HARTFORD, Conn. — When the coronavirus pandemic shut down Connecticut schools in March, teachers across the state packed up their classrooms and — with little time for preparation or training — invented entirely new systems of education.
For months, they guided families to the end of the school year through phone calls, Zoom, emails and texts.
In September, some teachers returned to the classrooms they spent years making their own. But this time, Plexiglas barriers and 6 feet of space separated their desks from their students', and everyone wore masks.
"I'm an educator ... but I'm a caretaker first. I'm making sure these kids are safe," said Orlando Valentin Jr., an elementary school teacher in Meriden. "Then content comes second."
He added, "It's easy to forget teachers are people, too."
Here are the stories of four Connecticut educators and how they've adapted to teaching during the pandemic:
Lisa Cordova, Glastonbury-East Hartford Elementary Magnet School
Cordova, a pre-K teacher in Glastonbury, keeps a picture of her calendar on her phone from when she packed up her classroom in March.
"Every time I look at it ... I'm like, 'Did this really happen?'" she said. "Every morning I wake up, and I think, 'Is it Groundhog Day?' You just hope when you wake up you're back to where we were before."
Before the pandemic, Cordova taught kindergarten. But the school needed a preschool teacher, so she learned a completely new, distanced curriculum.
"I thought, 'How hard can this be?'" she said. "It's hard. It's really hard."
Cordova, who teaches from her classroom, has remote students ages 2-4 years old. She keeps her lessons to 20-25 minutes each, giving students a break after each one. She also provides parents with activities they can do to improve their children's fine motor and pre-reading skills during that time.
"I do a lot with puppets," she said.
When schools shut down, Cordova said she felt thrown into a new world, where she had to learn many new online platforms without much training.
"I understand that things are changing anyway with technology, but this thrust us into it so quickly," she said. "We're really flying the plane while we're building it, and I don't think we have all the parts yet. ... We're trying to do the best we can with what we have."
As scary as it may be, Cordova said teachers and staff are "working hard to get it done" even though they are exhausted.
"I don't want it to come across that I don't love what I do, because I know there is a need for this. So every day, I do everything I can do to make it the most engaging lesson that can be," she said.
Angie Parkinson, Bacon Academy in Colchester
Teaching at the start of a pandemic is "having to completely re-imagine everything you do in your career in the span of a few days," said Parkinson, a high school social studies teacher. "How am I going to teach Japanese history over a computer?"
In the spring, Parkinson, who also serves on East Hartford's town council, regularly worked 10-14-hour days teaching three courses remotely. Now that she and her students have returned to the classroom in a hybrid model, Parkinson said she felt very lucky to only be teaching one course, Asian studies. By chance, not enough students signed up for her other classes. She counts her 20 years of experience among her advantages.
"I've got a lot of things down pat," Parkinson said. "It would be harder if I had two other classes to teach, or if I hadn't been doing this for that long or if I didn't have such a supportive administration. ... Those three things together do not apply to most teachers."
She added, "I'm able to keep my sanity, and I almost feel guilty about that because I have friends who are not doing so well."
Each week, Parkinson sees two cohorts of children in person for two days each. Then, on Wednesdays, the school has an online learning day. About 15 of her 30-something students are completely remote. Parkinson said that's her "trickiest group" to teach, and she was preparing to try synchronous learning for the first time the next day with an iPad provided by the school and a Bluetooth speaker brought in from home.
"I have a separate special meeting with those kids — optional of course. I can't require it," she said. "So far, they're not asking me too much. There's a lot of disengagement. This is really hard, for kids to be self-motivated enough to do this."
Parkinson said she is particularly worried about Connecticut's youngest students.
"We all know that the first handful of years is the most important. If there's big gaps in that, it's going to be hard to recover," she said. "I'll get those kids 10 years from now, and I'll see it in their skills, reading, writing, all those things."
Monique Butler, Anna E. Norris Elementary School in East Hartford
Butler, who teaches fourth grade, spoke about building a sense of community with families, even as she instructs students remotely.
"When a kid feels comfortable in a setting, no matter where the setting is, at school, online ... the engagement is there," said the educator of 17 years.
Butler said she has many working families in her class, and parents cannot always make sure their children are logging on at the correct times. Some families must drop off their children with babysitters, while other parents are working from home.
While she has concerns about children falling behind, Butler said, "We need to meet our families and our children, as well as teachers, where they are right now. And right now, we're focusing on making sure they have adequate instruction, making sure they can bring up their grades."
Butler also highlighted the importance of children's social and emotional wellbeing. In June, she helped organize the BLACKOUT rally in East Hartford, which stands for "Black Lives Actually Can't Keep being Oppressed Until Tomorrow."
"At that point, there were a lot of different situations that our children were exposed to, a lot of Black men or women being either shot or killed by the police," she said. "I was thinking, 'Schools have been out since March. How are our kids dealing with the media? ... How are they feeling at this moment?'"
"As a Black woman, I know that oppression is affecting myself, my family and our students," she said. "Black or brown children will look at our white teachers as far as, 'Are they really here for us?'"
This fall, Butler celebrated Hispanic Heritage Month with her students, in an effort to help develop their cultural competence and comfort with diversity.
"I want them to be able to understand that your family and where you're from is important," she said.
Orlando Valentin Jr., Casimir Pulaski Elementary School in Meriden
When Valentin closed on a new home in mid-March, he never thought schools would be shut down before the end of the week.
"It was really bizarre. I had just bought a house, and things seemed so normal," he said. "Then here we are six, seven months later. Now, I think everyone's come to the realization that this is the 'new normal.' It's here to stay for a while."
Valentin, one of five fourth grade teachers at his school, began teaching in-person classes again this fall. He said he is "pleasantly surprised" that in-person learning has remained possible through October.
"At first I think there was a lot of hesitation, angst in coming back: 'How are the kids going to do with masks and social distancing?'" he said. "Kids are amazingly resilient, much more than we give them credit for. To be honest, these kids are better at wearing masks than the adults you see in Stop & Shop."
In past school years, Valentin greeted his students with high-fives and fist bumps. He grouped desks together in clusters around the classroom, not in spaced rows facing forward. They did hands-on science experiments, children standing elbow-to-elbow as they learned together.
"I'm trying to make it as fun and as normal as I used to," he said. "A lot of the community-building ... it's different, (but) it's still there."
With Connecticut's coronavirus infection rate rising again, Valentin said he thinks there is a high chance schools will end up going fully online again. Since August, he's been mentally preparing for that possibility, but "now I think it's much more real, and much more in the front of my mind," he said.
Still, he said, "I love being in person. I want to stay here as long as we can."
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