By Barbara McMurray, Special to the Independent
Marie Bammer was elated when she heard the news that Top of the World Elementary School, where she has taught fourth grade for 13 years, would reopen next week with a combination of in-person and online learning.
Her excitement rose when the Laguna Beach Unified School District Board of Education voted Sept. 25 to resume in-person instruction at Laguna’s two elementary schools starting Oct. 5. This step brings children back to school with an altered school week – Fridays remain virtual – and numerous safety protocols. They include handwashing stations, temperature checks, and arrows marking pathways to maintain social distancing. Because of the need to have students spread out, TOW’s multipurpose room and library have been pressed into service as classrooms. Bammer’s 21 students will be divided into two smaller learning groups called cohorts.
Families could choose to send their children back to school or stay entirely online, which some opted to do. Those returning to the TOW campus can expect a warm welcome. The campus is abuzz with anticipation to have the energy of children on campus.
“TOW was very thoughtful and intentional on how this has been planned out,” Bammer said. “Enormous amounts of planning took place during the summer by LBUSD teachers and administrators. They have worked tirelessly creating this most unusual, although successful, start to the fall school year.”
Bammer will see her students in-person for the first time on Oct. 7—the start date for Laguna Beach Unified’s third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders.
For online learning, every TOW and El Morro elementary school teacher uses Google Classroom to connect with students and push out district-adopted curriculum to them. Online breakout rooms place students in groups or with partners, where they can ask for help. Bammer can dip in to monitor conversations and make sure kids are on task. Students can ask for help by pushing a button that appears on her screen.
But there’s nothing like being in the classroom, she said.
Behind her mask, Bammer smiles broadly as she talks about meeting the students she has not yet encountered beyond her two-dimensional computer screen.
“Three hours of teaching is not a normal day, nor the most effective,” she said. “The most difficult aspect of distance learning is socialization. There are considerable social and emotional benefits for kids learning in person and being around their peers. Academically, they will become stronger. There will be a higher level of engagement. I can work more closely with them.”
Appraising the wild ride that 2020 has been, Bammer has a fresh outlook, explaining that by identifying the size of a problem and focusing on what’s important, she makes progress on essential outcomes for her students. She keeps a daily mindfulness practice for her personal social-emotional well-being, takes long walks, and spends time with her pets – two dogs, two cats, and a bunny named Peep.
Besides planning and teaching rigorous lessons for her 21 fourth-graders, Bammer has been juggling her three school-age children’s needs, all of whom are distance learning. Her husband, also a teacher in another district, alternates days with her teaching from home.
“Springtime was tough emotionally,” she said. “I had a pit in my stomach, wondering what is happening in the world. I wondered, is normal every going to happen again?”
Bammer enjoys “fantastic support” from parents and administrators, she said.
“I rely on my fourth-grade team,” Bammer said. “We help each other. We collaborate on every single lesson we teach. They’ve got my back. If I’m struggling, they pick me up.”
It also helps that they’re friends outside of work.
“When you like the people you work with, it makes working more fun,” Bammer said. “And when you love what you do, it doesn’t feel like work. That’s why I’m anxious to get back to the classroom and have some semblance of normalcy.”