Staying safe while training
At the United Studios of Self Defense, instructors maintain social distance and clean the facility between classes. Photo courtesy Kevin Schmad

Like virtually all businesses, martial arts schools on the Coastside have had to adapt policies and restructure business models because of the coronavirus pandemic. Martial arts tend to involve a lot of interaction and physical contact, so the change has been dramatic for some.

The United Studios of Self Defense in Half Moon Bay closed in mid-March but continued its variety of classes on Zoom. The disciplines practiced online include Shaolin Kenpo, kickboxing and personal training. The school’s chief instructor and owner Kevin Schmad has maintained student involvement through online events like “Ninja Night,” which includes a talent show and movie.

Schmad said keeping kids engaged with creative exercises has been a key element. For example, if a student does something incorrectly, they must clean something in their house or perform another chore.

“With parents having their kids all day for schooling and work, we tried to do as much as we could to keep them busy, healthy and socializing with the other students,” Schmad said.

USSD only recently started incorporating limited, socially distant, in-person sessions. Washing feet and hands and doing temperature checks are now part of the routine. Schmad was an emergency medical technician for nearly 10 years and knows how to keep a sanitized environment.

“We completely reset our setup,” Schmad said. “After every class, we have a setup that cleans the floors to make sure we’re constantly on top of making our school as clean as possible.”

Raul Castillo Martial Arts closed in March as well. According to Castillo, the school has lost nearly 80 percent of its customers.

As the head instructor, Castillo kept teaching online, sometimes as often as four Zoom classes a day. Although his family-run business has a core group that can keep the lights on, it’s been a difficult road to navigate.

When San Mateo County allowed gyms to reopen on June 17, Castillo began the slow and staggered process of letting a limited number of students back into the dojo. There’s lots of space marked between the students. Ventilation and sanitation are the norms now.

“We’re basically doing twice as much work for half the amount of the resources we’re being provided,” Castillo said. “I’m trying to figure out how to keep it going for the community, and thank God we have the support from people who did keep going with their subscription. If it hadn’t been for them, Raul Castillo Martial Arts might have already been closed up.”

While the Zoom classes did provide consistent instruction for pattern-based practice, Castillo believed the dojo space offered important social and emotional learning opportunities for younger students.

Prior to the pandemic, Castillo offered donation-based and pay-what-you-can courses for kids and young adults who couldn’t afford to pay full price but needed the benefit of a martial arts outlet. Now, because of the recent economic impact, he can’t provide that service.

Instead, Castillo is looking for any kind of support from community leaders to help create a support system for a network of kids who need an outlet and an education in martial arts. With parents occupied between work and educating or entertaining their kids, Castillo knows many could use a break from sitting in front of a screen.

“There are a lot of kids who are getting left behind and forgotten about,” Castillo said. “And it really breaks my heart.”

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