LONG BEACH PENINSULA — As some 1,000 students at Ocean Beach School District fire up their school-issued Chromebooks for the start of the 2020-21 school year this week, the district’s educators are working to develop personal relationships — remotely — with students many have never had in class before.

The new school year began on Tuesday, Sept. 8, and while the hope is that some in-person instruction could begin later this month, for now teachers and students are limited to interacting with each other through Zoom meetings and emails.

Building a bond

When OBSD and all other school districts in the state were rushed into a virtual-only learning model last spring, one of the only benefits at the time was that the change came more than six months into the school year, when teachers and students alike had already established a relationship among one another. Now, at the start of a new school year, educators are eager to form a bond not only with their new students, but their students’ families, as well.

“I think the most challenging part for teachers is going to be not having kids in the classroom — or in the same manner that they normally would,” said Ocean Park Elementary Principal Sheena Burke, in her first year as principal after previously teaching fifth grade at OPE. “You get into education because you love kids and you love building those relationships, and now it’s just a little trickier.”

When the class rosters were being developed for this school year, Tiffany Morgenweck, who teaches first grade at Long Beach Elementary, said she asked to have the siblings of any students she’d previously had in class. That way, she said, she’d already have an existing connection with that family, if not the student themself.

OBSD is also holding district-wide meetings between teachers and families at the start of the school year, to lay out expectations and address any questions or concerns families might have. At OPE, Burke said the first week of school is sort of a “soft start,” focused on building connections between teachers, students and families.

At LBE, where K-2 is taught, the conferences are scheduled for an hour so teachers can get to know the students and families, as well as helping them set up their Chromebook and the SeeSaw app LBE is using for the school year. Students will also receive a balloon and a ‘Long Beach SeaSTARS’ T-shirt.

For Morgenweck, the beginning of the school year is going to be focused on getting to know her first graders, and letting her students get to know each other. She has icebreaker games planned during the daily Zoom meetings in the morning, such as asking a student to stand up if they have a pet, or stand up if they like video games.

Additionally, when LBE is in the remote learning mode, Morgenweck said she is planning on having biweekly in-person family meetings — socially distanced, of course — with each of her students’ families. It was something Morgenweck did at the end of last school year, as a way to say goodbye to her students, and she’s decided to continue holding those meetings this fall.

“If they’re not home, that’s fine, I’ll leave them stuff on their porch or mailbox or wherever. But if they are home, we can just do a quick chat out in the driveway — not school-related, but just check how things are going,” said Morgenweck. “It’s not something that’s required by our school district by any means … but that’s one thing that I think will help.”

Focusing on social-emotional learning

This year, OBSD is also rolling out a new curriculum, called CharacterStrong, throughout the district, after Hilltop Middle School took part in the program last year. The program focuses on social-emotional learning and character development, and will be ongoing whether students are learning remotely or in a hybrid model.

At the K-5 level, the CharacterStrong program has a monthly character trait — September’s is kindness — that is taught in class. The curriculum includes suggested books, videos and activities centered around that trait, and works to integrate the trait into everyday life via weekly CharacterDares challenges, where students are asked to exercise that monthly trait in their everyday lives with their family. There are even CharacterDares for staff, too.

“This is a giant curriculum that is really taking charge of our whole school,” said Burke. “And the next month, a new trait comes, but it all circles back around and continues to touch on the traits that were taught before. I’m really excited about it and to see how our kids respond to this.”

Morgenweck said the CharacterStrong curriculum will be incorporated into the daily morning Zoom meetings as part of the focus on social-emotional learning. For example, there are picture-books such as “Mean Jean the Recess Queen” that she’ll read to her class, where a student isn’t being nice at recess to the other students. The reading will be followed by a discussion with the class about how they should treat each other and how it would make them feel if they were being bullied.

The new program, Burke said, is one way educators at the district are working to be creative in reaching out virtually with their students and maintain those social connections, whether they’re in class or at home.

“A lot of kids come to school and they really look forward to those social events and times when they can connect with their peers. It really just requires us to be creative and more thoughtful with how we adapt those to this world that we’re living in right now,” said Burke. “How do you do an assembly, how do you do dress-up days and keep it fun, how do you model all of that to the kids and help them feel that sense of community in the building?”

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