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As a former English teacher, I know how important it is to build strong relationships with students and their families. In communities across our country, the general consensus is that this relationship is critical to student success. However, an equally important yet often-overlooked relationship is the bond between teachers. The coronavirus has shown each of us how vital the teacher-to-teacher connection truly is.

A year before the pandemic began, my school district examined how this connection could help guide a student’s career path. In Alabama, jobs that require more than a high-school diploma but less than a bachelor’s degree account for 59 percent of the labor market. Known as middle-skill jobs, these occupations include electricians, police officers, radiologic technicians, paralegals and cable installers. But according to the National Skills Coalition, just 47 percent of Alabama’s workers are trained to the middle-skill level.

Administrators, school leaders and educators in my Alabama school district decided that the best way to approach the skills gap in our community, and others like ours, was to use the virtual classroom.

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That’s why we’ve committed to an online program called Alabama Destinations Career Academy. Through this program, our brick-and-mortar teachers work alongside ALDCA teachers to combine a rigorous academic course load — which includes English, math and social studies — with online experiential learning opportunities like internships, job shadowing and project-based learning.

So, how does it all work? The main ingredient is teacher-to-teacher support. Our brick-and-mortar educators are paired with specially trained online educators to learn how to effectively deliver online instruction, ways to tailor lesson plans and methods for employing an interactive curriculum that meets our state’s standards. For a year now, our teachers have also honed their strategies for personalizing the student learning experience. Importantly, all of these pieces have worked together to foster student engagement and success.

Because of our early investment in online learning, Chickasaw City Schools were prepared to continue the semester when signs of the pandemic first reached Alabama. We already had the online curriculum. We already had the technological support. And, thankfully, our teachers were able to continue teaching, and our students continued learning.

When I read about some of the challenges that many of my traditional brick-and-mortar counterparts are experiencing, my heart goes out to them.

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I want them to know that it doesn’t have to be this way. Whether you’re part of a small school district like ours or you’re in a big city — whether you teach students with special needs, or your student body is comprised mostly of students from military families — the online classroom has a path forward for you.

Providing a quality, virtual academic option for every student, of every background, is vital for the future of our country. Our students need every chance we can give them to succeed. They deserve it.

This story about online learning and student success was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

Michele Eller is Chief Academic Officer and Assistant Superintendent of Chickasaw City Schools in Chickasaw, Alabama.

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