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Teacher Drive Through Spreads Joy During COVID-19 Outbreak

Two youth hold handmade signs for teachers
SLIDESHOW: Click through for more pictures. Southside families held up signs to show support for Southampton Elementary teachers during a ‘teacher parade’ Thursday morning. (Photo: Megan Pauly/VPM News)

More than 20 Southampton Elementary teachers lined up their cars in the school parking lot Thursday morning for a parade around student neighborhoods.

“It’s good to see people! People are everywhere, yay people!” Nicole Benjamin exclaimed joyfully. 

Benjamin, a math interventionist at Southampton, had already been away from school for the first two weeks of March recovering from  surgery. She was ready to go back to work, but then Benjamin got the call that school would be closed for two weeks. Since then, the closure was extended for the rest of the academic year.

“So almost a month ago was the last time I saw everybody. It was good to just get out and just kind of reconnect,” Benjamin said. 

She saw that a school in Texas had started a teacher parade, and thought: maybe we can do that, too. She’s also the chair of the school’s sunshine committee.

“We try to support the staff if they're going through any illnesses, any celebrations, any unfortunate deaths,” Benjamin said. “I thought this [teacher parade] was a perfect way to kind of spray sunshine to our students.”

She worked with Alicia Winning, a third-grade teacher at Southampton, to map out the path the “parade” would take, combining four school bus routes that wind through neighborhoods and apartment complexes on Richmond’s Southside.

Thursday morning, it was uplifting for Winning to see so many families and kids along the way hold up signs like “I love you,” and “I miss you.”

“It was a chance to say goodbye for right now and hopefully we'll see them all again in the fall,” Winning said. “More so than saying goodbye or hello let them know that they’re still a part of our lives. We’re still thinking about them every day. We want them to know that they’re really important to us.”

There was even a police escort at times, and one of the Southampton students and her dad joined in mid-parade in a pickup truck. They concluded the parade in the Food Lion parking lot off of Forest Hill Avenue.

“It was worth the wait!” one woman exclaimed near the end of the two-hour teacher parade. 

Winning said she hasn’t fully wrapped her mind around what it will mean to not go back to school for the rest of the academic school year.

“When we left, we were thinking it was two weeks and we would be back in there. And then it went to four weeks and it was still like, okay, well, you know, we can recover from that. We can bounce back, finish the year strong,” Winning said. “And then to know that we're not coming back this year, we're not ever going to have this group of students again is heartbreaking.”

Zoe Walton, a kindergarten teacher at Southampton, is trying to stay positive even though she says part of her heart doesn’t want to accept the reality of not working with kids in-person at least for now.

“September will be here before we know it and then I'll get a new batch of kids, and it’s ok,” Walton said. But I'm hoping that my kids are going to adjust to it [not being in school.] I'm hoping that I can adjust to it more. But it's just really hard being an educator because we never want to leave our babies. We love them and all we want is to see them grow. It’s hard because we know some of them are in really tough living situations.”

Benjamin pointed out that it’s not just students and their families who needed a bit of joy in their day; several older residents waved from their front doors, or while out on a morning walk. 

“We just don’t know who needed that bit of beeping and waving,” Benjamin said. “Sometimes I think we don’t even know that we need the boost. I realized that I really needed this boost. It’s like the restart button on your video game, or the refresh button, you know? Just to see the families along the way really gave me life.”

Megan Pauly reports on early childhood and higher education news in Virginia
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