APRIL 2, 2021 — A year like this gives plenty of opportunities for reflection. On the first day of school, hundreds of Alaska physical education teachers faced a challenge no one would have anticipated a year before: The subject they’re passionate about would have to look entirely different during a pandemic than it did in a typical year — with big gyms and equipment for everyone — if it could be taught at all.
PE specialists in Alaska know this year didn’t provide the best way to teach children physical education. They recognize that a child’s access to PE varied across the state and school by school — from receiving no or little physical education to having a full-time PE teacher. Getting kids to move using a computer wasn’t always easy, and moving in person at open schools also required new rules and limitations.
“We didn’t give up what we know the kids need,” said Melanie Sutton from the Anchorage School District. That’s learning physical education, nutrition and overall health along with other core subjects like math and reading, said Sutton, the district's health and PE curriculum coordinator.
Not giving up meant PE teachers invented new ways to move and found pockets of time in the day — sometimes before or after school — to make sure those opportunities were available.
In Fairbanks, PE teacher Kayla Clark knew her elementary school would start the school year with learning from home, like Anchorage schools did. She began recording PE videos that students could do at home.
In Anchorage, Natalie Washington learned that she and many PE teachers would be general teachers first, and then see how, or if, physical education could be added in during the school day.
In Wasilla, Nancy Blake at Goose Bay Elementary spent the end of summer on hands and knees, painting an outdoor gym space that looked just like her school’s indoor gym. Kids would come back in person there, but they’d need to move differently with plenty of space and masks.
Sutton is a former PE teacher and now works with more than 140 health and PE teachers in Anchorage. Sutton calls PE and health teachers the glue that holds a school together. In a given week, they teach every student in the building. They know every child’s name, every child’s family.
So when specialists in the school — PE, health, music and art — started first quarter in Anchorage as generalists supporting classroom teachers, Sutton said PE teachers were primed for the pivot.
“They were really ideally positioned to connect with those kids in a new way,” she said.
PE teachers retrained themselves. They learned how to support math, language arts, science and more.
“They had to learn a whole new career at the same time they were delivering it,” Sutton said.
What that looked like was long days, packing in support for the whole school while still finding unique ways to keep offering PE. Rogers Park Elementary PE teacher Ben Elbow started every day of first and second quarter by running a special PE Zoom session before school even started. Elbow, Washington at Taku Elementary, Jason Payne at Homestead Elementary, and other Anchorage PE teachers set up cameras in their garages and living rooms to provide extra remote PE classes on top of supporting classroom teachers. Washington joined Payne and two other elementary PE teachers to record more than 200 slideshows this year to teach movement skills to students learning from home. Payne, president of the Society of Health and Physical Educators, Alaska, said the organization provided Zoom sessions twice monthly to teachers throughout Alaska to share health and PE resources and ideas. The group launched a new website to improve access to these resources across the state. The Alaska Departments of Health and Social Services and Education and Early Development supported the group’s efforts through grant funding.
Making this shift from PE specialist to providing more general support was critical to help all students this year, but it still felt like a loss to some. PE teachers had spent their careers training in a subject they believed in wholeheartedly. Not every child will play a sport, and sports teams don’t have slots for any kid who wants to join. But PE is open to all. Trained PE specialists teach children of all abilities the skills to move in many ways so they can enjoy being active and use activity as a way to stay healthy for a lifetime — body and mind.
“They know the kids needed it all,” Sutton said, “and they worked so hard to provide that.”
“They are an amazing group of educators.”
As some districts continued online, PE teachers came up with more ways to keep kids active. Washington in Anchorage has been a PE teacher at Taku Elementary for 19 years, but she spent most of this year matched with classrooms to teach math, language arts and more. Taku is a Title 1 school, which means it has a high percentage of students living with families who earn lower incomes. Washington wanted to help all students stay active, but she knew every child wouldn’t have the same PE equipment at home. Given Anchorage school buildings were still closed, all the great equipment she had in the school’s gym was no longer an option.
“I had to figure out how to get those kids excited and moving,” she said. Washington’s solution came with a partnership with her school’s PTA. They put together bags of PE equipment that went home to every child. When they showed up for a PE Zoom class, the kids each had a jump rope, some balls, and other basic equipment. As classes heard what she could offer, Washington added more remote PE classes. Every 20 minutes, she built in movement breaks for her classroom, too.
The Mat-Su Borough School District had in-person learning for most students throughout the year. As winter approached, Blake in Wasilla noticed the ground under her outdoor gym space was getting too icy. The PE classes moved back to the indoor gym space. Inside, she focused on helping kids keep their hands clean and sanitizing equipment between uses.
For thousands of Alaska children, third quarter started a shift. Many headed back to school buildings. Some found more options for PE and activity, but that depended again on the school, the assignment of the PE teacher, even whether the gym was open for activity or repurposed for something else. As one example, PE teacher Elbow moved back into the Rogers Park gym, but he changed its purpose. For the remainder of the year, he’d teach all subjects to a sixth-grade class, setting up their desks in the gym.
Teachers and staff at Anchorage elementary schools increased physical activity options in other ways. Each student returning in person got 30 minutes of daily recess, Sutton said. A number of schools, including Rogers Park and Taku, had maintained outdoor ice rinks open to families.
Washington combined her passion for PE and her new placement in a classroom by taking students out to skate during school days. Right before spring break, she organized the first family ice skating night of the year at Taku. The large rink allowed families to finally get together, while still giving skaters plenty of space.
“It was perfect,” Washington said.
Fourth quarter in much of this country starts with rain boots and ends with sunshine and green grass. This year’s abundant snowfall in parts of the state means Clark in Fairbanks returned to teaching in-person PE with a plan to start snowshoeing with students. Blake in Wasilla also started fourth quarter with outdoor snowshoe scavenger hunts. When the snow starts melting and muddy ground returns, Blake is planning to start circus activities in the gym – juggling, hula hooping, even balancing on stilts. The students will end with a virtual circus performance for families.
Washington has something exciting planned for Taku students in Anchorage, too. Approaching the year’s end, Washington feels grateful for the chance to help classroom teachers and learn from that experience. Even so, she’s looking forward to returning to the gym next year, knowing it’s important to teach kids how to move and offer them opportunities to do that every week.
“I have always wanted to be a PE teacher,” she said.
Sutton seconded the importance of returning the focus to PE and health for all students next year. The past 12 months, she said, have really reinforced the value of staying in the best health possible.
“The health of the world was on display,” Sutton said. Having underlying health conditions, like unhealthy weight and diabetes, can make it harder to fight viruses like Covid-19 and lead to more serious infections. Most Alaska adults have at least one of these health conditions. Getting out to play during the pandemic was important for physical and mental health, but it became harder for many to do so. Alaska parents reported their kids were getting less activity during the pandemic than before it.
“How do we help them come out of it and return to a state of wellness?” Sutton asked. Returning to teaching children PE and health helps them learn how to take care of themselves for a lifetime, she said.
Washington said she’s got a finale for this school year that will give her students hope for next school year. She’s working with her principal to bring back an outdoor field day on the last day of school. Sure, it will need to follow different rules during the pandemic, but she’s coming up with ways to provide fun activity stations for playing tug of war, running races and enjoying water games.
“I think it’s going to make them super excited to come back next fall,” Washington said.