When students returned to Manzanita Public Charter School on Friday, months after campuses were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they encountered a number of changes.
Temperature checks and mask-wearing are now required, while hand-sanitizing, social distancing and a no-hugging policy are just a few of the new guidelines students are being asked to follow to stay healthy.
But there remains one source of normalcy: Manny the Mountain Lion.
The school's 6-foot fuzzy mascot that meanders down the halls of the campus on Vandenberg Air Force Base has stepped up his frequency of classroom visits from once a week last year to now daily.
Each day, Manny presents four randomly selected scholars with a PAWSativity Award. The PAWS awards program, launched last year, rewards students' for their standout behavior in areas of class participation, attendance, acts of kindness and completion of assignments.
"They just love him," said Principal Suzanne Nicastro, "and they love to be recognized. It's really uplifting."
On Monday morning, Manny made his daily rounds to classroom cohorts in grades TK-6. Upon entering each classroom, he was met with a resounding "Manny!"
Children both big and small turned their full attention to the orange cat with stellar six-pack abs, and teachers paused their lessons for the awardee to be announced and recognized in front of their peers.
Without the use of words, Manny used expressive arm and body movements to enunciate a heartfelt congratulations as he hugged and presented each student with the their hard-earned award.
The special award, a brown paper bag stamped with a paw print sticker on the outside, contains a number of items, from a paw notepad, bracelet emblazoned with a message of positivity and colorful pencils to a free ice cream ticket or free homework pass.
Even during the COVID-19 virtual learning phase, Manny stayed true to form and delivered awards — and comfort — to students' homes on a weekly basis. About 20 percent of students will continue with distance learning, Nicastro said.
Manny loves to make Manzanita scholars happy, according to Nicastro, and knew a visit at home would boost their spirits, especially during uncertain times.
"Even the sixth graders like him," she said, steering the lion to the next classroom to be visited. "I mean, they really like him. He just makes them smile."
Lisa André covers local news and lifestyles for Santa Ynez Valley News.
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