It’s been almost a year since COVID-19 shuttered schools across the country and separated teachers from their students. The feeling at Gerald E. Talbot Community School in Portland on Friday, March 13, 2020, was like we were facing an approaching winter storm of unknown size and intensity. I thought we might be out for two weeks, tops. I had no idea that the next time I would see my students in person would be at their Drive-Thru Fifth Grade Farewell in June. I certainly did not know that the way I teach, and my understanding of the central purpose of education, was about to be transformed.

Math coach Nancy Sirois looks at an Excel spreadsheet of students whose families will be picking up Wi-Fi hot spots and Chromebooks for distance learning at Talbot Community School last March 30. Jes Ellis, a Talbot teacher, says the separation required by the pandemic has made clear that students need internet access and reliable devices. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

While the isolation of children in their homes, and the burden of public education falling on working parents, have been tragic, there have been some surprisingly positive products of this crisis. The virus has forced schools and educators to innovate faster than we ever thought possible, and it has shown us that what educators must do best is connect.

First, it is essential that I connect with my students. Thankfully, Portland Public Schools was able to open for hybrid learning in September. Unlike many of my colleagues across the country, I have been able to be with kids nearly every day. Although my students are with me for less than half of the week, we wear masks and we must keep a 3-foot distance at all times, I feel close to them. The class size is intimate, less than 10. On their “remote” days we communicate in chats or meet in virtual spaces where I see their stuffed animals and siblings, and they can meet my pets. The pandemic has shown me the power of small class sizes, and the potential for technology to increase connection between teachers and their students.

Second, it is essential that I connect with families. While I have always known this, I admit that I have not always prioritized working with parents more than the necessary phone call home or weekly newsletter. When the district closed in the spring, we launched into high gear to make connections. At Talbot Community School, we ramped up our efforts to reach families with mobile apps, and we assigned each student a primary point-person. Most notably, we expanded our focus from academics to include emotional health and food security, which are central to the academic engagement and success of children.

Finally, I now understand to what extent technology facilitates connection. I have added over a dozen apps and websites to my digital repertoire in order to communicate with families, deliver lessons and connect my students with resources. We now accept that access to the internet is no longer a luxury; it is a basic necessity. Students must have reliable devices, and teachers must be proficient with current technologies to facilitate communication and learning.

Earlier this month we held our first parent-teacher conferences of the year, all on Zoom. For the first time in my 20-year career, I had 100 percent attendance on the first day. Parents were able to connect with me from their living rooms, or their cars, or at work. For each conversation I was momentarily transported into their lives, which are busy, complex and filled with so much more than school. I met them on their turf to talk about their child’s academic and social progress. We also discussed how well they have been supporting their child for the past year, and how hard it has been for them to be teachers as well as parents, and how we are all ready for this era to end.

The COVID-19 pandemic has solidified for me that making connections with and between children and their communities is why I love teaching. Even when teachers can once again sit next to our students to offer encouragement, we will continue to leverage technology to connect with them at home. Strangely, social distancing has brought us closer to our students than ever before.

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