AUSTIN (KXAN) — Class is in session on a small, unassuming street in south Austin.

The road isn’t busy. Drive down it, and you’ll find a couple of houses and very few cars.

At the very end of the street stands a two-story home tucked between towering trees. And, right behind it: A big, open backyard with the distinct sound of children playing.

Five days a week, this building and that backyard becomes a home to eight Austin Independent School District students, ranging from kindergarten to fourth grade. These students have formed a learning pod, which they proudly call the “bubble bunch,” appropriately named after their promise to keep all social mingling within their own inner circle.

The “bubble bunch” gets their outdoor exercise together (KXAN Photo/Alex Caprariello)

“The parents who are working full time, working from home and from outside the home who really need this support are very happy to have it. And their children are far more successful in this space,” said Diana Haggerty, a mother to two of the students in the pod and the makeshift teacher for the students.

It’s Haggerty’s former workout and wellness studio, FemmePower Fitness, located in that two story home, which these kids have commandeered for the semester. Haggerty, a personal trainer, nutritionist and health coach, was forced to shut her business down in March due to the pandemic.

Haggerty has long been committed to maintaining healthy habits for her four children.

“I think it’s less about trying to avoid the screen time and more about what we can do to offset some of the effects of sitting so much,” Haggerty said.

Diana Haggerty has converted her health and wellness studio into a makeshift school for a learning pod of eight Austin ISD students (KXAN Photo/Alex Caprariello)

So when she decided to keep her two kids virtual, ensuring they remained active was a priority.

“We are continuing to reiterate the importance of moving the body. Giving them opportunities to do that throughout the day is something that we focus on quite a bit,” Haggerty said.

Her kids, like so many others in the United States, are facing a new reality: Learning is now happening from behind a computer screen. Gym exercises are carried out on living room carpets. And, many students have temporarily said goodbye to extracurricular sports which keep them engaged and competitive.

Health consequences for children

Pediatricians worry losing out on some of these activities could have devastating effects on the body.

Dr. Kelly Cline, an orthopedic surgeon with Texas Orthopedics, said starting at age 10, the body evolves quickly. If kids don’t get up and move, their bones can “go to sleep,” which can stunt growth and increase the likelihood of injuries.

“This is a time where we are at an increased setup for injuries. We can prevent them by building in some exercises and some work at home. I think it would be very helpful for these growing kids,” Dr. Cline said.

Dr. Sunaina Suhag, a pediatrician with Austin Regional Clinic said it’s also important for students’ social and emotional well-being. If kids are inactive for too long, Dr. Suhag said changes in their appearance and behavior are likely to occur. Those consequences are compounded for vulnerable families struggling through the pandemic.

“Sometimes parents, especially in marginalized communities, are working long hours. They are tired when they get home or sometimes they are not home for most of the day,” Dr. Suhag said. “We can all do our part when it comes to the people in our community who are struggling the most, including health, wellness or financially.”

Both doctors agree that finding time within the day to ensure kids are getting the exercise they need will help prevent injuries and enable students to excel.

Curriculum overhaul

School administrators in Austin, Texas, have acknowledged the virtual barriers that are keeping their students from staying physically active.

Michele Rusnak, the physical education supervisor for Austin ISD, told KXAN’s Alex Caprariello that ensuring equity was important for virtual students who may not have the necessary equipment at home (KXAN Photo/Alex Caprariello)

Michele Rusnak, the Health and Physical Education Supervisor for the Austin Independent School District, said she brainstormed with her P.E. instructors to develop lesson plans from scratch.

One of the most important factors Rusnak considered was ensuring equity for the district’s 80,000+ student body. According to the 2019-2020 demographic report, more than 54% of students in the district are considered economically disadvantaged.

“Some kids have basketballs, volleyballs and jump ropes. And some kids don’t. So we were really trying to take that into consideration as we created the curriculum,” Rusnak said.

Rusnak developed brand new lesson plans, focusing on workouts which don’t require equipment. Virtual students working out from home will do jumping jacks, planks and V-sits, using their bodyweight to activate muscles and ensure cardiovascular circulation.

Austin ISD developed lesson plans that utilize body weight instead of equipment to ensure equity among the students (KXAN Photo/Alex Caprariello)

“We can still get them moving. We can still teach the whys and we can still teach the hows,” Rusnak said.

Students are also focusing on other P.E. essentials, including behavioral units in healthy eating, diversity, emotions and self-care. Rusnak says these subjects test their cognitive abilities compared to a traditional demonstration of physical performance.

Even still, while all these efforts to engage students can be made in good faith, Rusnak says they can’t be successful without the support of others. She’s relying on parents and guardians like Haggerty to encourage students to follow the curriculum and ensure there is positive reinforcement to move.

For the “bubble bunch,” they’re working on AISD schooling from the FemmePower Fitness studio. Haggerty closely follows the P.E. curriculum and ensures those eight students are offsetting their virtual work with physical activity, often encouraging them to take frequent breaks and play outside.

“Our P.E. teachers are amazing, but they are working with limited time with these kids. So it really does start in the home,” Haggerty said. “We supplement more so than replace.”

Eight AISD students utilize the FemmePower Fitness studio to do their school work every day (KXAN Photo/Alex Caprariello)

Also, only a third of the students in the “bubble bunch” are paying to use the space and learn in the pod. Haggerty said she recognizes a resource imbalance among families and is offering her studio as a way to help out her community.

“Everyone has really been hit hard financially and doesn’t have it in the budget to pay a lot for what has historically been $0 out of pocket for public education,” Haggerty said. “How do we make all of it equitable? How are we sure that we are reaching our most vulnerable populations and the people who need it most?”

Rusnak is encouraging all parents to get more involved and push their kids up and away from the computer screen. She suggests finding simple activities to do together that won’t break your budget.

“It’s free to go walk. It’s free to go jog around the neighborhood. It’s free to go play with someone,” Rusnak said. “My hope is that no matter where you live in this city and that no matter what is going on, you can value your health and wellness. And that parents can value the health and wellness of their kids.”

Measuring success

Like many unprecedented changes during the pandemic, experts say there’s no way to measure the long-term success of the virtual physical education curriculum until several years have passed and researchers are able to study changes over time.

But there are short-term indicators parents can watch out for.

“We are going to be able to judge over time based on the number of injuries we see,” said Dr. Cline with Texas Orthopedics. “If we see a spike in injuries, it shows that there is not enough exercise at home. If we see the injury profile decline, then whatever these kids are doing at home is probably helping.”

The success of these students is also based on their mastery of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, better known as TEKS.

There are TEKS for Physical Education, just like there are TEKS for math, science and social studies, among other subjects. Students are expected to stay on track with their age group when it comes to movement, understanding of the body and their overall health.

Rusnak said unless kids fail to get up and move at all during the pandemic, students should be able to stay on track with their P.E. TEKS.

Partnering with the national non-profit Solutions Journalism Network, Nexstar stations nationwide are telling unique stories about how the pandemic has exposed inequities for students and the solutions some groups have found to bridge that gap.

KXAN’s Josh Hinkle and Alex Caprariello speak with Austin ISD Health & Physical Education staff members Michele Rusnak and Lauren Mikulencak about the district’s best practices for keeping students fit and active during the pandemic.