A cutout of former President John F. Kennedy occupies a seat next to seventh-grader Reilly Sullivan at the Bruce M. Whittier Middle School on Friday, in Poland. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

With COVID-19 drastically altering education in Maine, schools have seen big dips in attendance this fall, with students nearly dropping off the map entirely. In response, many districts are trying out new strategies, including going door to door, to help engage students and get them back in class.

Early on a chilly Tuesday morning, Dirigo High School Teacher Rachel Buck drove across her small district in western Maine, her car loaded up with boxes full of packets and other school supplies.

She wasn’t scheduled to teach for another two hours. But as the district’s remote learning coordinator, she was going from doorstep to doorstep, distributing supplies to students she may not have seen in person for weeks or months.

The weather was brisk, so the visits were quick. Buck dropped off the materials and answered a few questions, like one from a mom about whether to keep her kids remote or bring them back to school. Buck promised she would follow up.

But even though these visits may only take a few minutes, Buck and other educators across Maine said they have become important tools for keeping families connected to their schools, and engaging students who have struggled with new styles of learning.

“It’s a battle, for sure. When they choose to be virtual, and then don’t Zoom into classes. And it’s hard to find them sometimes,” Dirigo High School Principal Pam Doyen said.

Doyen said after just a few weeks of classes this fall, it became clear that dozens of students had “disappeared.” They weren’t showing up to their remote Zoom classes or responding to communication. She said the school formed a small group that was focused on finding those students and helping them get back on track.

“We’ve done calls, texts, emails, home visits, home delivery of materials. We’ve scheduled multiple parent meetings, including evening hours, that work best for parents to talk about, you know, your kids not showing up for their Zoom. It definitely takes a lot of time,” she said.

Doyen said many students have been simply struggling to get their basic needs met, such as food and heating assistance. In the fall, the school began going door to door to deliver school supplies and food to some families who needed it.

Buck said after talking to parents during those deliveries, it became clear that a face-to-face interaction — even for just a few minutes — helped her connect with families. And she said that connection made it easier to set up phone calls or meetings.

“And so these deliveries, whatever way districts are able to reach out and connect with their families and their community. It is putting action behind the words, ‘I care about your kids’ education.’ It’s a way to concretely look at it and say, ‘Yeah, they do care. They really do,’” she said.

Dirigo High School isn’t alone in this approach. Many schools in Maine have been visiting students’ homes for years, but the practice has taken on an increased importance during the pandemic. The Oxford Hills School District in South Paris has even started holding so-called reading circles, in which a principal visits a student’s house to read them a book, then talk with their family about what kind of help they might need.

Officials acknowledge that the phone calls, visits and other efforts haven’t fixed everything, and attendance is still down. But Dirigo High School administrators said the effort has significantly reduced the number of students who they had labeled “at risk” earlier in the year.

For Dirigo sophomore Mason Ducharme, the school year has been a bit of a roller coaster. When school went remote for two weeks last fall, he got overwhelmed by the switch to remote classes and quickly fell behind. And without athletics for much of the year, he said he wasn’t motivated to keep his grades up.

“I just didn’t do anything. I just sat in my room, like all day,” he said. “And I didn’t do any work going into any classes. So I was falling behind.”

But Ducharme said after getting bombarded with texts and phone calls from teachers, he finally asked for help and got back to work. He’s now mostly caught up.

“I’m very thankful to have them. And having them reach out and say, ‘We care about you, we really want you to succeed in life, we want you to be here,’” he said.

Ducharme said he doesn’t want to miss class now. And if he did, he knows his teachers will hunt him down.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.