Do Covid-19 restrictions spell the end of PE, art and music in school?

Team sport, singing and sharing instruments are high-risk activities. So teachers are coming up with creative alternatives

Many school halls are being used as classrooms, which is limiting the ability of some schools to teach physical education. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Many school halls are being used as classrooms, which is limiting the ability of some schools to teach physical education. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

During the lockdown subjects such as PE, art and music became central to the lives of many pupils.

Families around the country were tuning in to PE with Joe, giving masterpieces a modern makeover and creating lip-sync collaborations par excellence.

As schools return, however, public health restrictions will make it much harder to deliver these subjects safely in school.

Many PE halls are being used as classrooms; singing and sharing instruments are health hazards; and the proximity involved in art, woodwork and other subjects poses its own challenges.

The Government’s roadmap for reopening schools acknowledges that health and safety guidelines mean the delivery of these subjects will require some reimagining and modifying. So, what are teachers doing?

Reimagine

The main shift in focus, according to many teachers involved in these subject areas, will be from the group to the individual.

“We’re encouraging teachers to do a lot of individual activities rather than groups or teams,” says Susan Marron, co-chairperson of the Irish Primary PE Association and lecturer in PE at St Patrick’s campus in DCU.

In gymnastics she recommends teachers focus on travelling and balancing activities which allow for social distancing rules to be adhered to and remove the need to use any apparatus.

The games strand of PE has always been a popular choice with both teachers and students, but social distancing and equipment limitations mean other areas will take the sporting podium now.

There will also be a big focus on teachers outdoors as much as possible.

“Having walking trails, scavenger hunts and a focus on orienteering can work with physical distancing or individually on these trails within school grounds,” says Marron.

Outdoor space

While this may be a solution for some schools, many may struggle to avail of outdoor space with new staggered yard times and the unpredictable Irish weather.

Primary school teacher Caoimhe Brennan believes PE of any kind will have a huge role to play in promoting the mental as well as the physical health of children when they return.

“I am sure that coming back after Covid a lot of children will be a bit anxious, but once the children get out and are motivated to play and learn a new skill, they will be in their element,” says Brennan. “If they are enjoying their PE lesson they might even forget about Covid.”

While it may be difficult initially getting used to keeping physically distant, Brennan says the Professional Development Services for Teachers has worked on a number of non-contact activities and games that can be used in an open space like the hall or yard.

However, the suggestion that some school halls may have to be used as overflow classrooms in secondary schools is fiercely resisted by the PE Association of Ireland.

It says this would have “far-reaching negative consequences for our students’ cognitive, social and physical wellbeing, and undermine the historical progress made in recent years.”

Fiona Chambers, head of education at UCC, hopes it will not come to fruition. “The school is going to have to reconfigure to manage what the Government are saying. But I do believe that physical education teachers are trying to claw that back and say this is our space.”

Music

Music is another subject that will have to adapt, and concerns around the increased risk of aerosol transmission associated with singing may result in children humming from the same hymn sheet rather than singing.

However, Shane McKenna of Dabbledoo Music, believes teachers should not pull the plug on music but rather explore fun and creative ways to deliver the subject.

McKenna has provided guidelines for teachers on how to deliver the music curriculum in primary schools.

“There wasn’t much guidance in the official guidelines, so we really fleshed it out,” says McKenna. “There are always solutions and especially with creative subjects like music. The subject is all about finding creative solutions to problems and thinking creatively.”

He stresses that while many aspects of the curriculum will not be impacted, where changes are needed they should reflect the fun side of the subject.

“It is about trying to make changes so that they are not out of the ordinary too much, and they are still fun and enjoyable for the children.”

McKenna consulted Dr Luke O’Neil for advice on singing given the potential health risks.

On foot of this, Dabbledoo composed a five-step guide on how to approach song-singing safely in schools.

Humming

The initial steps involve listening and talking about the song, followed by saying the words to the rhythm of the song.

“Then humming it seems to be a safe activity to do,” says McKenna. “The final part, the performance, should actually be done in the hall, outside or in a well ventilated room, but I think that’s a part that the kids would enjoy as well.”

However, teachers may struggle with the logistics of accessing the school hall or outside area, and it will demand a high level of flexibility from all those involved. “It is about trying to figure out ways that are great fun but also practical,” says McKenna

There will also be limitations placed on the use and sharing of instruments in school. “The problem is that most schools would share instruments amongst classes,” says McKenna. “It is rare that a school would have instruments for each class.”

But restrictions placed upon the use of musical instruments does not necessarily mean curtains for the long-held tradition of learning the tin whistle in primary school.

“We are also trying to provide the parents with content for a lot of these things. If they want to sing songs at home we give the parents the same access to the curriculum content they are doing in the classroom,” he says. “And the same with the tin whistle, so if the teachers wanted to be looking over the content in the class, children could do the practice at home.”

Using body percussion and personal belongings is another fun way of addressing the instrument challenge.

“They can make noises with clapping hands or clicking fingers or personal items that they bring to school like lunch boxes or rattling pencil cases,” says McKenna. “That all ties in again with the fun of finding sounds around them.”

As well as providing online lessons and resources for entire music curriculums for schools, Dabbledoo Music has been delivering workshops for teachers seeking clarity on how to teach music when they return.

“Our job is really to make resources that are accessible to the teachers and the students because it can be a daunting subject if you are not a music specialist,” says McKenna. “We have been running workshops just updating teachers on our reading of the recommendations, along with some practical advice.”

HOW TO SING – SAFELY – IN THE CLASSROOM

Singing is considered a high-risk activity in a classroom, but Dabbledoo Music has put together five simple steps to help practice safely.

1. Listen: Let children listen to a recording of a song.

2. Rhythm : Allow pupils to learn the words and say the words rhythmically over the song.

3. Hum along: This is a much more low-risk activity than singing, while allowing pupils to learn the melody.

4. Warm up: There are lots of non-vocal stretches – including your face and body – that will help you get ready to sing.

5, Perform: Trying singing outside where it’s much safer, or else in a well-ventilated school hall with social distancing Source: Dabbledoomusic. com