Rutland parents help to bring formal closure to school year

RUTLAND TEACHERS line up on either side of Main Street on Friday afternoon for a parade which allowed them to say goodbye to their students. Kindergarten teacher Barb Meyer (left) received a gift from Kyson Bothern while fellow teachers, who would receive gifts from others, watched. They included Lacey Gehrels, Nichole Peterson, Nicole Agnew, Gary Elsinger and Kim Huntimer.

Small town community spirit showed itself in a big way on Friday, when teachers and staff showed up at the school in Rutland for what they believed to be an all-staff meeting.

"Up until today's get-together, our staff meetings have been virtual since mid-March," said school Principal Brian Brosnahan. "Last week, I requested an all-staff meeting, in person, for us all to get together. In my message, it was clearly communicated that the meeting was not mandatory, and if staff did not feel 100% comfortable in attending, I respected their decision."

However, on Friday, they showed up in full force. Standing outside, Brosnahan conducted a meeting, updating them on plans and encouraging them to consider how they will approach the fall semester.

"The summer program -- we want to make sure it's not looked at as a bad thing," he told the teachers and staff, emphasizing the purpose is to help the students who are struggling.

He encouraged teachers and staff to consider student needs in planning for fall instruction.

"There's a whole quarter that they don't have direct instruction for," Brosnahan said, acknowledging their awareness of this and asking them to think of ways to help the students.

He then asked the assembled staff to share some of the positives that have come out of remote learning. Among them were the contributions of a student teacher and the way some students came to appreciate how much they missed learning in a school environment.

Then, Brosnahan sent teachers to their classrooms to prepare for a scavenger hunt, telling them to return with their baskets, paper and something to write with at 2:20. The scavenger hunt proved to be a parade to honor the teachers organized by parent Somer Pickard.

"It's been hard on the teachers and it's been hard on the kids," Pickard said, describing the impact of the school closures in response to the threat of COVID-19.

Recognizing that seeing one another would help both teachers and students bring closure to a difficult school year, she contacted school administrators who were more than willing to collaborate with her when she outlined her plan.

"I felt it was a great idea as our students and staff have missed the personal connections and relationships that were built throughout the first three-quarters of the school year -- and prior," Brosnahan said.

He explained that while the school community has used virtual platforms to keep in touch, the experience is different than person-to-person interaction. As a result of the challenges posed by what has been an unprecedented school year, teachers, students and parents have struggled. Bringing folks together on the final Friday of the school year, which was also the last day of Teacher Appreciation Week, appealed to him.

"I thought it would be a fantastic opportunity for everyone to see one another again before summer break begins," Brosnahan said. "I certainly had some initial reservations regarding the `how,' as we are still following CDC social distancing recommendations, but Somer's plan was well thought through and a fantastic solution."

With the help of school staff, Pickard contacted families.

"We contacted all the parents so we could get the kids in the vehicles," she said.

They were told to take a back road into Rutland and to park behind the football field so they weren't visible from the school. When Brosnahan had the staff lined up to start the fictitious scavenger hunt, the blare of sirens and the sight of fire trucks tipped off teachers that they had been drawn together for another type of event altogether.

"This is amazing," said fourth-grade teacher Elizabeth Parliament. "It's heart-warming is what it is -- and unexpected."

She explained that although she had used Zoom to connect with her students during the school closure, she hadn't felt as though she was doing enough for them.

Second-grade teacher Tracy Reagle was moved by the outpouring of community support. She wasn't surprised, though, noting the way small schools are supported by their communities.

She even saw this during the closure. Having taken a course on a learning platform called "Seesaw," she implemented it, recording lessons and videos for her students. Then, families stepped up to continue the learning process.

"The parents had to help out a lot," Reagle explained.

As a result of their efforts and Reagle's more frequent contact with parents, she feels as though the experience helped her forge stronger relationships with families. "I think they stepped up and did a wonderful job."

Secondary teachers missed their students every bit as much as the elementary teachers did.

"I miss that daily interaction," said social studies teacher Richard Myrvik. "They're what makes teaching the great profession it is. I think as humans, we need social interaction with our learning."

This commitment to their children is what inspired Pickard to organize the parade on Friday.

"The teachers in Rutland -- they just love their kids. It's been hard on them to not be with the kids," she said.

Having been involved in organizing the weekly Covid Cruise in Madison, organizing a similar in event in Rutland made sense to her.

"It's an easy, social-distancing, fun way to see a bunch of people and say `good-bye'," Pickard said.

As cars crawled along Main Street in Rutland on Friday, making two slow loops, students hopped out of vehicles to give teachers cards, flowers and gifts. Some threw candy, which the teachers picked up. While social distancing was maintained, the desire to express with hugs and touches what could not be said with words was clearly evident.

"I think everyone knows you can't get out and hug," Pickard said. "I think by now everyone knows you have to have social distancing."