Cambridge Elementary School students are in gym class, standing in squares taped to the hardwood floor, six feet apart.
It’s the first week of school at CES, and students in 4K, kindergarten, first and second grade are back in-person.
They do stretches to warm up, led by videos on a smartboard and by gym teacher Anneke Legge.
Then, they play a gym-class version of rock-paper-scissors. Students duel with their neighbor in an adjacent square, run across the gym, find a number on a wall and do two jumping jacks. Back on their squares, the game starts again.
Legge said she’s adjusted the activity to make sure students stay distant. Students, for instance, can’t touch the numbers on the walls like they used to, and only played the game with adjacent students.
For teachers of “specials classes” like gym, art, computers and Spanish, in person school during the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t easy.
“We connect with so many kids differently with their talents and their passions,” Cambridge Elementary School Principal Chris Holt said. “It’s very important for us to… still strive to offer those opportunities.”
Teachers and school staff put ample time this summer into answering the question ‘what will these classes look like,’ Holt said.
Physical education is still happening in the gym for younger CES students. Holt said the space is big enough for them to spread out. They enter and leave through designated doors, keeping masks on the entire time they’re in the building other than when eating, Legge said.
In gym class, students can’t share equipment, Legge said, so she’s either assigning them their own gear, sanitizing it after each use, or going without.
Legge said gym class this fall will be “a lot more individual, a lot more focused on skills rather than game play.”
“We’re still going to have the same amount of fun,” Legge said.
For art and music, which take place in much smaller rooms, teachers have become mobile.
CES art teacher Sarah Krajewski and music teacher Sarah Dudnick have loaded materials onto carts that they push into each classroom for lessons.
Holt called this the safest option, saying keeping cohorts in their classrooms and having teachers move between them was safer than bringing students in and out of the art and music rooms. Holt said sanitizing a cart is easier than trying to clean after every class.
Krajewski has named her cart “Bart the Art Cart,” and outfitted it with googly eyes and eyelashes.
Krajewski said she enters classrooms with her cart, shows a video lesson and then leads students in a project.
Since school began on Sept. 1, CES students learning in-person have created sketchbooks they’ll use throughout the year and colored their own art mantras.
And all students, including those learning virtually, will start Krajewski’s annual “Dot Project,” a circle-inspired art project based on a children’s book. This year’s project is about a student’s circle of control and helping them get their feelings out.
Krajewski is relying on many of her typical-year routines, like a daily mantra to help students focus, bringing her own posters with her and doing calls and responses, “so that the kids can see that consistency, even though we’re not in the art room.”
“Giving them that sense of safety and fun is really important right now,” Krajewski said.
Krajewski said students use a lot of their own art materials, like crayons and markers, to limit sharing.
Legge, Krajewski and Dudnick are all teaching both in-person and virtual lessons this fall.
CES students in grades three, four and five are learning virtually right now, after Dane County’s ordered all students in third grade and up to begin the school year at home. Families of any students of any grade can also opt to have them learn virtually.
The three specials teachers at CES are creating posts, videos and activities for virtual students to complete from home.
Legge is meeting with each virtual class for 30 minutes a week, and assigns virtual students similar activities to those happening in-person. Krajewski said she meets with each grade level once a week, leading them in simple art projects that are easy to do from home.
“Our art time is really important and special,” Krajewski said. But “especially my job this year is to connect with our students and support them.”
“I’m pretty thankful that (the specials teachers) are so creative,” and can “still make their craft come to life,” Holt said.
Students at Nikolay Middle School are starting the year virtually, including specials like gym, art, computers and Spanish.
Nikolay is following a daily schedule with live class times that students are expected to attend.
Mark Dooley teaches computers and business education at NMS. In his class, students learn to keyboard, use computer software and do research. He also teaches life skills like budgeting, career exploration, project planning and comparative shopping on the business side.
Dooley said students are making slideshows about careers they’re interested in, practicing typing, and making online poster boards, as part of an annual budgeting game where students learn to save and spend money, he said.
Erin Springstroh, a Spanish teacher at NMS, is leading live discussions in Spanish over Google Meet, creating visual aids to help with vocabulary.
Physical education teacher Nathan Korth is sending students workouts to do during live class meetings, either with cameras on or off. Korth said he’s planning to start playing games using cards and flipping coins to determine which exercises and how many reps students will do in real time.
And Nikolay art teacher Angela Gliniecki said she shows a video of a lesson, talks it over with students and sets them loose on their assignments. Students submit photos of their work to show progress, she said, and she’s giving feedback through slideshows, often using a tablet to draw over student art digitally, to explain her feedback. She’s also planning several live project demonstrations using a cell phone and laptop as document cameras.
Several teachers agreed that specials classes like art, gym, computers and languages are often so hands-on, adapting them for virtual learning can be challenging.
“So much of what I do is very interactive,” Springstroh said. “I have to be much more intentional.”
Dooley said it’s hard, in fact, to teach computers through a computer screen. It takes longer to answer questions, it’s harder to help students solve problems from afar, and it’s more intimidating for students to ask questions on video conferencing.
“How do I build a connection with students when only one person can talk at a time, and everyone can hear every conversation?” Korth agreed. “That has been the hardest thing.”
“Everything I’m assigning now is stuff we would have been doing (in person),” like manga drawing, photo editing and abstraction, Gliniecki said. “I have to rely on technology, using cameras and things like that. It’s going to make life simpler in ways, even though it’s hard at first.”
The teachers said they’re adapting, finding online tools and creative solutions to getting lessons to kids.
Springstroh and Dooley are using a lot of online tools like digital flashcards, Word Cloud visual aids and virtual poster board creators.
Dooley said he’s continuing to play music over his video classes, like he would in the classroom. “Funky Friday” and “Metal Monday” tunes are traditions he’s keeping up, he said.
Gliniecki requires students to keep their cameras on for live lessons, to see their faces. She’s also planning to hold a virtual art club, and create an online gallery so students can see each other’s work.
And Korth is using every-other class period to help students cope with the pandemic. He said he’s focusing on overall wellness and happiness, using activities to help students address their feelings, learn to help each other, stay connected and process what virtual learning is like for them.
“I’ve been extraordinarily impressed with how students have been able to handle this, how they have been prepared, how they’ve been acting on the calls,” Korth said. “They’re coming in ready to work. The students are doing a fantastic job.”
“Teachers obviously want to be with their kids,” Springstroh added. “This is not an ideal situation, but we’re doing our best to make the best of it.”