Teaching During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Teaching During the COVID-19 Pandemic = by Paul Solomon, PE and Health Teacher
Posted on 03/10/2021
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I have been a coach for 20 years, and I teach Physical and Health Education at Gottesman to all our students, from 3-to 14-year-olds. My classes over the past year, taught both in-person and virtually, have offered both the physical and mental outlet that these young children and teenagers desperately needed. Their overall health and well-being depend on it and, therefore, on me.

This will just be a spring thing, right? ~ March-June 2020

March 2020, when all schools transitioned to distance learning, my fellow educators and I had to pivot on a dime and teach in a manner that was completely foreign to us. “Distance Learning,” though not an entirely new concept, was uncharted territory when it came to physical education. I questioned if I would be able to conduct a successful class and was uncertain as to how the students would respond. 

For the younger students, I decided to start with the basics and try not to get ahead of myself. I focused on the standard items: push-ups, sit-ups, yoga, jumping jacks, and body movement. To my astonishment, they responded with excitement, and I knew I had to give them more.

For the middle school students, workouts were coupled with both physical and emotional stimulation. This included “Let’s go for a walk and talk together” with several mental health check-in’s like How are you doing? How are you feeling? Are you able to keep up with your studies? I was able to observe how these simple physical and emotional exercises helped so many of the students during these very complicated times, and I could see remarkable improvements in their overall wellbeing. 

After months of uncertainty, the school year was finally coming to an end. The end of the school year is usually punctuated by the beloved and anticipated Field Day, celebrated with all the students competing in various sports and games throughout the day in mixed-grade teams and dressed in team colors. 2020 had taken so much from the students already, I did not want them to feel as if they were missing out on what was probably their favorite in-school event. It is not only a day to celebrate the end of the year, but also a chance to release pent up energy or anxiety and participate as part of a group, in some cases for the last time before they graduate.

As a result, several middle school students and I created a Virtual Field Day. They made videos of themselves performing fun athletic activities in their backyards or playground areas. The videos were then shared with the entire school, and parents were asked to share the videos of their children participating in the activities on the school’s website and social media platforms. My goal was to keep morale high for an event which always brings out enthusiasm from both students and parents alike. Virtual Field Day was a great success, and it remains an important event in our school’s curriculum. It provided a semblance of normalcy when we all needed it so badly.

The Summer of COVID ~ July-August 2020

For the past seven summers, I have worked as Athletic Director at a local day camp. With the curveballs COVID-19 was throwing, my camp needed to adapt, and I needed to explore other options. With the help of my 14-year-old son, I began my own Backyard Summer Fitness Day Camp. I worked with children in grades K - 8, either in their own backyard or in a public park, to perform exercises such as squats and push-ups, practice training with equipment such as dumbbells and resistance bands, and play various non-contact sports such as Wiffle ball and street hockey. The goal was to build their self-esteem and keep them active. 

We managed to do all this while practicing social distancing, wearing face masks, and using lots of sanitizers. I purchased new equipment, so the children had their own to use and to be responsible for properly sanitizing throughout the day. Hearing from the students, I have come to learn that this summer program had been a vital part of their summer experience. By not shying away from physical activity while still being socially responsible, the summer program kept both them and me healthy and happy during this challenging time.

The summer ended up being exciting, nerve-wracking, and a lot of fun! It gave me the opportunity to spend quality time with my son, mentoring him and sharing with him one of my great passions. My son and I got to work with some of my students from school and met new children from our hometown. In addition to keeping us active, it provided me with new ideas to help improve my own year-round curriculum.

A Fresh Approach to “Normal” – September 2020-March 2021

When school began, I knew my summer experience had prepared me for the return of in-person classes. I was excited to be teaching outdoors again and to reviving social interaction with both the students and my fellow staff members. I researched various social distance activities and reached out to colleagues at similar sized schools to share best practices. As I did in the summer, I purchased new equipment for the students to use as their own and expected that the students would take responsibility for sanitizing and wearing protective gloves and face masks during class. I spray painted the field to indicate six feet of social distance for each student to stand on during class. 

However, I still had some reservations about teaching physical education and health to a large and active group of students while helping to create a “new normal” that we all had to adjust to. Interestingly though, one of the biggest challenges I faced was organizing my elementary students during their lunch/recess time. These students were spending their morning classes sitting on a yoga mat under a tent outside, and they were ready to release some of their energy! I knew social distancing would be hard; kids are kids, and they want to be as free as they can be. So, when it came to the new rules and restrictions that needed to be followed for COVID safety protocol, it was hard for them not to fall into their old patterns of behavior.

I turned to my mentor for assistance as to how to alleviate the situation. She recommended I make a sign with pictures of a facemask and a stop sign to use as a visual cue for the students instead of my having to constantly correct unsafe behavior. Within a week of using this method, the students were on board, following the safety protocols and making the necessary behavior changes.

Now with our first challenge overcome, we were ready to play in a safe way; but, How can you play a game of tag while socially distancing? I started by teaching Pool Noodle Rock, Paper, Scissors Tag; students had their own noodles and stood at cones six feet apart from their partners. At the start of the game, the students would run to the middle of the field, play a round of rock, paper, scissors, and the students that won the round would return to their cones while their partners chased them with a pool noodle trying to tag them. Out of necessity, I created similar “out of the box” activities and challenges to keep the students active while observing necessary protocols. It was a little disappointing, however, that we could not compete in inter-school competitions this year.

The students have seen the results of the effort I put into keeping them both active and healthy, and they have matured because of it. Throughout this year, we all have had to make sacrifices and adjustments in our lives to somehow keep a feeling of normalcy. However, change is not only necessary but vital during these times to keep children moving forward with their natural development. Change begets change. I changed the physical appearance of our school gymnasium to create a more welcoming atmosphere. By adjusting the overhead lighting and continuing to play uplifting music throughout the day, the students and staff sing along and emanate their normal exuberance and liveliness throughout the day. I know that all my students have maintained a level of happiness, and they look forward to my class. I think with a little creativity and perseverance, I have been able to make positive changes to the way I teach Physical Education. There is positive change out there for every student, parent, and educator in every area of life. When this pandemic comes to an end, I know we will be back better than ever and ready to take on whatever challenges comes our way.