SANTA ANA, Calif. — Inside her bedroom in Pico Rivera, 12-year-old Ivonnie Torres stands in front of a computer and pantomimes kicks in the air. She shadow punches and makes other martial arts moves next to her bed.
With her school, Rivera Middle School, physically closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, the seventh-grader has found another way to stay fit virtually and connect with some of her school friends, her mom, Margarita Torres said.
Ivonnie is among thousands of students that are part of Santa Ana-based education nonprofit Think Together's new free virtual sports program.
"I like it," Margarita Torres said of her daughter participating in the program. "This is a way for her to socialize with new friends since she can't do it in person."
As the pandemic continues, forcing many school campuses to remain closed across California, many school-aged children are stuck at home with distance learning. There is no recess, lunchtime, or P.E. Many kids are in front of their computers and not getting any form of exercise and that could have a long-term effect on their health down the road, health researchers said.
A study by USC Keck School of Medicine found that children were less physically active in the first couple of months of the pandemic and more sedentary than the months before. Low-income and minority students are most at-risk, the study found.
According to the USC study, the lack of exercise by children could lead to short-term and long-term health impacts that include mental health issues, childhood obesity and other health ailments down the road.
Fitness is an essential component in education, said Randy Barth, founder, and CEO of Think Together. With no fitness or physical activity since the pandemic began, some kids are falling behind physically and mentally.
Barth and his nonprofit aims to change that.
Think Together, which provides after-school tutoring and summer education programs at schools across Southern California, received a $291,400 grant from the LA84 Foundation, to expand its learning offering to create a virtual sports program for middle schools. The program is being rolled out at 81 public schools across Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties.
"Kids are isolated," Barth said. "They are depressed and anxious, so that physical fitness gets you out of that. You're moving. You're focused on something else. You're doing something physical. It's great for your mental health and physical health, and it's virtual with other kids in the class, and your engaging [with other kids] and engaging with a coach, so it gets you out of your depression and isolation."
Think Together received the award last fall and began piloting the program at some schools before fully rolling it out. Parents at participating middle schools sign up their children to participate in the program for free. The program runs 30 to 40 minutes long three to four times a week, depending on the school district's schedule. Kids participate in 15 different sports types, including martial arts, kickboxing, yoga, general fitness, and basketball. A coach guides them on the exercises to perform.
While the LA84 program is virtual, Think Together also offers another different in-person sports program at some campuses following social distancing and other health guidelines.
"With our virtual programming, we're trying to make it as normal as possible," Barth said.
Frances Esparza, the school superintendent at El Rancho Unified School District, said the program has been a blessing for the district in the Pico Rivera community. Pico Rivera, a mostly Latinx neighborhood, has been hit hard by the coronavirus, with more than 9,500 positive cases and 147 deaths as of Wednesday, according to County of Los Angeles Public Health.
Esparza said due to the high rate of positive cases in the community, the district had to shut down the schools to slow the spread.
Esparza said she encouraged parents to keep their kids active and follow safety protocols if they exercise outside. With the Think Together program, kids can exercise from the safety of their home, she said.
"Parents are happy that their kids are remaining active at home and [Think Together does] talk about health and eating healthy and things of that nature so kids aren't just sitting around eating their hot Cheetos all day long," she said. "They are actually trying to eat healthily and get fit."
"Their program is really helping us," she said. "I don't want this to sound cliché; our kids need a lot of support right now, socially and emotionally."
For Margarita Torres, the pandemic and distance learning have been a struggle for her and her daughter.
"It's been hard, especially with the online learning and having to adjust through all of that," she said. "It's hard, but we're getting through this."
Torres said it's been especially hard for her child, who loves being at school and misses her friends.
But the virtual sports program is a way for her child to stay healthy and remain safe during the pandemic.
"I think it's a good program," she said. "Since kids are not attending school, it's a way for them to socialize and keep in touch with their friends because again, who knows how long this is going to go on for."