Originally published Jan. 27, 2021 in The Central Maine Morning Sentinel.

By Greg Levinsky

L.L.Bean told teacher Brenda Beckwith to “come up with her dream list” when it couldn’t fulfill her initial order.

The iconic Maine store didn’t have the indoor physical education equipment she wanted, but there was plenty of stock for outdoor physical education. So around Christmas time, Beckwith hitched up a U-Haul for a trip down Interstate 295 to Freeport to secure some new items for the Winslow Public Schools.

Winslow High School students Nya Chapman, left, and Leo Francis use snow shoes during physical education class Wednesday at Winslow High School. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

Beckwith, a 32-year physical education teacher at Winslow High School, secured a smattering of outdoor equipment with coronavirus relief funding, including the L.L.Bean order. The crown jewel of the haul is a 30-by-60 foot ice rink behind the high school.

“There was so much stuff. It was like the ‘Jaws’ movie: ‘You’re going to need a bigger boat,'” Beckwith said. “Well, I needed a bigger U-Haul.”

Thanks to a second round of coronavirus relief released by Gov. Janet Mills in September, Winslow Public Schools applied for funding through the Maine Department of Education and received money for a handful of projects, including physical education activities. Coronavirus relief funds cannot be used on locally budgeted items, so using the dollars for one-time outdoor physical education purchases worked out well.

“This is a wonderful opportunity to provide an alternative to our students during this time, and we’d never be able to afford these things in our regular budget,” Winslow Public Schools Superintendent Peter Thiboutot said. “When you’re looking at alternatives for how you deliver the curriculum when you’re placed in a situation like this, having the means to purchase equipment that you may not have had the means to do offers our students different learning opportunities.”

The district purchased the aforementioned ice rink, 50 sets of snowshoes with poles, 40 pairs of skates, 25 sets of skis, boots, gloves and all required equipment, 20 snow tubes, 18 fat tire bicycles, 10 snow saucers, broomball equipment, and outdoor winter gear for those in need. Winslow physical education acquired more gear this year than ever before.

“In the time that we’ve had, we’ve had limited budgets year after year,” said Blair Hill, Winslow’s physical education teacher for grades K-6, who is retiring after his 39th year in the district. “To have all that stuff, it just gives us a lot more opportunities to get these kids outside and moving.”

According to district officials, Winslow Public Schools spent approximately $63,000 on the outdoor physical education items, headlined by large purchases from L.L.Bean and another Maine retailer, Renys. The ice rink, purchased from EZ Ice, cost $3,654.14. The Winslow Fire Department recently flooded the rink with water to get it going, but with recent warmer weather and some rain, use has been minimal. The rink is expandable in 5-foot increments, so the teachers can increase the size if interest increases.

Students in the Winslow school system alternate days of in-person and remote learning as part of the district’s hybrid scheduling model. Of the district’s 1,105 students, 827 are in the hybrid model and the other students learn fully remotely. Because students are at school only half the time, kids are spending more time at home. They may not have the same equipment or resources, so they’re enjoying the outdoor activity.

One of those students relishing the new opportunities is Ethan Loubier, a 16-year-old junior at Winslow High School. He has gone mountain biking, snowshoeing and tubing on Dinosaur Hill during his physical education classes this winter. Ripping around on the fat tire bikes is his favorite activity so far.

“I’ve never really driven a bike like that before, so I just think it’s pretty new and fun to do,” Loubier said. “We’ve made the best of what we can do. I think it may be even better, because it’s more interactive.”

Another perfectly safe student favorite is snowshoeing while playing outdoor disc golf.

It’s different for staff and students. In a normal winter, there’s little outdoor physical education in Winslow.

“We didn’t have the resources,” said Peter Bolduc, a 13-year physical education teacher for grades seven through 12. “They don’t give any of this stuff away, so we just didn’t have the resources to get them.”

This year they did.

And to boot, all of the outdoor equipment makes for easier compliance with coronavirus protocols.

The Maine Department of Education’s PK-12 and Adult Education Public Health Guidelines has additional protocols for physical education classes. Physical education classes cannot include activities with close physical contact. Face coverings are required at all times.

In schools, there is a minimum of 3 feet of spacing at all times between students and 6 feet of distance between instructors and students. For physical education classes, the minimum distance between students is 6 feet.

“We’re being super cautious,” Beckwith said.

Winslow’s three physical education teachers try to keep class outside every day. Save for stormy weather, the classes, which range in size from 2-10, can be seen being active outdoors. After class, all winter gear is sprayed down and cleaned. Laundry duty is another added aspect to the physical education teacher’s job.

If there’s a silver lining during the pandemic, Winslow’s physical education program found it.

“We’re just really super aware of the COVID-19 and the kids are really great,” Beckwith said. “If there’s one good thing, the COVID pandemic gave us a whole other curriculum that we can use. We have $1,700 mountain bikes from L.L.Bean. That would’ve been three years of my budget.”

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    Teachers uses state's second round of CARES (coronavirus) relief funding to purchase supplies that will help students make the most of PE during the winter.
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