MAINE, USA — “I miss my special students so much! The majority of them love coming to school, and I miss hearing some of them say, 'Good Morning, Mrs. Williams!'" Jane Williams, who teaches kindergarten at Congin Elementary School in Westbrook, reflects on her school closing and shares hopeful messages for her students and their families as they strive to make the best of life during the COVID-19 pandemic. “My heart felt so heavy when I heard we were not going back to school for the rest of the year.”
On March 15, 2020, Governor Janet Mills declared a civil state of emergency, ending classroom instruction for public schools across the state, forcing teachers and parents to quickly take action towards a new path. “I felt so sad for the families as they have been juggling so much during this challenging time, and then knowing it will be for the rest of the school year,” said Williams. “Their families are doing amazing work with their children at home during distance learning, but it’s difficult for those students who may not have siblings to interact with, or even if they do, they miss their peers.”
Williams said her students, who are between the ages of 5 and 6, shine in the classroom because they experience hands-on learning alongside their peers. Whether it's reading, singing, drawing, or making projects together with other kids, their studies allow them to develop social and emotional skills. It's learning that cannot be replicated via the internet, the teacher said. “It is challenging to have this ‘class community’ online.” For Williams, who has been an educator for 29 years, teaching students from behind a computer came as a challenge that she has to tackle to keep doing what she loves most, teaching kids, "Technology is not my strength and I’ve needed to learn many things in order to help provide distance learning to my students and families. I would not be doing some of the work on the computer if it wasn’t for this pandemic."
Williams said she enjoys writing emails to her students and their families daily. To make learning more fun and bring them some comfort, the teacher sends educational photos using stuffed animals, video clips, or an activity in which the students can participate. Williams said she also loves receiving email responses from her students, which often include pictures, paintings, signs, poems, stories, and so many other student creations. "One student’s mom shared that the student looks forward to my daily emails. Hearing that made me smile."
As difficult as it may be for students and teachers to navigate distance learning and adhere to new social norms, Williams said there is a silver lining. “My students are having extra family time and making many warm memories that will get them through this crisis. I admire all of my families for the struggles they face each day and the hope and resilience they continue to carry with them.” The educator said she’s extremely grateful for the way Westbrook and districts across the state sprang to action to get online learning up and running in a short time. The district also provides students with breakfast and lunch during the week for pickup and delivery, free books, laptops, and iPads to students who need them. Williams said her peers are also reaching out to families to make sure they are okay and have all the resources they need.
When asked if she believes the coronavirus pandemic will change education in the future, Williams said, “I think it may open up dialogue and reflections on how we educate and prepare future generations of students.” For Williams, what she's wishing will not change are acts of kindness seen during this pandemic. “If we can all help to turn someone’s life around or spread some extra sunshine, what a more harmonious world we would live in now and after COVID-19.” What she looks forward to most is seeing her students again when this pandemic is over. "I would LOVE to see them this summer if it is safe to do so."