By Alexis Taylor
More than a year and half into the pandemic, it is clear that not all heroes wear capes or hospital scrubs, some wear whistles and gym shorts to work each day.
Contrary to popular belief, resource teachers do not have it easier than their counterparts teaching subjects such as English language arts and math – especially during a global pandemic. In fact, teaching a child how to draw or play basketball through a screen proved to be just as complicated – if not harder – than teaching students how to count or read virtually.
As stories of resilience and innovation surface across the country, an interesting picture has emerged of how coaches and physical education teachers have braved the coronavirus crisis.
“I had to change my entire curriculum and each lesson for the semester,” said Yolanda Small, a physical education teacher and the athletic director at Western High School in Baltimore. “Initially I thought we would be working out on the computer. I thought I would be in front of the screen doing aerobics and they would follow me.”
“I learned very early from my students that it was not going to go down that way.”
Small quickly realized that in order to be an effective physical education teacher in the virtual realm she would have to follow her student’s lead, respect the range of comfortability levels in front of a camera, and take a different approach to the content of the class.
“No one comes out and says ‘I want to do jumping jacks’ – but they might say ‘I can’t fit in my jeans,’” said Small, who also teaches health. “In the past we may have touched on nutrition a little, but now we could go more in depth on why it’s important to eat more vegetables or drink more water.”
Twenty-one years into her teaching career, Small told the AFRO she is having one of her best years yet. Her passion for sports and health is palpable and undoubtedly influenced by her Olympian father, Trenton James “TJ” Jackson, a five-sport athlete who turned down a Major League Baseball career in the 1960s to play for the National Football League.
Small said distance learning gave her the opportunity to highlight everything from eating habits and acne to social-emotional learning. To make classes more engaging she integrated a financial literacy piece, asking students to choose a career and then fund their lifestyle off a salary earned by grades. Each class also included a mindfulness moment to strengthen mental health.
In Maryland, licensed educators that teach a resource class like art, music or physical education are held to the same standards as other teachers. Resource educators are expected to complete cycles of professional learning the same as science and social studies teachers, and observations based on a rubric for instruction are part of their annual evaluations too.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), physical education is crucial because it helps develop the motor skills used to hold a pencil or do anything that requires hand-eye coordination.
Physical education has also proven to do everything from increase standardized test scores to decrease childhood obesity – a major problem facing Baltimore families. According to the Baltimore City Health Department, “one in three high school students is either obese or overweight.” As a result, participation in physical activities during the school day or joining an athletic team in school could go a long way in keeping kids healthy.
An estimated “eight million students currently participate in high school athletics in the United States,” according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association NCAA. Their love of team sports did not wane during the pandemic, but in-person bonding was significantly curtailed by social distancing measures.
“Our first plan of action was trying to see how we could still serve the student athletes in Baltimore County,” said Lynette Mitzel, supervisor of athletics for Baltimore County Public Schools. “When we were told about the two-week shut down we were just entering the state championships for basketball. That day I was literally at Towson University getting ready to play a game.”
Mitzel said once it became clear that the two-week shutdown in Spring 2020 was indefinite, coaches began focusing on what an engaging Fall term would look like for students.
“They weren’t able to play games or get together at all. For example, in field hockey it was about running a mile and then talking about mile times. For basketball, students were told to ‘go do some passing against the wall’ and discussing how many passes were completed in a minute.”
Mitzel told the AFRO that giving student athletes time to connect with coaches and teammates was important because “the further the pandemic went, the more it was apparent that we really needed to focus on their mental health as well.”
“Sports really are an identifier for a lot of kids in high school,” she said, highlighting the social aspect of being a part of a team.
Most students in Maryland had to endure virtual meet-ups with their coaches and teammates until January 2021, said Mitzel, who also runs the girls basketball tournament for the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association (MPSSAA).
A scaled-down fall sports season began in March 2021, followed by a mini-spring season. The MPSSAA also allowed students to have state championships. A total of 28 teams were named state champions in a variety of sports including baseball, softball, lacrosse, tennis, and track and Field.
Mitzel said that in the upcoming 2021-2022 school year students and coaches of Baltimore County Public Schools will return to a schedule that resembles pre-pandemic times. Mitzel acknowledged the ongoing threat of coronavirus and all of its many variants, but said that student athletes will still have the option to return to in-person sports.
“We have a full season of games,” she said. “Obviously we know that there are possibilities as we go back to school and continue with all of these activities – there’s always a concern.”
“We’re following all of the guidelines that are put out, but we could be unfortunately shut down at any point in time.”
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