Instructional Assistant Chantale McConnell rose to the challenge of guiding cohorts of up to 20 Kindergarten students through a very unusual year at Top of the World Elementary School.
She still sees little smiles underneath her students’ face masks as they sit behind plexiglass mounted on their desks to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Inevitably, a student will break down and cry for their mom. McConnell is there to help make them feel happy at school.
“The one thing that’s hard for me, because I’m very involved physically with the kids, I’m a big hugger,” she said. “That’s been the hardest thing for me, not being able to hug.”
For her extraordinary efforts assisting TOW’s three Kindergarten teachers, McConnell was recently named by her coworkers as the 2020 Classified Employee of the Year for the Laguna Beach Unified School District.
“I’m just completely humbled, especially this year,” McConnell said. “Every classified employee deserves an award because of the additional responsibilities they’ve taken on.”
The award came as a complete shock to McConnell. School staffers told her the Kindergarten classes would meet in their play yard on Dec. 16 to talk about the importance of social distancing during recess. Instead, administrators announced she was the district’s top classified employee.
TOW third grade teacher Cory Day was named as the 2020 Teacher of the Year but declined an interview with the Independent. The LBUSD Employees of the Year honor rotates every year among the four school sites—this year was TOW’s turn to nominate.
McConnell, 60, grew up in Laguna Beach after her family immigrated from France. Her parents Marcel and Monique Pitz opened Dizz’ As Is and she started helping manage the restaurant at 17 years old.
Twenty years ago, McConnell started volunteering as a TOW classroom aide. She did that for two years before some suggested she apply to get paid for her work. McConnell’s now an 18-year veteran of Laguna Beach Unified.
Earlier this year, district leaders decided to split classes into cohorts to limit the impact of a COVID-19 outbreak in any given classroom. McConnell’s Kindergarteners have in-person learning with their teachers two days per week and in-person learning with her two other days. She’s supported by long-term substitute teachers who help her carry out lesson plans assigned by the TOW’s Kindergarten faculty.
As someone who admittedly isn’t technically-inclined, McConnell said she’s had to learn a lot y this school year about classroom technology, including the iPads students use to access educational software. Even though she’s of an age that puts her at higher risk for a severe case of COVID-19 case, McConnell said she’s happy to be physically present with her students.
“I love art so I do a lot of art projects with the class,” she said.
Over the years, McConnell has shown dedication to working with Kindergarten students, said Margaret Warder, president of the Laguna Beach’s chapter of California School Employees Association, adding that she’s always pleasant and cheerful and willing to do what is needed.
“During our cohort classrooms she is taking on the responsibility of overseeing three classes providing the instruction that has been needed under the supervision of a teacher,” Warder wrote in an email. “Her dedication to her position is outstanding and also I like to call her a friend, not only a coworker.”