Gym class heroes: How COVID-19 is forcing phys-ed teachers to change the game


Michelle Huff noticed something about her students — they loved to dance.

But not just any dance. They were particularly fixated on viral TikTok dance challenges.

So when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down schools last spring, she knew one way to both lighten the mood and get students moving.

Huff has been recording her own TikToks, joining in on viral trends embraced by students, and even devising her own dance challenges for them to copy.

“Believe me, those TikTok dances, they want to get them perfect,” says Huff, 31, a teacher at Maxson Middle School in Plainsboro. “I’m like, ‘Wow, this is repetition and they don’t even realize it because it’s fun.’”

Huff, who is in her ninth year as a teacher, is just one educator of many who have had to get creative during pandemic physical education classes. While education at large has become a challenge in the health crisis, they say that it’s important not to dismiss physical education as something that is not a priority.

Gym class no longer revolves around the metrics of the Presidential Physical Fitness Test (who remembers running “the mile”?). The challenge now is maintaining the “physical” in physical education when classes often have to be conducted remotely, depending on the school district.

Huff says the key is listening to what students like to do, and what excites them. She’ll often take TikTok dance requests and then turn a routine into one that incorporates fitness-related movements — adding in a plank position, for example, to work on muscular strength and endurance, or sprinkling the dance with some more cardio through hops or jump rope. Her repertoire includes the “One Hand, Two Hand” challenge and the “Kick Drop” challenge. Students have told her they’re proud of her performances in the dance prompts, and the feeling is mutual.

“It’s like empowerment from the students to the teacher, and back and forth. I’m learning just as much from them as they’re learning from me,” says Huff, the vice president for physical education for the New Jersey Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance.

John Russo is executive director of the Ocean Township-based association, which works with educators up and down the state.

“I think most of us believe that we are not going to see any sort of normalcy until we get into the spring and maybe even the following fall,” he says. Russo, 53, a former superintendent in Tinton Falls, says that in the pandemic, physical education teachers are often “building the plane as we fly it.”

But simply staying active is more crucial than ever as kids are sit in chairs and stare at screens for hours on end during virtual learning.

“If their health and wellness is OK, they’re going to be more focused on their academics,” Huff says. “It boosts their self-esteem, their confidence, their emotions. (They) get their endorphins going, they’re happier.”

Huff, who teaches students in sixth through eighth grade, is also the state coordinator for Health Moves Minds, an initiative of SHAPE America, the Reston, Virginia-based Society of Health and Physical Educators.

More and more, physical education has come to mean a focus on kindness, mindfulness and social-emotional learning, she says. That means teaching deep breathing exercises and techniques for coping with stress.

Mind, body, soul — all is engaged within physical education,” she says.

There has been at least one silver lining of virtual learning, Huff says — it discourages competition and comparison. If students are constantly comparing themselves to their peers, they may feel too self-conscious, as if they’re not measuring up, and lose focus on their own progress.

“The No. 1 thing kids need right now is a caring, loving adult,” says Judy LoBianco, a past president of SHAPE America who serves as a consultant to various New Jersey school districts. “The connectedness is why kids come to school, first and foremost.”

That’s why something as nontraditional as a TikTok dance can be a good idea, she says. Huff and other teachers have also been creating colorful Bitmoji virtual classrooms staffed with teacher avatars and links to videos and assignments.

“I think it’s true of any subject area that a teacher in this day and age going back to school that doesn’t have a mindset of growth is not going to survive in education for much longer,” says LoBianco, 51. She worked as a supervisor of health and physical education in Maplewood and South Orange schools for 17 years.

LoBianco says she’s tried to impress upon school principals that physical education is not dispensable because it holds the potential to increase test scores and improve attendance.

“You’re teaching children from the inside out,” she says. “You’re not just teaching their brain.”

Michelle Huff’s Bitmoji classroom. Teachers have been using the virtual classrooms as an aid for remote learning during the pandemic.Michelle Huff

“What we know is that if a child sits for too long — 20 minutes or more — the brain starts to ask, ‘What’s happening to my human? I’m not moving so maybe I’ve got to rest and maybe I’ve got to shut down my higher functioning,'” LoBianco says.

Even when space is an issue — as it often is when kids are attending school from home — she often recommends that teachers consult the website Go Noodle for exercises and dances kids in the K-5 range can do behind their desks. And parents, she says, can become motivators, encouraging their children to stretch, jog and do jumping jacks if they do them together. Even when organized sports are out of the picture, bike rides, playing catch or walking the dog can all contribute to the recommended 60 minutes of activity kids need each day.

“Primarily, the guidance going into this school year is a dropping away of teaching team sports,” LoBianco says. But she thinks it’s a mistake for schools that are trying in-person school — either on a hybrid basis or full-time — to relegate in-person education to academic subjects like math or English and leave gym class for virtual learning alone. Teachers can pursue games outside where students can maintain physical distance, she says.

While sharing school sports equipment and locker rooms, for example, is often not allowed or safe in the pandemic, the thrust of physical education is no longer team sports, LoBianco says. Instead, the main goal is for children to internalize the message that physical activity can be a source of joy. In order to do that, teachers should be meeting children where they are, she says. Part of that involves embracing other types of fitness like breathing techniques, dance and yoga — no one is asking students to run three miles wearing a mask in 90-degree weather, she says.

“We’re not playing dodgeball anymore, we’re not getting in there and forcing kids to do pushups until they throw up,” LoBianco says. “What we’re looking to do is let kids know, ‘If you can’t shoot the basket, it’s OK.'”

Physical education during the COVID-19 pandemic

Tom Hoepfner, a physical education teacher at Denbo-Crichton Elementary School in Pemberton, in a video recorded for virtual instruction. He posts a short clip every morning demonstrating an activity students can complete at home.Tom Hoepfner

Tom Hoepfner has been a physical education teacher for 19 years, but this is his first at the new Denbo-Crichton Elementary School in Pemberton.

“It’s actually kind of exciting,” he says of devising lessons in the pandemic. “Because we’re in uncharted territory but we can direct it the way we want.”

Students at Denbo-Crichton are attending school remotely until Oct. 13, but on Mondays and Wednesdays, the school currently hosts a total of 25 students for in-person instruction (the K-5 school has about 800 students total). Staff is equipped with protective equipment and supplies for digital temperature scans and boxed lunches. Students are allowed to remove their masks when they go outside, but must remain six feet apart.

The ability for classes to go outside has long been a part of gym classes, but is one of the upsides of physical education in the pandemic, says Hoepfner, 43. He says the spacious playground at Denbo-Crichton (an alternative to the “huge” new gym) allows for ample physical distancing.

Hoepfner was part of a committee that set up virtual education last spring at his former school, Pemberton’s Isaiah Haines Elementary, after the pandemic shuttered schools across the state.

As part of virtual instruction, Hoepfner creates five to 10-minute videos for students focusing on one particular skill or movement.

“We’re videotaping lessons and posting them each morning,” he says. In addition to exercise, teachers are using a “Be You” character education program to relate to students the importance of taking time out for themselves to make sure they’re OK.

The kids can complete prompts at their own pace, and Hoepfner is available to them four to five hours a day for guidance and Zoom chats. They can take their activities outside, and their families sometimes film them doing assignments.

“You can hear the parents in the background, cheering them on,” he says. “It helps build family time.”

Fall exercise

Hours of virtual learning can mean kids are starved for movement. Household chores can act as calorie burners and even strengthen muscles.Ed Murray | The Star-Ledger

The ultimate goal for teachers is to build on kids’ excitement while “keeping everything positive, helping the student feel like they achieved something that day,” Hoepfner says.

In addition to demonstrating movements like skipping or galloping, he’s asked students to complete “obstacle courses” and prompts where they have to run and touch five things.

“Some kids went into the backyard, some went and touched the car, some touched the mailbox.”

Making use of household objects offers one simple way to keep kids moving using equipment people already have, says Chaye Lamm Warburg, a pediatric occupational therapist in Teaneck and Waldwick who works with parents and schools. What’s important is that they aren’t sitting around for too long.

Preschoolers, for instance, should be moving “all day long,” not just for an hour, says Warburg. “A lot of kids have backslid in terms of their physical skills,” she says. “Their attention is being affected because they’re not moving. Moving stimulates the brain.”

Even if it’s not riding a bike, going for a walk or playing a sport, families can combine regular household duties with fitness (and make parents happy in the process).

“Chores can be physical,” Warburg says. “Physical activity includes mowing the lawn, gardening, (washing) the car, (cleaning) out the garage, (taking) out garbage.”

We’re headed into leafy season, so students can bust out those rakes. They’ll actually be building muscle strength and burning calories, Warburg says.

A mindful thing can become a good habit, a lifelong habit, but there needs to be a plan,” she says. “It’s not going to happen by default.”

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Amy Kuperinsky may be reached at [email protected]. Have a news tip or a story idea about New Jersey schools? Send it here.

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