Laguna Beach school employees serve students at a distance

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Top of the World Elementary media specialist Nikki Romano still reads to students on a weekly basis by recording Youtube videos. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

Top of the World Elementary media specialist Nikki Romano brings storytime home to students by recording herself reading illustrated books including “Can I Be Your Dog” and “The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors” and posting the videos to a private Youtube channel.

When the Laguna Beach Unified School District closed its campuses March 13 because of the coronavirus concerns, classified employees like Romano had to find new ways to support students’ learning at a distance. As the school librarian, Romano had to delve into the copyright implications of recording herself reading children’s books and then learn how to film and edit her videos.

Romano misses seeing students who run up and eagerly tell her about the book they just finished.

“I was a struggling reader when I was a kid,” she said. “I love to help students find that love of reading that I found later in life. Right now, I wish I could impart that more—that a book is a way to escape when you can’t go places.”

Even though students aren’t showing up at campuses, Laguna Beach Unified continues to employ more than 150 classified employees who serve drive-by lunches to students in need, support students online in virtual classrooms, troubleshoot digital devices and internet service, and keep empty schools tidy.

For many of these employees, distance learning has changed some fundamental aspects of how they do their jobs.

Laguna Beach Unified employs behavioral specialists who would normally sit next to a student with a learning disability and use verbal and non-verbal cues to keep them focused, said Michael Keller, the school district’s director of social and emotional support.

“A lot of the non-verbal support is degraded with the distance learning set up so our staff members have to use to verbal or a variety of different social cues to allow a student to be directed to the task,” Keller said.

Laguna Beach Unified employs seven school counselors, two student support specialists who are licensed clinical social workers, and four clinical psychologists to address students’ social and emotional needs, Keller said. These employees are still connecting with individual students, and their parents when necessary, through video conferences to talk about their mental health needs.

Families who are experiencing financial distress after one or both parents became unemployed are being referred to the OC Health Care Agency and a slate of free mental health providers in South Orange County.

Across the nation, a larger percentage of the time-intensive work of keeping students motivated and engaged in academics has now fallen on parents who are simultaneously attempting to satisfy their employers from home.

“We want to help students and parents feel like they’re getting something out of the experience and not feel like it’s a completely lost opportunity,” Keller said.

Some parents of Top of the World Elementary students have expressed frustration that they’re being asked to take on a larger teaching role but also pay high property taxes to support typically high-performing schools.

When Romano isn’t busy getting ready for the summer remodel of her library, she assists teachers by helping individual students via scheduled Zoom sessions. She would typically use LEGOS or other manipulative objects to help students understand fractions but had to quickly get creative with her virtual explanations.

“Here [at school] we are so prepared for what we encounter every day and at home, we didn’t know what to expect,” she said.

The closure of campuses reduced the workload of the three maintenance workers at Top of the World Elementary to one day per week in April, maintenance supervisor Rich Carey said. This month they’re up to two days per week. They’re still being paid for the days they’re staying home.

Top of the World maintenance workers are preparing for all of the school’s buildings to be painted in the coming weeks. They also expect to get an early start on the annual summer deep clean, Carey said.

“We’re obviously really lucky, a lot of people aren’t as fortunate,” Carey said. “We’re just going with the punches.”

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