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Former track & field student-athletes take on teaching in a pandemic

When coronavirus (COVID-19) took the world by storm in early March, teachers everywhere were forced to quickly alter their curriculum to fit the new online mold that classes would take place in for the unforeseeable future. With confirmation from the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) that schools in Illinois will remain online for the remainder of the year, former Redbird track & field athletes Rachael Brewer and Rob Breit have found creative ways to adjust to the new normal of being a teacher in an online setting.

Brewer, who is a physical education teacher at University Laboratory High School in Urbana-Champaign, had some notice before the school would be converting to virtual learning allowing her to talk with other teachers and the athletic director to come up with the best plan possible for the conversion to at-home PE classes.

“The week before spring break, U of I announced that they were going to be moving to e-learning after the break was over and since we’re on the campus of the university we also decided to make that transition,” Brewer said. “Monday and Tuesday were just normal class days for us and Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday were spent explaining to the students what they were going to have to do for PE.”

Ultimately, Brewer and the other physical education teachers decided on the system quickly, but they’ve also revised it as they see what works and what does not. Currently, the students need 150 minutes of activity per week whether that’s running, riding a bike, or taking a fitness class on an app. All students are required to fill out their activity for the week on a Google Form and submit it by Sunday at 5 p.m.

On top of her responsibilities as a physical education teacher, Brewer is also one of the coaches for the cross country and track & field teams at the high school. Until April 21, Brewer and spring sport coaches and athletes across the state were holding out hope that they might get to have some sort of a season, but unfortunately, that wasn’t going to be the case.

“Our athletic director kind of knew it was coming, so he went into our gym and lined up all of the jerseys of all of our senior athletes from the track team, the girls soccer team and the boys tennis team and took a picture with our emblem in the middle to pay tribute to those athletes who didn’t have the opportunity to compete in their senior seasons,” Brewer said.

Even with no season, Brewer and the other coaches of the track & field team at University Laboratory High School have been working together to send biweekly workouts and fun challenges for their athletes to do from home.

This experience has been unique for every school, every teacher, and every student. Breit, who is a fifth-grade teacher, did not get the same notice that Brewer did that his school, Lincoln Elementary School in Oak Park, would be making the change to e-learning.

“On the 12th of March I was talking to our head of technology and I was like, ‘what’s the likelihood of us having to work from home?’ and he said ‘I don’t know, I think we’re a few weeks away’ and then it was the next day,” Breit said. “It all came very fast.”

The challenges of teaching from home go beyond the traditional tasks that teachers have. Breit now has to manage teaching from home, while taking care of two young children (ages three and four), while his wife is out on the frontlines as a healthcare worker. Still, even in the midst of the new normal that we’re all experiencing, Breit is finding creative ways to engage his students in interesting learning activities.

“Some of the things I’ve been doing is keeping the amount of learning into small chunks, making sure that it’s relevant to them and that there’s interest behind it,” Breit said. “I’ve been having them explore something or research something and then create something with that information. I’m trying to provide them with more meaningful learning opportunities that relate to what is going on as well.”

Breit and teachers everywhere have worked hard to adapt to virtual learning and try to make it a positive experience for their students, but like everyone, they are eager to get back into the classroom setting.

“I’ve always said for years, ‘I wish I could work from home’ to my friends, but be careful what you wish for,” Breit said. “It’s not ideal in any way.”