On April 26, my classroom community shed the structures of hybrid learning and came together in person for the first time in over a year. As students entered the classroom their eyes lit up with joy as they greeted each other. The deep sense of connectedness in the room was palpable.

Nicole Casasa-Blouin listens to Zakariya Aar as he works on an assignment during an outside class at Gerald E. Talbot Community School in Portland last October. “This is not the situation that anyone planned for or anticipated, but schools across Maine have cultivated an unshakable sense of belonging in their learning communities,” writes Cindy Soule, who also teaches fourth grade at the Talbot Community School.  Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Standing on the foundation of our collective resilience, our return celebrated the ways students and educators have persisted through unimaginable losses – of life, of community, and of the predictability of the world we had known. Refuting the pervasive public concern around so-called “learning loss,” our return signified all we had gained in the face of tremendous obstacles: self-agency, compassion, critical thinking skills and perseverance.

This is not the situation that anyone planned for or anticipated, but schools across Maine have cultivated an unshakable sense of belonging in their learning communities. By creating safe, open spaces that acknowledge each member’s individuality and that center social and emotional well-being, students not only process their emotions, but also grow as resilient, caring community members. As an educator, I have been in awe of the unparalleled compassion and empathy that my students have freely shown to one another as we face the complexities of surviving a pandemic. It is here that the beauty of the gains made by humanity, amid a global health crisis, shine brightest.

Our connection and trust in one another fueled our ability to be brave, bold and vulnerable learners in a world edged with fear and worry. We all faced days where the dread of logging in for remote learning was paralyzing, when solving mathematical problems felt as difficult as scaling the Empire State Building, and the task of putting words on a blank white page felt far too daunting to try. In these shared moments of adversity, we encouraged one another, and in each other found the strength to persevere. The lessons learned by triumphing over adversity will last a lifetime and cannot be underestimated in scope or impact.

Coverage of schooling in the media has focused on learning loss, struggle and disconnection at a time when students, families and educators have forged a new path to learning with innovation, ingenuity and collaboration. While it is true that this year has posed often-insurmountable challenges that have adversely affected many of our youth and highlighted the inequalities that existed long before this pandemic, we can’t focus exclusively on all the loss when there is a wellspring of evidence of what we have gained. It is time to make the beautiful stories of successes and triumphs the defining narrative of this time. Let’s revel in the remarkable growth our brilliant students have achieved as we begin to come back together safely, and honor that this past year was not lost, it was lived. Beautifully.

This pandemic has underscored what we all know to be true: The future is predictably uncertain. Let’s not have this time in our history defined by learning loss, but rather by the compassion, determination and resilience with which we lived. For over a year this virus has gripped our world, but together we ignited a path toward change. As a nation we are called to build upon what the valuable lessons teaching and learning through a pandemic has taught us and transform our education system to meet the needs of all learners. Instead of focusing on lost instructional time, let’s look to the future and enact the possibilities we have before now only imagined.

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