Apr / 2021

Coaching PE Through the Pandemic in Beaverton, OR

Jacob and Celia Whitehead are a married couple who both teach Physical Education in Beaverton School District, just west of Portland, Oregon—Jacob at Bonny Slope Elementary, Celia at Greenway Elementary. The Whiteheads have been coaching Marathon Kids run clubs for years, but they have had to operate their clubs differently since the pandemic forced Beaverton students to shift to fully remote learning in March 2020.

Jacob’s run club, the Bobcat Trail Club, comprises the entire Bonny Slope student body—about 600 students ranging from kindergarten through fifth grade. “We’ve always had a running club at Bonny Slope,” he says—no surprise, considering the area’s long and storied running history. Beaverton is where Nike was founded and is still headquartered today; running and physical activity are deeply embedded in the local culture.

Celia coaches the Greenway Marathon Kids Running Club. Pre-pandemic, she had 60 students in the run club in second through fifth grades. “That was the maximum I could support with volunteers,” she says, “and the amount that could safely run on rainy days, which happen a lot in Oregon.” The Beaverton school also had another 70 students in a pilot program—two fourth-grade classes and one second-grade class that ran twice a week for 15 minutes before school started. Parent involvement wasn’t very high, except at the popular end-of-year family fun run. “Families love Marathon Kids,” Celia says. “Some ask to run or walk with their kids in the after-school club.”

Marathon Kids Helps Beaverton Kids Get Moving

Since remote learning began due to the pandemic, the entire Greenway student body has had access to Marathon Kids programming and the option to run or walk and log their miles from home, but only 43 students have been actively participating. Soon, students will be returning part-time to in-person learning at school; when that shift occurs, they will be able to use their “brain boost” time in class to run laps and log their miles.

The Greenway run club may be small, but it’s active. “Kids love to socialize and be in this club,” Celia says. “It’s fun, kids set goals, and it’s a great way for them to stay active!” Since Greenway is a Title I school, its students don’t have much access to sports or other organized activities. “To be able to apply for a grant and then offer Marathon Kids programming to kids for free was HUGE! Kids at my school are in a lower-income demographic and need movement since opportunities aren’t always available for them. They love to run or walk with their friends.”

Celia first heard about Marathon Kids when another teacher in Beaverton School District started coaching a run club. Jacob first learned about it when the district received a federal PEP grant for Physical Education. “Part of it was having organizations partner with our schools to further PE and kids’ movement,” he says. That was when Beaverton began working with Nike and Jacob integrated Bonny Slope’s running club with Marathon Kids.

Beaverton Run Clubs Run Smoothly with Marathon Kids Connect 

During a normal school year, the Bobcat Trail Club runners meet up two mornings a week at the school track to run before class, while Greenway runners meet up once a week after school for snack time, a quick warmup and then logging miles. “Each student’s miles are different,” Jacob says. “We used ID cards in the past, where parents would mark the students’ cards as they ran past, but I was looking forward this year to using Marathon Kids Connect.”

Marathon Kids Connect is the digital lap-tracking app and reporting platform. It enables coaches, teachers and volunteers to digitally scan runners’ ID cards; the app automatically logs the laps and overall distances. Celia’s run club had already been using the app to track students’ miles before the pandemic began. “It’s so easy to use,” she says. “I set up a couple of iPads with the tracks preset, and kids can run and scan on their own. It was a huge time saver.”

Jacob wasn’t able to begin using the MKC app due to the start of the pandemic and the shift to remote learning, but he has relied on it throughout this year of remote learning. “Typically, in school,” he says, “we have around 200 to 250 kids fully engaged in the running club.” Back in March 2020, he sent out an all-school email to introduce how the club would continue to be available remotely to Bonny Slope students via Marathon Kids Connect.

Parent engagement was high at first, with students running or walking around their neighborhoods and submitting their miles through the MKC app. Jacob used the app to contact families about milestones their students reached and rewards they earned. “Parents were really happy to know that even though students wouldn’t have access to the normal running club, they would still have access to something to help their students stay active and motivated.”

Challenges Due to the Pandemic and Remote Learning

Engagement at Bonny Slope has dropped since then, with 132 students currently having activated Marathon Kids Connect accounts and regularly logging miles. “We always have a huge engagement in our normal at-school running club,” Jacob says, “but many parents I believe have started to get overwhelmed and have been less consistent in logging their students’ miles, which I totally understand.”

Celia reports low participation as the biggest challenge that has come up for her students at Greenway since remote learning began. “Students are definitely struggling with PE participation. I think a lot of it has to do with motivation. Some kids have internet issues; some are in multiple-family homes, and PE is not the priority in regards to education. Some are doing the best they can, and being on the screen for PE just isn’t for them.”

Jacob has had similar issues with his students at Bonny Slope. “The challenge for PE this year has been students showing up,” he says. “Even if they do show up, it’s been a challenge having their cameras on to see engagement. It also is challenging because many students don’t have equipment at home to use for many activities that we would normally do in PE.”

A Return to In-Person Learning, and Continuing to Navigate Challenges

Both Greenway and Bonny Slope students are shifting to hybrid learning in April, meaning a blend of remote and in-person classes, but their PE classes will remain fully remote through the end of the school year. Both Jacob and Celia expect the challenges to continue with the return to hybrid learning. Bonny Slope students won’t be going outside yet for recess, and they still won’t have access to the normal running club. They will be at school only for a couple of hours a day, and only to be in their classrooms, focusing on core academics—reading, writing and math. At Greenway, Celia will be teaching PE via Zoom, and her Marathon Kids run club will continue to be remote.

Still, both coaches and their students are pushing through the challenges and making it work. Celia reports that Zoom classes have much higher participation than fully remote PE lessons that students are expected to complete on their own. “I mean, who really wants to work out on their own when they can work out with their friends?” She hopes teaching via Zoom will increase student participation and engagement.

Physical Activity Affects Every Aspect of Life

Jacob is looking forward to seeing his students in person, even though they won’t yet be returning to PE classes in the gym. For him, physical activity is important because it affects all other aspects of life. “If you are not physically active, it will affect everything in your life in the long run.” Plus, he points out, physical activity brings enjoyment to people of all ages. “If you watch anyone who is doing some type of physical activity, usually you’ll see them smiling or laughing.”

Celia agrees. “Physical activity is so important! It’s a lifestyle, and it improves health in so many ways. For me, walking and exercising have been huge during the pandemic to maintain my own mental health.” Since she started the Marathon Kids run club at Greenway, she says, “It’s been one of the most sought-after programs for our kids. I always have waiting lists for kids to join, and when they do get accepted, they are ecstatic! I’m so happy to provide this to all students now with the online parent input section.”

She says her Marathon Kids gain all sorts of benefits from the run club, including personal development and a strong community. “They learn they are stronger than they think, and they can push themselves more. Many of them learn that they enjoy running. I get to engage with kids in a different way than in PE. We can walk and talk about life, and I get to know kids on a personal level.”