Press-Telegram (Long Beach)

DISTANCE LEARNING GETS NEEDED PAWS

Household pets and exotic creatures adding fun and comfort to online lessons

- By Allyson Escobar aescobar@scng.com

For many Southern California families, students and teachers taking part in distance learning during the coronaviru­s pandemic, animals offer solace — and a much-needed laugh — in tough times.

From beloved household pets to wild animals, they’re providing comfort and a chance to see, and even learn, something new for those behind the computer screen.

From accidental appearance­s on Zoom to creative online lessons to therapy and support, animals and pets have been finding their way into the virtual classrooms of many students and teachers across the region.

STAR Eco Station, an environmen­tal science museum and wildlife res

cue center with more than 100 animals in Culver City, brings Los Angeles Unified School District students weekly visits from exotic animals — online, that is.

In summer, the nonprofit group partnered with the district for virtual programs, funded by the Los Angeles County Department of Arts and Culture, when it became clear that students wouldn’t yet return to campus. Participat­ing students are from Title I federally funded elementary schools in the L.A. and Beverly Hills unified school districts.

Wildlife-trained teachers showcase, over Zoom, exotic rescued animals, from squawking, colorful birds to 50-pound crawling reptiles. Safely behind a computer screen, teachers spend about an hour talking about the animal, its characteri­stics and answering students’ questions while holding the animals.

“We haven’t seen a child’s smile in months, behind the masks,” Assistant Wildlife Director Danny Osborne said. “So when I’m on these Zoom classes, I see their smiling faces. … That’s why I’m here.”

Osborne, who has taught and handled animals at the Eco Station for 16 years, said showcasing these animals for students will spread awareness of animal preservati­on and the dangers of extinction.

Katiana Bozzi, who cofounded STAR Eco Station, said that seeing curious-minded kids virtually interact with animals and each other brought her to tears.

“It’s an opportunit­y, and we make it fun since they can’t visit us in person,” she said. “We hope to give these kids a small sense of normalcy.”

Dog is teacher’s pet

A dog affectiona­tely dubbed Professor Ginger is the star of the show for

longtime Riverside teacher Jessie Bekkedahl.

Bekkedahl, 40, teaches kindergart­en at Emerson Elementary School. When the pandemic sent classes online through Google Classroom, Bekkedahl wanted a way to keep her students engaged through the screen.

“When we first shut down, I was like, ‘What in the world, how am I going to stay connected?’ ” she said. “And then I had the idea of making fun little videos with my dog and sharing them with the kids. And they loved it.”

Bekkedahl created more than 50 videos that show Professor Ginger “learning” to read, counting, barking letters of the alphabet, performing tricks or playing games. Sometimes she and Ginger walk around the neighborho­od, pointing out shapes. Sometimes Bekkedahl includes her other pets — a cat, Axle, and a dog, Hannah — in the short videos.

“At first it was silly. I didn’t know what I was doing. And now it’s at the point where, when I go outside and set up a chair, Ginger will jump on without me asking,” said Bekkedahl, who adopted Ginger in 2018 from an animal shelter. “She’s like, ‘Oh, I know what to do.’ And then she’ll bark, play, and do

whatever I need her to do.”

The videos became a hit with her school, then the Riverside Unified School District and were shared with elementary school teachers across the state and nation. Bekkedahl shoots them at home on her phone and posts them on Professor Ginger’s YouTube channel and on social media, where she has gained a following.

Bekkedahl hopes that, along with teaching, the videos will simply make people smile.

“This virus is scary, and I don’t know if I’m going to see my [students] again. These kindergart­eners don’t know what real school is,” she said in February, before Riverside Unified announced plans to reopen elementary schools in March. “But I hope this provides some comfort, like, ‘Here’s my dog, hopefully you’ll like her.’ ”

Emotional support

For some, pets can offer more than just companions­hip. They’re also a lifeline.

Lina Gramata, a thirdyear student at the University of Redlands, said her teacup Yorkie dog, Izzy, brings her comfort in stressful times. Izzy, a registered emotional support animal, lives with Gramata in her dorm room and is approved by the university.

Izzy is loved by the other students in Gramata’s dorm building, students who, like Gramata, are isolated living on campus during the pandemic.

“She’s my childhood best friend, my guardian angel, and I tell her every day,” said Gramata, 21, who is from Kentucky.

She takes the dog on daily walks around campus, sometimes showing her off in Zoom classes or in virtual sorority meetings.

Gramata, who struggles with anxiety, depression and attention deficit hyperactiv­ity disorder, is grateful for Izzy’s calming presence when she feels sad, lonely or separated from friends and loved ones.

“A huge root of my anxiety was always worrying where [Izzy] was every day, how she was doing. She’s a comfort for me no matter where I go,” she said. “Mentally, I know that I feel the best about myself when I am taking care of others. I feel like a mom. She gives me a sense of purpose and responsibi­lity. … I take care of her, and she takes care of me.”

Cats on camera

Some people enjoy watching funny cat videos online. For others, funny cats are an everyday occurrence.

Brothers David and Jack Reid, both in the acting conservato­ry at the Orange County School of the Arts, said their two adopted cats, Henry and Ellie, bring joy to their virtual classroom. The cats have accidental­ly appeared on screen, walking on top of desks and jumping on keyboards.

“The girls in class think it’s funny,” said sophomore Jack Reid, 16.

The Long Beach-raised boys said their beloved cats have gotten in the way of the self-tapes, auditions, and other class video assignment­s before, but all in good fun.

“It’s nice to have them here,” said David Reid, 18, a senior. “It’s comforting, like having a furry friend to hang out with.”

 ?? PHOTOS BY CHUCK BENNETT ?? STAR Eco Station, an environmen­tal science museum and wildlife rescue center with more than 100 animals in Culver City, brings Los Angeles Unified School District students weekly visits from exotic animals during their online classes.
PHOTOS BY CHUCK BENNETT STAR Eco Station, an environmen­tal science museum and wildlife rescue center with more than 100 animals in Culver City, brings Los Angeles Unified School District students weekly visits from exotic animals during their online classes.
 ??  ?? A bearded dragon lizard at the STAR Eco Station in Culver City is part of an educationa­l program for children involved in distance learning.
A bearded dragon lizard at the STAR Eco Station in Culver City is part of an educationa­l program for children involved in distance learning.
 ?? TERRY PIERSON — STAFF PHOTOGRAPH­ER ?? Riverside Unified School District kindergart­en teacher Jessie Bekkedahl helps her dog, Professor Ginger, count to three as she records a math lesson last month for online classes at Emerson Elementary School.
TERRY PIERSON — STAFF PHOTOGRAPH­ER Riverside Unified School District kindergart­en teacher Jessie Bekkedahl helps her dog, Professor Ginger, count to three as she records a math lesson last month for online classes at Emerson Elementary School.
 ?? BRITTANY MURRAY — STAFF PHOTOGRAPH­ER ?? Brothers David, left, and Jack Reid say the family cats bring fun to their virtual classroom, often making an appearance while the two students of the acting conservato­ry at Orange County School of the Arts are in class or filming auditions.
BRITTANY MURRAY — STAFF PHOTOGRAPH­ER Brothers David, left, and Jack Reid say the family cats bring fun to their virtual classroom, often making an appearance while the two students of the acting conservato­ry at Orange County School of the Arts are in class or filming auditions.

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