Return to Headlines

Physical education classes provide ‘a bit of normalcy’ for students

Sept. 17, 2021



 Poland students running and kicking soccer balls outside during physical education class

Poland Central School District fifth-graders from teacher Todd Manley’s class run and kick soccer balls outside on Tuesday, Sept. 14, during physical education class with substitute teacher Sandy Hitt.



POLAND – As Poland Central School District students recently played soccer games during physical education class, they talked and yelled about goals and out-of-bounds calls, had smiles on their faces and breathed in the mid-September air.


This isn’t a scene you would have seen last school year.


Updates to COVID-19 regulations this school year such as not requiring masks outside provide an improved atmosphere for students to exercise and participate in sports, Poland Principal Greg Cuthbertson said.


“Maintaining safety and getting back to more of a normal school physical education experience is what we’re trying to give them,” Cuthbertson said.


Due to COVID-19 and government restrictions put in place last school year, students had to wear masks at all times including outside, and there were stricter regulations about distancing and limiting heavy breathing. Students in kindergarten to fifth grade were moved from physical education every day to once every four days last school year because there were so many limitations.


This school year, masks aren’t required outside, and distancing restrictions have lessened to a degree. Students in kindergarten to fifth grade have returned to a schedule with physical education every day. Poland also has two new physical education teachers this school year.


Cuthbertson said Poland is one of probably very few schools providing physical education every day right now. Cuthbertson and Poland Superintendent Laura Dutton prioritized meeting the mandate to average about 25 minutes per day of physical education for students, he said.


“We just think it’s an important part of their education to have movement in their day and learn more about keeping their bodies healthy,” he said.


Students in sixth grade to 12th grade still had physical education once every two days last school year and are continuing that this school year. Their class periods are longer than for elementary students.


One improvement for students in seventh grade through 12th grade is that they can now use their lockers again this school year. That means they can change for physical education class, participate in more rigorous sports and maintain better health and hygiene, Cuthbertson said.


‘Find some joy’


The reason students in kindergarten to fifth grade only had physical education once every four days last school year was because all of the COVID-19 restrictions made physical education classes very different, and having them daily would have been difficult for students, Cuthbertson said.


“Obviously, it’s hard to do a lot of physical activity and breathing with their masks on,” he said.


The changes this year make for more of a true physical education experience – especially when classes can get outside, Cuthbertson.


Poland physical education teacher Jason Potempa agreed.


“Having their masks off outside, it gives them a break, which is great for the kids,” Potempa said.


Potempa, who is teaching grades 6-10 in physical education this school year, said it’s really good to see that grades K-5 are returning to daily physical education.


“As far as I know, we’re one of the only schools that has PE every day for the elementary kids – which is awesome,” he said.


It’s important to have physical education class as often as possible, Potempa said.


“Especially now,” he said.


After a long period of time when many children weren’t moving around as much as they normally would due to the many impacts of COVID-19, Potempa has started this school year by basing classes around foundational fitness to get students used to running, jumping and generally moving around again, he said.


“We’re kind of just getting back up to speed with our exercising,” Potempa said. “That’s my goal – and for them to find some joy in this again.”


Former physical education teacher Sandy Hitt, who retired from Poland at the end of last school year after 29 years, is doing some substitute teaching for physical education this school year and has also seen the improvement in class for students.


Being able to enjoy sports and exercise outdoors without masks is a nice opportunity for students, Hitt said.


“I think it’s great to get the kids outside,” she said.


It’s also beneficial that elementary students are able to have class daily again, Hitt said.


“It’s nice they’re getting it every day,” she said.


New teachers


There’s another change for Poland physical education this school year: Two new physical education teachers are joining the team.


Jonathan Hodge started at Poland this school year and is teaching physical education for elementary students and grades 11 and 12. Stephanie Kassay is starting on Monday, Sept. 20, after finishing up her commitments teaching special education at Herkimer-Fulton-Hamilton-Otsego BOCES. She will be teaching elementary physical education at Poland.


Cuthbertson said it’s a challenging time for teaching physical education with all of the COVID-19 restrictions, but he expects the new teachers will bring additional plans for how to effectively teach the classes.


“We’re excited about them joining us to give us some new ideas and show some of what they’ve learned,” Cuthbertson said.


Hodge has 12 previous years of experience working in education including two years with Mohawk Valley Community College and 10 years in Minnesota – three in special education and seven in physical education. His bachelor’s degree in K-12 physical education with minors in coaching and adapted physical education is in progress from St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. He has received graduate credits in the area of learning disabilities from St. Cloud State University, and his master’s degree is in progress. He also has 16 years of experience coaching.


Hodge was a Poland student until third grade, when he moved to Minnesota with his mother for school years and returned to the Poland area for summers with his father. He ended up teaching physical education at the school he went to in Minnesota and is now teaching it back at Poland as well.


“It’s that full 360 circle back to here,” he said. “It’s pretty wild.”


Kassay has been a special education teacher at Herkimer BOCES for the past three years. She has three degrees in physical education and adapted physical education: an associate degree from Niagara Community College and a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree from SUNY Brockport.


“I am very excited to teach physical education at Poland because I love to help students learn to be active,” Kassay said. “I’m also excited to help the students learn different activities to help them grow as individuals and expand their education.”


‘A breath of fresh air’


Poland students are enjoying the new changes for physical education such as not needing to wear masks outside, Hodge said.


“This year, it has been literally and figuratively a breath of fresh air,” he said. “Kids are happy about being back outside and having physical education every day. We’re lucky to be able to do that this year.”


In addition to it being good for elementary students to have movement during school every day, the sportsmanship and respect that are taught in physical education are also important, Hodge said.


“If they get those things every day, it helps them in every aspect of their day,” he said. “It’s great to be able to have physical education again every day.”


Hodge said students also are good about wearing masks inside and following regulations.


“Those kids are resilient,” he said.


Hodge is already planning ahead for ways to keep providing outdoor opportunities for students during colder months – such as coordinating with local foundations to get snowshoes for various winter activities.


“I’m working on that right now,” he said.


Kassay said teaching physical education with COVID-19 restrictions includes overcoming challenges, but she believes it will be successful.


“In Poland, we have an amazing PE team and will be able to work together with the restrictions in order to provide a well-rounded physical education experience for all of the students,” Kassay said. “We are able to utilize multiple different locations to allow for adequate spacing between each student and have a vast array of equipment to provide different activities for our students to participate in.”


Students have to wear masks for most of the school day, so it’s great to be able to give them some extended time without masks when physical education classes can be held outside, Kassay said.


“I am excited that I get to allow the students to take off their masks outside because it gives them a break and a bit of normalcy as well,” Kassay said.


It’s important for elementary students to have physical education every day because it gives students an opportunity to get up and move, Kassay said. Knowing they will have a chance to play in physical education can help students focus better in the classroom, she said.


“As most students can benefit from a movement break during the day, students will hopefully be able to show improvement in their education as well,” Kassay said. “Students want to be active and play. Having PE every day will allow the students of Poland to do just that.”



Three Poland sixth-graders playing soccer

Poland Central School District sixth-graders play a game of small-set soccer outside on Tuesday, Sept. 14, during physical education class with teacher Jason Potempa.



Several Poland ninth and 10th-graders playing soccer outside

Poland Central School District students in ninth and 10th grade play a game of small-set soccer outside on Tuesday, Sept. 14, during physical education class with teacher Jason Potempa.



Poland ninth and 10th-graders run after a soccer ball

Poland Central School District students in ninth and 10th grade play a game of small-set soccer outside on Tuesday, Sept. 14, during physical education class with teacher Jason Potempa.