As Nikki Grabill read to her third-graders last week, she was no longer left to wonder if they were beginning to understand concepts such as quarantine and social distancing.

In the second week that schools throughout the state were closed to prevent the spread of coronavirus, Grabill’s students at Creekside Elementary School listened online as she read from Katherine Applegate’s “The One and Only Ivan.” When his teacher began the story of a gorilla forced to live separated from others inside a glass enclosure, one student observed, “Hey, that’s like us, Mrs. Grabill.”

Under orders from Gov. Roy Cooper to remain closed until May 15, schools have been challenged to find different ways to reach students who, under normal circumstances, are little more than an arm’s length from their teachers.

“We’ve had to get really creative,” said Alicia Reel, a kindergarten teacher at Wintergreen Primary School.

Pitt County Schools officially begins its virtual and modified learning plan today, offering online instruction and assignments or printed materials to students who last attended school March 13. Since then, the county’s school cafeterias have continued to serve thousands of weekday meals for students. Schools also offered packets of instructional material designed to keep students engaged at home for a few weeks while their teachers planned for how to implement online instruction.

For many, two weeks seemed too long to wait. Grabill, who saw ideas on social media from educators whose schools also shut down, already has implemented new technology to help keep in contact with her class. She contacted her students’ parents and invited them to join a nightly read-along on Zoom, a remote conferencing service.

“I have a community in my classroom, so this has really hit hard,” said Grabill, who has been teaching for 10 years. “I’m with them all year long, and they become my children.”

Out of her class of 22, as many as a dozen have signed on at once to participate in her reading events. Grabill uses the connection to talk with her students about how they are faring in their time away from school. She has started reading a new chapter book and has taught them a song about state capitals.

Since school shut down, Ayden Elementary School teacher Shari Byrum also has hosted group video chats with her class. She also has joined fellow teachers on a school bus that delivers meals to students’ neighborhoods.

Shelley Keith, whose daughter, Edie, is in Byrum’s class, said being able to see and hear her teacher and to interact with some of her classmates online has been good for Edie.

“These kids are scared and don’t know what’s going on,” Keith said. “They’re used to getting that kind of (individual) attention from their teachers, so I think they were kind of the first to reach out.

“It is a comfort because they can’t go out and go to a friend’s house and play or go to school and see their teachers.”

For Byrum, who also taught Keith’s older children, video conferencing with students at home is not something that started with the coronavirus. Online read-aloud activities have been a regular Sunday evening event this school year.

“They’re kind of used to this,” Keith said. “So I think it’s good that it’s kind of like a normal thing that keeps on going for them.”

Northwest Elementary School pre-kindergarten teacher Schylar Evans also has tried to maintain a sense of normalcy for her students during a time when they lives have been disrupted in ways that are hard for them to understand. Evans, a first-year teacher, began a week ago posting videos of herself re-reading some of her students’ favorite stories, such as Anna Llenas’ “The Color Monster,” a book designed to help children identify their emotions.

“When they see me on the camera, it’s just like big grins,” Evans said. “All they can say is ‘Hi.’ But I have had a lot of parents writing me saying how much their kids do miss me and miss each other. The first one I posted, one of the moms wrote me and said her son started crying when he saw me.”

Communicating through the website ClassDojo, Evans posted videos for parents who she views as critical for helping their 4- and 5-year-olds continue to make progress while they cannot be in the classroom. She is concerned about the burden on parents.

“I know a lot of our parents are still working. I can imagine it’s overwhelming for them to still have to work and find child care and still be interactive in their child’s learning,” she said. “Really, now they’re the main teacher. It’s not me anymore; it’s the parents. So I was like, ‘What can I do to help my kids and my parents through this time’ because who knows how long we’ll even be out?”

This type of home-schooling is a new concept for Crystal Harris, a mother of three boys ages 5 to 16. Harris, who had completed nail technician training just before schools were closed, is able to be home full time with her boys, but she is still navigating how to engage them in school while they are out.

“I am praising all the teachers in the world right now because I don’t know how they do it,” Harris said. “I know that it’s so stressful on them as it is on us to try to hurry up and try to get this stuff put together to make it accessible for their kids.”

Reel, who teaches Harris’ youngest son, Kole, acknowledged that the past few weeks have been difficult for educators. The 28-year teaching veteran said the move to online instruction has been challenging.

“This has been quite the learning curve for me and for my co-workers,” she said. “We have had to learn how to transform our lessons to a digital platform. But we’ve worked together.”

At schools throughout the county, teams of teachers have been collaborating on how to provide remote instruction for their students.

Grabill said she and her fellow third-grade teachers at Creekside will team up for lessons with some of her co-workers presenting math, science and language arts, while she focuses on social studies. Still, she is concerned for students who are not able to join in online.

While the county school system is making Chromebooks available for families to borrow for online instruction, some have no access to internet service.

“That’s the heartbreaking piece. I do have several students who don’t have that technology,” Grabill said. “They’re going to have to receive a paper packet. They won’t be able to join us on Google classroom. I won’t be able to see them. That’s hard. It’s hard not knowing how they’re doing and being able to talk to them every day.”

Reel said teachers will seek other ways to contact families, making phone calls to those who are unable to access online instruction from home. She will spend the week in her classroom, fielding online questions and preparing to convert next week’s lessons to a digital format.

“I am looking forward to having the children back,” Reel said. “I wish we could go back tomorrow. I would much rather have a classroom full of students than be sitting in an empty one with the computer.

“This has been a very difficult time for teachers and children and families,” she said. “But I think this experience will bring us all together and make us more appreciative of each other.”

Contact Kim Grizzard at kgrizzard@reflector.com or call 329-9578.