School: McKinley student council decorated paper hearts for fellow classmates to celebrate Valentine’s Day during the pandemic shut-down. Ashley Benjamin

In 2020, as pandemic isolation threw traditional classroom education off its axis, teachers, administrators and parents all over the world worked to find ways to keep students enriched and engrossed in education.

This took many forms, but most of them in the United States involved Zoom classrooms and plenty of independent study.

One school that went above and beyond, according to the California Department of Education, was McKinley Elementary in Mid-City Santa Monica, where faculty and staff “demonstrated efforts to support students in four target areas: student engagement, distribution of technology, nutrition services, and social emotional well-being of students.” 

McKinley’s educators were rewarded with an award through CAPP, the California Pivotal Practice Award Program.

“We are just so excited at McKinley to be recognized,” Principal Ashley Benjamin said during a recent Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) Board of Education meeting. “When the pandemic started, it was really important to our families and staff that we maintain a sense of normalcy as best we can. And we wanted school to still be happy and fun, even though it was on the computer.”

So, Benjamin detailed, leadership stepped up with creativity to continue making elementary school a fun (and worthwhile) place for kids, even during the coronavirus pandemic. Benjamin said the school spent hours transforming “beloved school traditions and events” into a virtual format.

“For example, we had a virtual movie night with over 240 families during the movie, while 60 students were simultaneously chatting and Zooming during the film, and we had sent home an activity pack ahead of time to enhance the experience,” Benjamin said. “We had a virtual talent show with over 50 student performers — more students than even our in-person shows. And we had 700 members of the community from McKinley view the show.”

McKinley also hosted a virtual harvest festival including a haunted house (with “evidence bags” students picked up in person ahead of time) and a drive-through art exhibition featuring student artwork in the school’s vacant parking lot.

“[On] Valentine’s Day, our student council made 400 decorated hearts and they were hung on the fence and students could drive by and pick up a heart to take home from a fellow McKinley Lion,” Benjamin said.

They also had a virtual dance party and other physical fitness activities, virtual clubs including a student newspaper, virtual theater and STEM classes, and more.

“There were just so many events and learning experiences that we did at McKinley. And it was due to the teamwork of parents and staff that we were able to create a safe little bubble where students could be happy during a very difficult time,” Benjamin said. “And we were committed to breaking through that computer screen to maintain connection and our climate of a school family. So — immensely proud. Thank you.”

McKinley was one of 727 schools in the state to receive the honor, and the only SMMUSD school on the list.

“I’m incredibly proud of these schools and districts for their creativity, dedication, and innovation in the face of adversity,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said in prepared remarks provided by the California Department of Education. “These schools led incredible efforts to engage students, distribute technology, provide meals, and support the social and emotional well-being of students during an incredibly difficult time for schools and families.”

SMMUSD leadership also expressed pride and gratitude.

“We are so proud of McKinley and of this whole school community,” Jacqueline Mora, assistant superintendent, said at the SMMUSD Board meeting.

In a statement provided by the school district, Superintendent Ben Drati also commended the school.

“I am very proud of the McKinley Elementary School administration, teachers, staff and parents who rose above the challenges of remote learning to maintain student and family engagement,” Drati said. “Their commitment to both academic progress and social- emotional learning benefited the overall wellbeing of students and the school community as whole.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated to correct a quote by Principal Ashley Benjamin. Benjamin called McKinley a “school family.”