As we approach one year since COVID-19 arrived in Rhode Island, 12 News is bringing you special reports all this week at 6 a.m. and 5 p.m. They’re stories of heartache, heroes and hope.

Two local teachers who are also in the Rhode Island National Guard were called to help with the pandemic response in the state. Tonight on 12 News at 5 — Steph Machado talks with them about the challenges of this year, their mission and a new assignment that was tailor-made for a teacher.

BRISTOL, R.I. (WPRI) — There are so many teachers that deserve recognition over the last year, but one teacher in Bristol shined during some of the darkest days.

At Guiteras Elementary School, Kristen Kirwin sits alone in her room to teach, but she isn’t really alone at all.

Kirwin is what some would call a “distance learning specialist.” She has 24 six- and seven-year-old students from two separate elementary schools in town — Guiteras and Rockwell.

“Their technology is probably beyond me, but yeah, it took a lot of learning and seeing what works and seeing what doesn’t work,” Kirwin said.

Kirwin has taught at Guiteras for over ten years and after the pandemic hit last spring, she knew virtual instruction was here to stay for a while. Due to that, during her time off last summer, she decided she wanted to get better at it.

“I knew that this was something that probably wasn’t going away soon so I did take the summer to do some other professional development so I could excel in the technology piece so when the Fall came around, I really had some new tools and ideas,” Kirwin said. “And it has evolved as we have gone to see what works and what doesn’t and new technology and see if we can integrate it but it’s really been a positive reaction from the parents, the academic piece is one part of it.”

“It seems like the kids in Mrs. Kirwin’s class are keeping up academically with the in-school students but what she is really excelling at, is connecting with the kids and has created a real sense of community,” one parent said. “This class is comprised of two separate schools, so a lot of the students have never even met each other in person and my son has never met her in person.”

Kirwin said that she and her students are making the best of the situation, are working together and that the children are doing the best they can.

“These children and their families are the real heroes,” Kirwin said. “They work for me every day and they show up every day and I’m just so proud to be a part of this.”

When you ask the students who their favorite teacher is, it’s Kirwin, even though they have never even met in person.

“I have to tell you that was one of the worries I had as a principal for our distance learner teachers was whether or not they would be able to make those connections, and Kristen did it,” Guiteras Principal Beth Roman said. “I think she is right, that smile you get to see through the camera, you wish you could hug them but she sees those smiles every day, so she is lucky.”

With Kirwin’s students learning from home, she is one of the few teachers that actually get to see their full faces and smiles since they aren’t wearing masks.

Kirwin says that although she has enjoyed the experience of virtual teaching, she is really looking forward to seeing the children in person again.