Finding a new way to have fun

How West Elementary P.E. classes are keeping kids healthy and safe in 2020

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West Elementary School students exercise as part of the "Wellness Wednesday" program the school has doubled down on in 2020, to keep students safe and healthy this school year. (Cullman City Schools)

CULLMAN, Ala. – Kids are still having fun in P.E. class this year — their teachers and coaches just have to get a bit more creative in 2020.

With schools across the state and nation making adjustments to keep students as safe as possible during the COVID-19 pandemic, even the most basic school-day staples had to be rethought to increase social distancing and limit common touch points. When it came to physical education, the P.E. crew at West Elementary School aimed to drastically reduce class sizes, while rethinking activities to make them as safe as possible — while still making sure kids are having fun in the process.

Call it P.E. 2.0. — or maybe P.E. 2020.

West Elementary School P.E. teacher Joseph McPhillips said in the past, they’d have as many as 100 students at one time during a P.E. course — though obviously that wasn’t going to work in the era of social distancing.

“That was the old way we’d done things for as long as I’ve been here, where we’d have basically the whole grade level at once,” McPhillips explained. “The biggest change, now, is that instead of 100 students we have around 18-25 at a time. Basically, we’re doing one homeroom at a time, so those students stay together throughout the day.”

Classes are divided out across the school’s different P.E. teachers, with each class being held in a separate location to “bubble” the student groups by homeroom. So that takes care of the social distancing, but what do they actually do in P.E. now? McPhillips said they had to get creative, and one big component of P.E. this year is an evolution of the “Wellness Wednesday” program to promote overall fitness. The idea was a perfect fit for the era of social distancing.

“We’d have anywhere from 8-16 stations set up, like jumping jacks, or push-ups, or step-ups — just a variety of exercises so kids can rotate around. So we’re able to keep kids as active as possible one at a time, using not very much equipment at all,” McPhillips explained. “Of course, we limit kids from handling a lot of equipment, and what we do use is sanitized between every class. But we think it’s more important than ever now to give kids a chance to move around and be active, during that break from the classroom.”

Along with workout stations, the P.E. staff has also put news spins on old games — all with an aim toward keeping them as fun, and safe, as possible.

“We’ve obviously tried to stay outside as much as possible, so we can let the kids spread out and move around, so they can have a bit of time to feel normal for a while, and bring some normalcy to this year,” McPhillips said. “Our first unit we did was a soccer unit, because the only equipment you really need is a ball, and you’re using your feet instead of your hands. We’re doing new games that factor in social distancing and limit contact, like a fitness game called ‘Pacman,’ where students try to stay on a line and tag the players by touching with a dodgeball to limit contact. We’re keeping kids safe, but for them it’s just a fun game and a different way to play it.”

The P.E. staff is also using this year as a chance to reinforce hygiene education, encouraging students to frequently wash their hands and not touch their face. 

“Those are always great lessons to reinforce, now more than ever,” McPhillips said.

West Elementary Principal Dr. Jay Page said the “Wellness Wednesday” program began last year as a way to better position students to attain the Superintendent’s Award and Governor’s Award in the Physical Fitness testing — and he’s glad to see it help leading the charge to a healthier 2020 for his students.

“I am proud of Coach Knop, Coach Little and Coach McPhillips for challenging our students, and I am proud of our students for rising to the challenge to increase their fitness,” he said. “This year, it has been fun to see our students adapt to the new requirements of P.E. The games that our coaches are using are fun and engaging. It is so important for students to keep physically active. Being physically active promotes and increases our students’ academic achievement.”

West Elementary School students exercise as part of the “Wellness Wednesday” program the school has doubled down on in 2020, to keep students safe and healthy this school year. (Cullman City Schools)
West Elementary School students exercise as part of the “Wellness Wednesday” program the school has doubled down on in 2020, to keep students safe and healthy this school year. (Cullman City Schools)