Last Friday morning, dozens of teachers, staff and administrators met in front of Springs School just before 10 a.m., but they did not go inside.
Instead, they got back into their vehicles — cars, SUVs and school buses decorated to the max — and pulled out in a line, led by volunteers with the Springs Fire Department, as they paraded through the 7-square-mile hamlet, where their beloved students live.
Practicing social distancing, kindergarteners through eighth-graders dotted the parade route. They brandished signs and artwork supporting their school, their teachers and fellow classmates. They waved back to familiar smiling faces as they drove by, seeing many in-person for the first time since New York State schools shuttered in March.
They came together, as one.
Over the course of two hours, the parade wound its way through the hamlet, culminating at Maidstone Beach, its participants undoubtedly uplifted by the outpouring of school spirit.
“It’s just our way of supporting one another,” Schools Superintendent Debra Winter said ahead of the parade. “I think the connection to our kids has always been our number-one priority — and we can’t lose that now.”
During the parade, emotions ran high, and they would soar even higher a few hours later when New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo confirmed that all schools would remain closed through the end of the year to keep COVID-19 infection rates down — officially upending proms, sports championships and traditional commencements, testing the resilience of community and school spirit.
To that end, local district administrators, teachers and staff are going above and beyond to stay connected to their students, from morning announcements for a sense of normalcy, to dance videos for moments of levity, to rallying parades in the name of solidarity — like on April 25, when 14 teams of parents and Westhampton Beach High School seniors decorated their cars and delivered 224 green-and-white graduation lawn signs that read “Hurricane Strong.”
“These seniors need to know we are proud of all they accomplished, and we haven’t forgotten about an awesome class of kids,” explained Stacy Rubio, a Westhampton Beach School Board member and parent of a senior who led the initiative. “These seniors need to connect and smile. That is difficult with social distancing and students living in seven different towns.”
Outside of the required distance learning, some districts are creatively connecting students with each other, as well as with teachers. At Bridgehampton School, informative and hilarious morning announcement videos are keeping the school community laughing, and occasional challenges are keeping them competitive. Personal favorites for Principal Michael Miller were the pancake flipping and jump rope contests, and a “Who Has Met More Famous People?” challenge.
“People think it’s really easy to come up with these videos every day, but you really want to keep it fun and entertaining, so you have to keep coming up with material,” he said. “We know there’s a health crisis going on, but at the end of the day, we still want to keep a sense of normalcy and we want to make sure people are still staying connected with the school community — because we are a family here and we want to make sure we continue to support each other.”
Starting new traditions, or reimagining the old, have helped enliven spirits across the East End. Over the last several weeks, Principal Kerry Coonan of Raynor Country Day School in Speonk has made it a point to visit every student’s home, from Bellport to Bridgehampton, with a caravan outfitted with school mascot Rocky the Ram, pom-poms and lots of celebratory honks as families waved and cheered from their porches and driveways.
And at Sag Harbor Elementary School, the “Morning Program” — a longstanding institution for the staff and students — has gone completely remote. At 8:45 a.m., families start their days together by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, singing a patriotic song, celebrating birthdays, and sharing high-quality work from the kids at home, according to Principal Matt Malone.
“Traditions and common practices are what bind people as a community. Anything a school community can do at this time to connect people helps to reinforce the sense that we are all in this together,” he said. “At Sag Harbor Elementary School, we would normally all be gathered in person, in our gym each morning to begin the day — every student, every staff member, many parents, some grandparents, relatives. It’s hard for me to think of a better example of ‘community.’ So whatever we can do to keep this spirit alive, we want to do it.”
As teachers and staff at Tuckahoe School have learned, that is not limited to potentially embarrassing themselves for the sake of their students’ enjoyment, Superintendent Len Skuggevik admitted with a laugh.
“I was just trying to figure out ways to keep them motivated to at least look online and see what we’re doing — and see what they’re supposed to be doing — and then it just became, ‘Hey, how can we make them smile and take a little bit of the stress of what’s happening away from what they’re doing throughout their day?’” he said. “Really, it’s just about trying to get them to take a minute and smile, even if it’s just for a minute.”
Feeling inspired one day, he sent out an email to the faculty that cryptically read, “I came up with another crazy idea for a video and I don’t want to tell you what it is, but those of you who want to participate and get people to smile, send this in,” with attached instructions, he paraphrased.
Next thing they knew, the school’s Facebook page featured a video of them showing off their best dance moves to Pharrell Williams’s catchy hit, “Happy” — which, to the untrained eye, looks pretty convincing.
“We cheated a little,” Mr. Skuggevik said mischievously.
More often than not, the daily video resembles what students would typically hear during morning announcements, including the Pledge of Allegiance recited by a selected student, updates provided by an energetic Marlo Wilken, and a signing off by Mr. Skuggevik.
And these days, it’s always the same three sentences. “We miss you. We love you. And we hope to see you soon,” he said.