7-year-old Charlotte, Berrett and Arlen Worster, snuggle up together while listening to a bedtime story from Veazie Community School teachers. Credit: Courtesy of Laurie Kimball.

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VEAZIE, Maine — Alison Worster and her husband relaxed into the couch as their 7-year-old triplets hid underneath a canopy of blankets in their pajamas, shrieking and giggling as they greeted friends they haven’t seen in months from behind a laptop screen.

The Worsters’ three kids — all first-graders at Veazie Community School — were a few of roughly 70 students who logged onto a Zoom meeting on a Thursday night for a virtual “Fort Night,” organized by the school’s pre-kindergarten through second-grade teachers.

First-grade teacher Laurie Kimball said she and her colleagues came up with the idea while brainstorming activities that would keep their young students engaged with remote learning.

The primary school teachers assigned lessons to their students the week prior about building forts in preparation for the big night. They watched YouTube videos about tension and weight, and how to construct the perfect hide-away.

When Thursday evening came, kids wrapped themselves in warm blankets and snuggled up with their favorite stuffed toys, while their teachers read bedtime stories aloud.

It was the perfect moment, said Kimball — one full of joy for the kids and teachers who were reunited, even if just for a short time. There was giggling and laughter from kids whose eyes sparkled with excitement upon reconnecting with their old pals.

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The coronavirus pandemic forced everyone in Veazie’s small school to say goodbye abruptly and too soon.

But for one hour, COVID-19 didn’t take the center stage. Kids and their teachers focused on being together while still separated by physical distancing guidelines.

“We kept saying we wanted to jump through the screen and hug them,” Kimball said. “[The kids] just were so happy.”

It felt like they were all together again, added Worster, whose triplets had become comfortable with their own friend groups at school, just to be suddenly separated when the pandemic struck.

“All of a sudden, it was just gone,” she said. “They’ve missed their friends a lot.”

Veazie’s primary school teachers have gone through their own kind of emotional turbulence from the pandemic, too — which they came face to face with as soon as they ended their “Fort Night” activity.

“Their smiles, laughter and excitement was the melody that made us remember what we are all missing. We knew that night that no matter how hard we try, school cannot be replaced with a computer screen. There is so much more to school than lessons,” she said

While the kids said goodbye to one another and logged off for the night, the teachers lingered behind — each one struck with an unexpected wave of sadness.

“We were so emotional. It had hit us harder after just seeing all of them together. We had a really hard time after,” Kimball said.

For the next two hours, the primary school teachers stayed online, trying to sort through all the feelings they haven’t had time to process in the frenzy of switching to remote learning.

“Of course we’ve been sad since it happened, but we’ve been so driven in making plans and finding ways to teach [the students] that we haven’t let ourselves really stop,” Kimball said.

While they’ve settled into a new routine of teaching remotely, the teachers miss the in-person learning environment and watching their students’ eyes light up with the discovery of new skills.

But there are silver linings too, like when kids show off their pets over Zoom, or take the class on a virtual tour of their outdoor garden or chicken coops.

“You have to look for the silver lining in this remote learning,” Kimball said. She gets support from other primary grade teachers who she talks to at least six times a day, either bouncing off ideas or just winding down from a tough day.

“We’re trying so hard,” she said, to find creative ways to make remote learning fun for the students. “[We] have this unbelievable bond with them”, said Kimball. “They’re our kids forever.”