Schools promote healthy, active living to overcome lack of physical education during pandemic


AUSTIN (KXAN) – Class is underway on an unassuming side street in South Austin.

The road is not used. Go down it and you will find a few houses and very few cars.

At the end of the street stands a two-story house nestled between towering trees. And, just behind: a large open courtyard with the distinct sound of children playing.

Five days a week, this building and backyard accommodates eight students from the Austin Independent School District, from Kindergarten to Grade 4. These students have formed a learning group, which they proudly call the “bubble group,” appropriately named after their promise to keep all social interaction within their own inner circle.

The ‘group of bubbles’ exercise outdoors (KXAN Photo / Alex Caprariello)

“Parents who work full time, at home and away from home who really need this support are very happy to have it. And their children do much better in this space, ”said Diana Haggerty, mother of two of the pod students and makeshift teacher for the students.

It’s Haggerty’s former workout and wellness studio, FemmePower Fitness, located in this two-story house, that these kids requisitioned for the semester. Haggerty, a personal trainer, nutritionist and health coach, was forced to shut down her business in March due to the pandemic.

Haggerty has long been committed to maintaining healthy habits for her four children.

“I think it’s less about trying to avoid screen time and more about what we can do to offset some of the effects of being so seated,” Haggerty said.

Diana Haggerty converted her health and wellness studio into a makeshift school for a learning group of eight Austin ISD students (KXAN Photo / Alex Caprariello)

So when she decided to keep her two kids virtual, making sure they stayed active was a priority.

“We continue to reiterate the importance of moving the body. Giving them the ability to do this throughout the day is something we focus on a lot, ”Haggerty said.

Her children, like so many in the United States, are faced with a new reality: learning now takes place behind a computer screen. Gymnastic exercises are performed on lounge mats. And, many students have temporarily said goodbye to extracurricular sports that keep them engaged and competitive.

Consequences on children’s health

Pediatricians fear that losing some of these activities could have devastating effects on the body.

Dr Kelly Cline, orthopedic surgeon at Texas Orthopedics, said that from the age of 10 the body changes rapidly. If children don’t get up and move, their bones can “fall asleep,” which can stunt growth and increase the risk of injury.

“This is a time when we are in a heightened configuration for injuries. We can prevent them by integrating exercise and work at home. I think it would be very helpful for these growing children, ”said Dr Cline.

Dr Sunaina Suhag, a pediatrician at the Austin Regional Clinic, said it was also important for the social and emotional well-being of the students. If children are inactive for too long, Dr Suhag said changes in their appearance and behavior are likely to occur. These consequences are compounded for vulnerable families struggling with the pandemic.

“Sometimes parents, especially in marginalized communities, work long hours. They are tired when they get home or sometimes they are not home for most of the day, ”said Dr Suhag. “We can all do our part when it comes to the people in our community who are struggling the most, especially when it comes to health, wellness or financially.”

Both doctors agree that finding time throughout the day to make sure children get the exercise they need will help prevent injuries and allow students to excel.

Curriculum overhaul

School administrators in Austin, Texas, have recognized the virtual barriers that prevent their students from staying physically active.

Michele Rusnak, physical education supervisor for Austin ISD, told KXAN’s Alex Caprariello that it is important to ensure fairness for virtual students who may not have the necessary equipment at home ( KXAN Photo / Alex Caprariello)

Michele Rusnak, health and physical education supervisor for the Austin Independent School District, said she had been brainstorming with her physical education instructors to develop lesson plans from scratch.

One of the most important factors Rusnak considered was ensuring fairness for the more than 80,000 students in the district. According to the 2019-2020 demographic report, more than 54% of students in the neighborhood are considered economically disadvantaged.

“Some kids have basketballs, volleyballs, and skipping ropes. And some kids don’t. So we really tried to take that into consideration when creating the program, ”said Rusnak.

Rusnak has developed whole new lesson plans, focusing on workouts that do not require equipment. Virtual students working from home will do jumping jacks, planks and V-sits, using their body weight to activate muscles and ensure cardiovascular circulation.

Austin ISD has developed lesson plans that use body weight instead of equipment to ensure fairness among students (KXAN Photo / Alex Caprariello)

“We can still get them moving. We can always teach the why and we can always teach the how, ”said Rusnak.

Students also focus on other essential elements of physical education, including behavioral units in healthy eating, diversity, emotions, and self-care. Rusnak says these subjects test their cognitive abilities against a traditional demonstration of physical performance.

While all of these efforts to involve students can be done in good faith, Rusnak says they cannot be successful without the support of others. She relies on parents and guardians like Haggerty to encourage students to follow the program and to ensure that there is positive reinforcement to move.

For the “bubble group”, they are working on the AISD tuition from the FemmePower Fitness studio. Haggerty follows the physical education program closely and ensures that these eight students compensate for their virtual work with physical activity, often encouraging them to take frequent breaks and play outside.

“Our physical education teachers are amazing, but they work with limited time with these kids. So it really starts at home, ”Haggerty said. “We complete more than we replace. “

Eight AISD students use the FemmePower Fitness studio to do their schoolwork every day (KXAN Photo / Alex Caprariello)

In addition, only a third of the students in the “bubble group” pay to use the space and learn in the pod. Haggerty said she recognizes a resource imbalance between families and offers her studio as a way to help her community.

“Everyone has been really hit hard financially and doesn’t have the budget to pay a lot for what has historically been $ 0 out of pocket for public education,” Haggerty said. “How do you make all of this fair? How do we make sure we reach our most vulnerable populations and the people who need them most? “

Rusnak encourages all parents to get more involved and to push their children away from the computer screen. She suggests finding simple activities to do together that won’t break your budget.

“It’s free to go for a walk. It’s free to go jogging in the neighborhood. It’s free to go play with someone, ”said Rusnak. “My hope is that no matter where you live in this city and no matter what happens, you can value your health and well-being. And that parents can value the health and well-being of their children.

Measuring success

Like many unprecedented changes during the pandemic, experts say there is no way to measure the long-term success of the virtual physical education program until several years have passed and researchers are in. able to study changes over time.

But there are short-term indicators that parents can watch out for.

“We’re going to be able to judge over time by how many injuries we see,” said Dr. Cline of Texas Orthopedics. “If we see a spike in injuries, it shows that there is not enough exercise at home. If we see the injury profile decreasing, then whatever these kids are doing around the house is probably helping. “

The success of these students also rests on their mastery of essential Texas knowledge and skills, better known as TEKS.

There are TEKS for physical education, just as there are TEKS for math, science, and social studies, among other subjects. Students are expected to stay on track with their age group when it comes to movement, body understanding and overall health.

Rusnak said that unless children fail to get up and move during the pandemic, students should be able to stay on track with their PE TEKS.

Partnering with the national nonprofit Solutions Journalism Network, Nexstar stations nationwide tell unique stories about how the pandemic has exposed inequalities for students and the solutions some groups have found to bridge that gap. difference.

Josh Hinkle and Alex Caprariello of KXAN speak with Austin ISD Health & Physical Education staff Michele Rusnak and Lauren Mikulencak about the district’s best practices for keeping students fit and active during the pandemic.

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