"Hearing that Hannah was sad, I was heartbroken," says North Bay Haven Charter Academy teacher, Katie Ricca, of her first-grade student

By Joelle Goldstein
April 20, 2020 07:41 PM
Advertisement
Credit: Courtesy Kelley Close

A Florida teacher is being praised for her kind actions after she went out of her way to brighten the spirits of her first grade student who was having a particularly tough day during the coronavirus pandemic.

Since North Bay Haven (NBH) Charter Academy in Panama City transitioned to remote learning at the end of March, Katherine “Katie” Ricca tells PEOPLE she has been holding storytime for her class via Zoom to keep them engaged.

“I was planning on doing this twice a week until they begged for me to meet each night,” Ricca, 29, explains. “My class was very social so it was great for them to be able to see their friends each day. They would talk about their day before I read.”

Though the virtual class time seemed to keep her students’ morale high, there was one evening that her normally “cheerful” student, Hannah Close, appeared to be having a tough time.

“Hannah was especially quiet,” Ricca recalls of their Zoom call on April 2. “This was very unusual for her. … She put her head down so we couldn’t see her face. I called her name and she didn’t respond. I could tell something was bothering her.”

The 7-year-old eventually signed off early, which left Ricca — a mother of five — almost certain that something was wrong. After class, she reached out to Hannah’s mom via text message to see how she was doing.

Katie Ricca and her family

For Hannah’s mom, Kelley Close, receiving a text from Ricca checking in on her daughter was nothing out of the ordinary.

“It was just Katie being Katie,” she says. “She’s always checking on her students.”

But it was what Ricca did afterward that really stood out to her.

“Hearing that Hannah was sad, I was heartbroken. … I just wanted to see her and talk about what’s going on,” Ricca explains. “Having kids at home, I see how it’s affecting them, so I understood how she felt.”

Without hesitation, Ricca asked Kelley if she could come over the following day to sit in their driveway and spend some time with Hannah.

“She said, ‘Since I’m a teacher, I consider this essential,'” Kelley recalls. “That one sentence made me tear up. She’s got a husband and five kids at home, and she still considers my daughter’s well-being essential.”

Adds Ricca: “Zoom is great, but I didn’t think it would be the same. I’ve spent the school year with Hannah and know her heart. Being there in person means more.”

Katie Ricca and her family
| Credit: Photography & Art by Sara Lynsey LLC

So on April 3, that’s exactly what she did. While Hannah was having a picnic out front with her mom and brother, Ricca surprised her student by pulling up in her car outside her home.

“She just looked at me with disbelief, like she couldn’t believe I was there,” recalls Ricca, who made sure to sit six feet apart from her student to honor social distancing mandates as they chatted about Hannah’s feelings.

“At first, I asked how she was doing and she said, ‘Happy,’ but she later told me that she was feeling sad,” she explains. “I told her that I’m sad too. We talked a little about how feelings are important and that it’s okay to feel sad. I told her some things that make me feel better and reminded her I’m always here if she needs me.”

Then, the duo read some “silly books” in an effort to cheer Hannah up — a sweet moment that was captured in a photo by Kelley and eventually shared on Facebook. It has since gone viral, with over 21,000 shares and 11,000 reactions.

For Kelley, she says the gesture meant more to her than Ricca, who’s been teaching at NBH for three years, could ever understand.

“It shows me that our teachers really do care about our kids,” she explains. “It reminds me that it takes a village to raise children and our teachers are a vital part of our village.”

“This whole season is hard and frustrating and scary, but as long as we take the time to look after one another, we’ll get through it,” she continues. “If something’s wrong, say so. If you see someone struggling, reach out. Take care of each other.”

RELATED VIDEO: This High School Teacher Created a Volunteer Group to Help People in Need During Coronavirus

And though Kelley never got to the bottom of what exactly made Hannah so upset, she gives a lot of credit to her 7-year-old for being so honest with her feelings.

“She never did tell me why she felt sad. All she said was, ‘I just really feel sad and I don’t know why,'” Kelley shares. “Looking back, I realize how big of a thing it was for a 7-year-old to admit.”

As for Ricca, she wants parents to remember that everyone is in the same boat and that teachers are here to make this unfamiliar process run smoother.

“This has been a difficult transition for all of us, … Our new normal is exhausting,” she shares. “I told my parents the first day: if your child gets lunch, you’ve done a great job. I don’t want them to stress out over teaching [at home]. That’s what I am here for.”

“The most meaningful part of remote learning has been afternoons together. I love seeing my students and getting to hear about their days,” she continues. “We’re not just distance-learning, we’re distance-loving.”

As of Monday, there have been at least 776,384 cases and 37,532 deaths attributed to coronavirus in the United States, according to the New York Times. In Florida, there have been at least 26,652 cases and 788 deaths reported, according to the Times.

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments. PEOPLE has partnered with GoFundMe to raise money for the COVID-19 Relief Fund, a GoFundMe.org fundraiser to support everything from frontline responders to families in need, as well as organizations helping communities. For more information or to donate, click here.