Fifth-grade teacher Kaitlyn King stands outside Lincoln School in Augusta. King has devoted extensive personal time to making lessons used in students’ online and remote learning. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — Every other day, when Lincoln School fifth-grade teacher Kaitlyn King hosts her remote students over Google Meet, she picks a game to play with them for the first 15 minutes of the school day.

The games, which King said are not always educational and are typically in the form of question and answer, allows her to get to know her students through the computer screen.

“I was nervous that I wouldn’t have a connection with the remote kids,” King said. “It’s hard across a computer screen.”

Establishing that connection is increasingly important as more schools in Maine are linked to cases of COVID-19, prompting sudden switches to remote instruction.

King first had the idea to play games with students to keep a connection to them when school switched to remote learning at the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March.

She found students liked hearing about her self-described “fat cat,” and they were quick to share their pets, or even their favorite snack, with King and classmates.

After seeing the connections that were built by having a few minutes of noneducational discussions with the students, King decided to carry the method into the fall school year for the students whom she would only know through remote learning.

“They need that social interaction,” King said. “It’s something that we would usually do at snack time, which would be the time to get to know about their lives. The game helps serve that purpose.”

Lincoln Elementary School is operating under a hybrid remote learning model, where King has students twice a week in person, and hosts a different cohort of students remotely two other days each week.

Wednesdays are fully remote, where both groups of students come together online.

In what King called the “emergency learning” period during the spring, teachers had only a couple of days to prepare for the switch to remote learning, and no one knew what websites to use or how to use Google platforms, including Docs or Classroom.

King’s students from the spring already had six months of time to establish relationships with her; however, they were the test subjects for remote learning. They had to get used to using a computer to do math problems or learn how to upload homework to Google platforms.

“They could see me mute (the computer’s sound) and run after my dogs, and it made me human to them,” King said. “I was a person that cared a lot about them, and I think that’s something from the spring that’s important to touch upon — those relationships that I already built.”

After learning from her students in the spring, King etched time this fall into the curriculum to make sure her students knew how to use the technology — something that was never intended back in the spring.

“Now I have a better handle on recourses and how to use them in the classroom,” she said. “I am able to recognize if I will be able to make a  (presentation), and now I have the tools and knowledge. In the spring, it was a lot of unknowns. You sort of winged it and had to be creative.”

King said taking a lesson from in-person to online learning through Google can take anywhere from two to five hours. She said she now recognizes what lessons will or will not flourish virtually, sometimes being able to cut the time in half.

Over the summer, King and some of her colleagues received certifications for Google Platforms, which may not have been possible during the spring.

“We took classes, got our Google certification, joined different groups to see what works and what doesn’t to better prepare and see the best way to navigate through the fall,” King said. “That time was critical, and in August, I felt way more prepared to teach.”

King said the smaller class sizes that come with having cohorts have been beneficial, especially in making sure students are grasping the material when they have their remote learning days. A remote lesson could be something recorded or a packet the students complete on their own.

A cohort can have anywhere from eight to 12 students, and King said she is able to give each student more attention than in the past, when she had maybe 23 students.

“With smaller cohorts, you can focus on each individual kid,” she said. “It’s nice to focus on my 12 in front of me in person and my 12 at home.”

Traci Norwood, a middle school math teacher at Vassalboro Community School, which is also operating under a hybrid learning model, said her students are getting better with technology. She said from day one of the current school year, students have been on their Chromebooks and ready to go.

“I think in the spring, it was a huge learning curve,” she said. “Now, students are tech savvy. We have seen a huge increase this fall and have been able to do so much more.”

One of Norwood’s students was able to teach a younger sibling how to use Google platforms.

Like King, Norwood said she has empathized the importance of establishing a connection with her students on remote-learning days. She has reviewed with her eighth-grade students how to send emails so they would be able to ask questions at any time.

“We are giving them a lot of opportunities for Google Meet to do check ins, and it’s great,” Norwood said. “Sometimes, we will get an email that day from a student saying that they got a new kitten that weekend, and that stuff is the best.

“They are still doing their math, but reaching out and saying things that are important to them.”

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