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How Elementary Teachers are Marking the End of School Amid Grief for Lost Time with Students

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 (Courtesy of Melissa Collins)

For LaNesha Tabb, the arc of the school year is a bit like a joke being played on kindergarten teachers: “You work all year long to get these kids awesome. By April and May, you're like, ‘Yes!’ And then they leave and you get a whole new batch of brand new babies that need your help.” This year, the punch line came early for Tabb, who teaches near Indianapolis, Indiana. With school closed since March because of the COVID-19 pandemic, her class missed out on what she called the “golden months” of teaching — when all the hard work pays off and student growth becomes visible. “That is so hard to not have been able to witness this particular group of children get to that threshold,” she said.

The disappointment is not exclusive to kindergarten teachers. Across grades levels, educators mourned the chance to see both individuals and their classes as a whole mature and cohere this spring. “Grief is real right now, and a lot of people are losing a lot of really valuable and important things and jobs. A lot of people have died. But that doesn't make it any less sad when you lose something that you've looked forward to,” said Colby Sharp, who teaches in Parma, Michigan. In addition to processing those feelings for themselves, teachers faced the task of validating students’ emotions from afar. In April, Sharp made a video, “Dear Fifth Graders,” from inside his classroom. In it, he told his students that he was heartbroken that they would miss out on reading books together, sharing jokes-of-the-day and participating in year-end traditions, such as field day.

“The end of fifth grade is really special. And it's not fair. And it really stinks. And I think that's OK,” Sharp said. “I've tried to convey that message to [my students] that it's OK to be upset and sad. And it's also OK to be kind of happy, like just encouraging them to feel what their heart tells them to feel.” Heading into summer, kids’ feelings varied. Quinn Losse, a fifth-grader in Nevada, was bummed about not getting to do a “clap-out,” in which teachers and younger students line the hallways to high five the fifth-graders as they leave school for the last time. Raheem Langa, a fifth-grader in North Carolina, said he was sad that spring soccer and his graduation ceremony were both canceled. But Kara Pham, a sixth-grader in Pennsylvania, didn’t mind missing the pomp and circumstance of a commencement. “Too many people,” she said.

In recent weeks, many elementary schools organized car parades, created slideshows and distributed class T-shirts or other mementos to celebrate the end of the year for the eldest students in particular. For Keifer Froom, a fifth-grader in North Carolina, knowing his school would hold a car parade offset the sadness of a canceled graduation. “I felt like we were still getting something,” he said.


Even for younger grades, distance learning disrupted traditional goodbyes. Teachers' plans for creating closure varied by circumstances. Tabb, the kindergarten teacher, said she kept her final virtual class pretty normal at the request of parents whose kids were already upset by the upheaval of the pandemic. For teachers looking to add something special to their final class meeting, Angela Watson, host of the “Truth for Teachers” podcast, compiled ideas for ways to end the school year virtually, including making time capsules, holding a video talent show, and organizing an end-of-year toast.

In Memphis, Tennessee, teacher Melissa Collins, decided that a virtual celebration wouldn’t cut it. Each year in May Collins assigns her second-graders to write a future plan for themselves. She usually holds a classroom ceremony during which students read their plans while wearing Collins’ graduation cap and doctoral hood. This year, the teacher invited her students to a physically distanced ceremony on her front lawn. All of the children and parents wore masks and stayed at least six feet apart. A pediatrician who had been a guest speaker during distance learning attended to help students remember the importance of physical distancing. Instead of letting students don her own cap, Collins bought mortar boards for each student and decorated them with the message “Oh! The places you’ll go!” A friend who is a photographer took photos, and other friends donated treats.

The event not only brought sweetness to the close of an unusual year, it also instilled a mindset of aiming high. Though Collins refers to her students as her “babies,” she's already picturing them as adults. When writing their future plans, she asks the second-graders to include their goal, the steps it will take to get there and a motivational quote. She also asks parents to sign the plans as a way to prompt families to start having those conversations early. Among this year’s class, students wrote future plans to become a scientist, a football player, a police officer, a professional singer and more. In her plan, D’Miya Dasher wrote that she would graduate in the top 10% of her high school class, attend university and land an internship before working for the FBI to process fingerprints and DNA analysis. 

All but two families from Collins’ class attended the ceremony at the end of May. Some wore their Sunday best and others sported college-branded apparel. In photos, children held their framed future plans, while Collins stood at a distance with a sign that said “you matter.” Afterward, parents sent emails thanking her for creating such a special day, according to Collins. For her, the effort was an extension of the necessary creativity that COVID-19 brought. “When (my students) remember what I did for them, they’ll know that they matter and that their future is going to be bright, regardless of what happened this year,” she said.

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