How our schools, teachers and students are creating community to battle
Written by Laura Roe Stevens
Traditionally, schools focus on academics more than social, emotional and
physical well-being. But 2020 was anything but traditional. Due to the
COVID-19 pandemic, sporting events, band practices, social clubs and even
play dates continue to be shut down. Our children (and many parents too)
have been experiencing isolation, fear and loneliness.
It’s understandable that Zoom classes have become vital to a student’s
sense of connection. That’s why educators are stepping up to engage,
support and boost morale via distance learning. We cannot begin to understand
the impact this pandemic is having on kids—from not being able to
hug or hang out with friends to worrying about whether their parents or
grandparents might get sick. And if family members have been financially
affected, stress can be high in the household.
Teachers and administrators throughout the South Bay know this and have
been working diligently to provide support to parents—while also
helping kids have a bit of fun, wonder and distraction in their school
day while keeping an academic schedule. “It can be challenging for
teachers, but it’s worth the extra effort,” says Michael Lehault,
principal of the Palos Verdes Peninsula USD Distance Learning Academy.
“Taking care of our kids and providing an excellent education are
our goals each day. Emotional well-being and positive social interaction
are definitely paramount for students learning online.”
L.A. County Teacher of the Year and Redondo Beach resident Leslie Spainhower,
who teaches English honors classes at Adams Middle School, agrees with
Lehault and has made a commitment to focus on her children’s well-being.
“One thing that motivates me is knowing that being live in class
on Zoom is something the kids look forward to. They want that interaction,”
She adds, “In addition to preparing my students for high school,
I really focus on connecting with them. I’ve been trying to make
sure I am talking to my students about their social and mental health,
because this is a really challenging time, and it’s easy to feel
isolated. It’s important to me everyone takes good care of themselves
because it is very important to succeed in distance learning.”
A Bright Spot
Our educators have begun doing many things to add a bit of brightness and
expectation to the day. For instance, Hermosa Valley School middle school
teachers have physical education themes—from dance moves to soccer
drills. (I know, because my son loves them!) Even science, language arts
and math teachers often play music, have dance-offs or post silly memes
before class to check in and lighten the mood. Emotional wellness, positive
fun and social interaction is highly-encouraged as a distraction from
the serious and isolated times.
Lehault has instituted a fun way to recognize Palos Verdes students. “Last
fall we began the process of identifying nine students each month to recognize
as Student of the Month. We are focusing on a specific core value each
month to identify the selected students. One month it was leadership,
and another it was achievement. I surprise them by planting a lawn sign,
with a letter and certificate attached, in front of their house.”
Elementary age children especially need encouragement and a way to acknowledge
their feelings, says Leah Figone, a fourth-grade teacher at Richmond Street
School in El Segundo. “Every morning we start off with the mood
meter. It has four quads: yellow, green, red and blue I created to help
us identify where we are and why. It helps them determine how they are
feeling. They don’t have to share, but can privately with me in
She also says she likes to talk one-on-one with each child so no one feels
left out, as Zoom can often make some feel invisible. “I give each
kid recognition, and they say it back to me. Sometimes just hearing their
name brings a smile to their face.”
Figone champions daily traditions, as young children thrive with stability
and knowing what to expect. For instance, she has Mindful Mondays with
activities such as “If your mood was a food, what would it be?”
Tuesdays are “Tell Us a Joke Tuesday” usually with true and
false math problems. Wednesday’s game is “Would You Rather?”
involving silly hand motions. Next is “Think About it Thursday”
allowing students to craft questions for the class.
“One of my girls asked: ‘What makes you happy?’”
Figone shares. “It’s a great way to let kids take ownership.”
Finally, her week ends with “Figure it Out Friday” requiring
a host of riddles and educational games.
A kindergarten teacher in Manhattan Beach, who spoke on condition of anonymity,
says brain breaks like scavenger hunts throughout the day are her critical
tools to keep little ones engaged and active via Zoom.
Being Part of the Solution: Smiles for Seniors
Manhattan Beach teens Emma Clarke (pictured above right) and Olivia Arensdorf
had no idea three years ago, when they created the Smiles for Seniors
student club at Mira Costa High School, how much of an impact it would
have on the lives of isolated seniors in the community. From hand-delivering
cards to senior homes and veterans to reconnecting athletes with a beloved
football coach to decorating senior apartments for the holidays, this
student-run club is making a difference during the pandemic. And Mira
Costa High School students have rallied to become members.
“We have 80 members now!” the two share. “Since COVID-19,
many (students) wanted to get involved. It’s fun to give back. Of
course we adjusted and have our meetings via Zoom and can’t meet
face-to-face with seniors, but we have done a lot.”
For instance, Emma and Olivia delivered a Christmas tree—decorated
and paid for by club members—to Josephine’s Garden Villa,
a senior center close to Mira Costa High School. For Veteran’s Day,
they worked with the city of Manhattan Beach and sent 100 cards to veterans
at VA hospitals, a project students were passionate about.
So what’s next? The two high school seniors say they are trying “to
set up a phone chain so members can call seniors in senior centers soon.”
The Show—And Extracurriculars— Must Go On
While students can’t go to after-school clubs and meet in large groups
any longer, there are ways for students to get together and give back.
Lehault encourages extracurriculars via Zoom for Palos Verdes students.
“We are running weekly spirit days and have formed a student council
that is putting together activities for lunch time and after school. We
held Red Ribbon Week activities in October including lunch time Kahoot
contests for kids to compete against one another. We also held Yellow
Ribbon Week in January,” Lehault explains.
Hermosa Valley School has continued band, which rehearses via Zoom. The
kids have a lot of fun “hanging out with” and playing music
with Mr. Harrison, who managed to put together a montage of student musicians
for the Hermosa Pier Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony posted live on Facebook.
Mira Costa High School student clubs are still meeting via Zoom and finding
ways to stay motivated and give back. And athletes at both Mira Costa
and Redondo High Schools are still training, even if games have been canceled.
For instance, runners on track can be seen on the greenbelt, and soccer
teams are still working out—at a social distance—in order
to stay in shape and keep seniors competitive if they hope to play in college.
Fresh air and physical exercise is paramount for students to keep their
spirits high and to stay in peak physical fitness, especially athletes
who wish to compete next year. “We’ve had athletic teams on
campus for small cohort conditioning programs since September 29,”
says Kevin Van Waardenburg, athletic director for South High School in
Torrance. “While competitions remain canceled, our teams have been
able to train in small groups of about 12 students with our coaches. We
have been following the Department of Health guidelines very closely and
have had a very positive reaction to all of the measures we have taken
to keep everyone safe.”
He adds, “Our indoor facilities are currently closed due to the guidelines,
but we have still been able to have about 500 students on campus spread
out across different times and locations. It was very exciting, especially
those first few days, to see students back on campus with their teammates,
friends and coaches. When unable to meet, our teams were/are meeting online
and many have been conducting workouts there as well. We have some teams
doing yoga workouts online, utilizing training videos and having time
to just converse as well.”
For parents of students not on teams, a creative strategy to keep kids
active and safe may do the trick. For instance, Sarah Flynn, a mom of
four in El Segundo, found a way to help her shy fourth-grade daughter,
who doesn’t like being on a Zoom camera, get exercise and make friends.
“I started a weekly fourth grade park date (for Richmond Street Elementary
School students in El Segundo). I made a Facebook group for fourth-grade
parents, and we meet up every Thursday for a socially-distanced park date.
It’s right before the farmers market at Library Park, which has
a big open area with paths for biking,” Flynn explains, also stating
masks are worn.
Flexibility & Support Are Key
Flynn, who has children Zooming in elementary, middle and high schools
and also college, says each child feels differently about distance learning.
For that reason, she encourages parents to take an individualized approach
with each child.
“Nobody wants to stare at their own face for hours a day—it’s
hard to get motivated, especially for tweens or shy kids with changing
bodies and hormones. There are so many layers. My older son Zooms with
the camera off but is independent, and he’s going to achieve more
this year than ever before. My 14-year-old (at El Segundo Middle School)
is doing great, has no issues with it (Zoom class). COVID-19 has taught
me not every child learns the same way,” she says, adding that her
older son is at Success Learning Center in Hawthorne and is now thriving.
The key, it seems, is to check in with students to see how they are doing.
This is why all school districts have active school counselors whom teachers
report to and offer workshops for parents to help them deal with stress
and homeschooling. Jennifer Klawin, a mother of two daughters in Manhattan
Beach, spearheaded the creation of a four-part series entitled MBUSD Social
Emotional Learning Parent Series. With a daughter at Grand View Elementary
and another at Manhattan Beach Middle School, Klawin says she hopes all
South Bay parents will take advantage of this series to help children
with “emotional support during distance learning.”
It Takes A Village - Or A Mother's Farm Stand
The El Segundo Neighborhood Farm Stand (with 717 active members) started
nearly a year ago with one extra bag of flour and a generous heart. Last
April, as schools closed and Californians shuttered doors to sink into
quarantine, Sarah Flynn, a mother of four from El Segundo, got an idea.
Why not create a farm stand like the ones surrounding her childhood farm
in Massachusetts, where extra vegetables were left out for neighbors in need?
“I remember when anyone had too much of the food they’d grown,
they’d stick it out on a farm stand for neighbors. Considering we’re
all being asked to stay out of stores, limit social interaction and we
have a duty to reduce, reuse and recycle, I thought, ‘Why not create
a farm stand?’ Plus I was ordering in bulk, so if I had too much
flour, why hang onto it?”
That thought was the genesis of her living porch pantry to feed neighbors.
According to Flynn, all food is porch pick-up by referral only. Members
who are approved to join agree to wipe down items, as they would do had
they shopped locally. Flynn created a private Facebook group for her growing
membership base to post pictures of items they’d like to give away,
such as extra juice or chocolate milk boxes, dry pasta, bags of beans,
flour, maple syrup or ketchup packets. Once another member replies and
says he or she would like an item, it is placed on Flynn’s porch
in that person’s name.
“I started with people I knew. Then they referred others. Before
I knew it, the farm stand had exploded to more than 700 members! It’s
so lovely to see the humanity and the generosity during these crazy times.
For a while there were sourdough starters and people offering up their
bread. It’s a heartwarming way to connect when we’re all distanced.
And it’s a way to help thy neighbor.”