Originally published Oct. 12, 2020 by the NorthJersey.com.

By Melanie Anzidei

Meghan Radimer had to get creative. Radimer teaches physical education, and the COVID pandemic has made that particularly challenging since her school's classes are online.

So Radimer has asked her students in the Stillwater Township School District to use household items in their workouts. She had them play golf with a laundry basket and a pair of rolled up socks. There was also the day she orchestrated a rainbow scavenger hunt: Depending on what color item her students found, they would do a different workout. Another fitness challenge asked students to build a shoe tower — if it stood, they did 25 jumping jacks. If it fell, they had to do 10 pushups.

Jennifer Olawski, a physical education teacher at the Paul Robeson Community School for the Arts in New Brunswick, created this virtual gym with her colleagues for her elementary and middle school students. Students can click different links in the classroom to access lessons or workouts they can do in their spare time. The classroom also features teachers Andrew Novod and Chelsea Buttacavoli.

"You’re like a first-year teacher again,” said Radimer, who works with pre-K through sixth graders. “I think back — I graduated in 2007 — and none of this stuff was ever something you would even think about having to plan. I never thought I would have to teach phys ed virtually. But I think everybody is doing their best to figure out how to make it work for the year and for the students, as well.”

Teachers across the state have been forced to adjust to virtual learning because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which upended academia and all aspects of daily life. For physical education teachers, who thrive on the in-person connection that comes with teaching a course driven by physical activity, the adjustment has been especially brutal.

But it’s not something that physical education teachers can’t handle, said Suzette de Araujo, a physical education teacher and president-elect of the New Jersey Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance.

“We were definitely handed a situation that none of us was prepared for,” de Araujo said. “The people that have the most positive attitudes and are willing to be flexible are the ones that are going to succeed and do the best — and that typically is physical education teachers.”

Being flexible means being creative. Teachers have set up virtual gyms, where students can click on links to find lessons or workouts they can do in their spare time. They also developed workout wheels that students spin to determine what exercise they will do that day. Some teachers take advantage of the virtual video games on PE Bowman's YouTube channels to get kids moving. Some districts have orchestrated dance-offs between their school mascots.

Nonetheless, virtual learning poses distinctive challenges for phys ed teachers — such as the students who don't want to exercise on-screen, or teachers who must lead a divided class of students, with some in the classroom and some virtual.

Since teachers can't force students to turn on their cameras, they encourage participation through written lessons or workout logs, and the feedback, most say, has been positive.

The phys ed community across the country is a strong one, teachers said. Since virtual learning became the norm last spring, these teachers have created an online community to support one another. There are Facebook groups where teachers can communicate, as well as online resources that are available on the association website. Other organizations, such as the Society of Health and Physical Educators, or SHAPE America, also offer resources for educators.

Mark Housel, who teaches physical education in Marlton, recently led a three-hour Zoom session on effective teaching in physical education. The course, available on the association's website, implemented a wide array of resources he used to improve distance learning for his own students, he said.

“There’s so many things out there and so many people creating content that it’s almost hard to keep up with,” Housel said.

Radimer said scouring these resources online has become part of her weekend routine. She is constantly revisiting her lesson plans to reevaluate what worked and what didn’t.

“My whole goal is to find activities that the kids enjoy — not necessarily work,” Radimer said.

John LaRusso spent most of his summer preparing for this school year.

The Englewood physical education teacher and soccer coach went to as many virtual professional development courses as he could. He scoured social media for ideas to teach phys ed online, and used Facebook to connect with teachers from other states. His district’s department even created a PE website for students, which has a compilation of videos of LaRusso and his colleagues demonstrating workouts kids can do from home.

“It was no summer off,” LaRusso said. “I tried to spend as much time as I could to really research and to look into it, so that we could have smooth sailing for this upcoming year.”

Even now, with the virtual school year at Janis E. Dismus Middle School in Englewood in full swing, LaRusso thinks three steps ahead. What if he has to switch his curriculum on the fly again, as he did last year? Teaching in 2020, he said, is like nothing he ever experienced in his seven-year career —– and he’s not alone.

Not all fun and games

Virtual learning does come with downsides for physical education.

Jennifer Olawski, a Wayne native who teaches kindergarten through eighth grade in New Brunswick, said one of her main concerns is keeping up with students’ mental health. Physical education, she stressed, is a great way for students to balance their hectic virtual learning schedules. It also allows them a much-needed break from their screen.

Her district plans to resume in-person classes at the end of January, but for now they are all virtual. To adjust, she and other physical education teachers have been filming their lessons in their school gym. Then they show those videos to the students, while talking through them during the online class.

“It’s definitely a totally different world. The good thing about filming at the school is it gives them a sense of familiarity,” Olawski said. “They are able to see the kids and all the phys ed teachers. I think that helps them a little bit. Because some of them are struggling — we have to be honest about that."

Even though she feels students have remained resilient through the ups and downs with virtual learning, she recently had a virtual health lesson with her seventh graders that took an unexpected turn. She began the class and quickly realized her students were stressed. Instead of proceeding with her planned lesson, she refocused and asked her students to tell her how they were feeling. She also gave them advice on how to better manage their time and stress.

“It’s most important right now that we prioritize our students’ mental health. That to me is number one,” Olawski said. “I’m really glad that they feel comfortable to open up to me, to talk to me about these things, and I’m just taking the time to hear them.”

Physical education teachers may also be facing cuts and setbacks because of limits from virtual learning, said Dawn “Frankie” Francavilla, the current association president. That may mean limiting PE classes, or asking these teachers to help their colleagues who are teaching hybrid classes.

“I would say any school right now that is doing remote and hybrid, their programs have been cut significantly because of scheduling issues,” Francavilla said. “In my head, it’s got to be temporary, because no one wants to have PE once a week, especially when 150 minutes is mandated by the state of New Jersey. When you’re cutting that out and these kids aren’t getting enough — there’s a lot of stress management they’re not getting now because of the COVID. They’re losing that balance.”

Across the spectrum, educators face a slew of issues brought on by the ongoing pandemic, said Marie Blistan, president of the New Jersey Education Association.

“The policies that need to be put into place regarding how we do operate in this virtual world in some districts are still being worked out,” Blistan said. “So that has added, I think, more stress to our educators who are on the front lines. We don’t have a playbook for this — not in this state, not in this country.”

Across the state, the format of teaching runs the gamut, she explained. There is a mix of in-person, hybrid and all-virtual classes that vary district by district and largely depend on the safety measures that a district is able to uphold. Some districts weren’t able to adjust to state guidelines in time to allow for in-person learning, Blistan said. There have also been delays getting PPE for educators or school employees.

Even for educators who have resumed face-to-face interaction, they could face a return to virtual learning overnight. That’s why it’s important for teachers to realize they’re not alone, said LaRusso, the Englewood middle school teacher.

“It is stressful. It is overwhelming. Take a deep breath. We’re all in this together,” LaRusso said. “That’s the one awesome thing with phys ed is we all want to help each other. We all want to see each other succeed.”

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