are going to spectacular lengths to keep kids moving and to stay relevant.
One educator is streaming synchronous fitness classes from her basement. Another made house calls to do burpees with students across the Midwest. A third has put together a roving gym class that also makes house calls.
Going into the fall semester, these innovations have challenged the way educators think about the health and PE coursework; it will be less about exercise and more about wellness overall.
"We hope that through this horrible situation that we can raise the value and role that health and PE teachers play in the school," said Michelle Carter, director of educational content and programs at the Society of Health and Physical Educators America. "There's a connection between the mind and the body. Now more than ever, that connection is something we must celebrate."
Back to basics
As schools and school districts iron out specifics for the start of the new year, there is no question that physical education is important.
A recent report from the American Heart Association indicated that cardiorespiratory fitness is a predictor of health conditions in kids but that only 40% of 12- to 15-year-olds in the United States are believed to have a high CRF.
Advocacy group SHAPE America, where Carter works, also aims to make fitness and wellness top priorities.
Early in the pandemic, the Annapolis Junction, Maryland-based organization teamed up with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to come up with a list of school reentry considerations to serve as a guide educators could use to incorporate PE safely into the curriculum this year.
For those schools where physical education isn't part of the curriculum, SHAPE America also put together resources for students to do at home. The organization in recent weeks, Carter said, has pivoted to sharing best practices and spotlighting physical education teachers who are leading the charge with exciting and innovative approaches during the pandemic.
One of those innovators is LaDonda Porter, a physical education teacher at Beaumont Middle School in Lexington, Kentucky.
Porter, who teaches about 950 students a year, said she'll spend the first few weeks of fall semester helping students navigate the district's new online learning management system. When she and her colleagues start teaching PE, Porter said they will emphasize social and emotional learning instead of sports, and they won't require any equipment.
"We'll do more breaking down skills instead of playing actual games," said Porter, noting that the first real fitness activity will be for kids to invent their own sports. "It's about fitness this year, but it's also about comfort, and giving students what they don't even know they need."
Many physical education programs are leaning into new and exciting ways of thinking about instruction. Some athletic directors have discussed incorporating Strava, Fitbit and other step-tracking apps and devices to chart student fitness over time.
Others have partnered with local medical centers and health care alliances to get equipment donations.
At Clayton High School in Clayton, Missouri, students are gearing up to incorporate an activity called Wellness Bingo into their physical education experience for the year.
Educators rolled out this part of the curriculum in the spring and have expanded it since then. The game plays out like regular bingo, only each square has a task that students must complete to care for themselves and others, according to teacher Sarah Gietschier-Hartman, chair of Clayton's health and physical education department.
Some of the activities include meditation, writing a thank-you note, taking a 30-minute walk and completing yardwork for a neighbor. Looking forward to fall, Gietschier-Hartman said she likely will try to have students meet synchronously via virtual learning, send them out to complete one of the tasks on their bingo cards, then come back to close out the class again online.
"We need to use the technology to be flexible," said Gietschier-Hartman, who added that she and her colleagues are implementing several other techniques, too. "I know how I want my classes to go, but maybe I preface each lesson by saying, 'I would love for you to do this activity, but I also understand that you may want to do this tonight and report back tomorrow.'"
At Baldwin Elementary in Rochester, Michigan, students will benefit from a different kind of flexibility — one that trickles down to equipment.
Here, physical education teacher Heath Lemons said one of his first classes will focus on how students can create sports "equipment" out of materials in their homes. Lemons said this lesson is a nod to the fact that some students in the district may not have the basics necessary to complete a traditional gym class remotely.
One of his ideas: making soccer balls out of tape or stuffed animals so students can practice instep kicks.
Lemons said he likely will use virtual learning technology to check in with students and perform fitness assessments online.
"Most of my lesson plans have been thrown out the window," Lemons said. "Instead of doing things the old way, we've got to reinvent the wheel with more individualized instruction and learning that is at least partially offline."
Thinking outside the box
Other physical education teachers have emphasized a strategy that prioritizes connections.
When the pandemic forced educators at the private Avery Coonley School in Downers Grove, Illinois, to embrace remote learning last spring, the school's athletic director, Joe Schallmoser, struggled to figure out how to present meaningful lessons online.
Rather than fire up the Zoom calls and lean into virtual learning, Schallmoser opted for an entirely different strategy: opt-in physically distanced visits to see some of his students face to face. So he set up a Google form and encouraged families to sign up for a visit. He added the promise of bad dad jokes to encourage students to get with the program. Schallmoser devised a plan to see 10 students a day and do 10 burpees with each of them. In 24 days, he drove more than 1,200 miles to make 229 stops in 37 towns and do 2,320 burpees.
Perhaps more important, the beloved physical education teacher remained a force in his students' lives.
"I saw this as a chance to show how important PE is relevant to the whole child," Schallmoser said. "Finding ways to provide some normalcy (went) a long way toward keeping the kids excited about coming to school."
Myriah Volk, a former gym teacher who is now a fitness trainer in Sebastopol, California, has taken this concept even farther, converting her Kia Sportage into a roving gym van that delivers equipment and instruction throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.
Volk's business, PE Xpress 101, provides hour-long private gym classes for up to six students at a time. She works with students from ages 5 to 17, customizing the experience for every group based on preferences group members share in a Google doc beforehand. Some of the activities include circuit training, soccer, pickleball, tennis and hockey.
If students are in the same family or pod, Volk designs the class for them to play sports as they normally would. If students are from separate groups, she creates activities that allow for physical distancing.
Although Volk operates as an independent instructor, her gym classes can count toward official PE requirements.
"When you think about how kids doing distance learning are sitting and staring at a computer all day, it becomes even more important to get them moving and stimulate their brains," said Volk, who sanitizes her equipment before and after every class. "I see this as a way to accomplish that."