SAGAMIHARA FAMILY HOUSING AREA, Japan (June 10, 2020) – Educators at John O. Arnn Elementary School were so excited to see their students again it almost seemed like the first day of school instead of the last.
Students had not physically been to the school since shortly before they began online learning March 23 due to COVID-19 restrictions, and it was time for them to pick up personal belongings and drop off library books.
What could have been a perfunctory event, however, became a reunion of sorts, with parents decorating their vehicles, educators dressed up with signs showing their love for their students, and a general expression of school spirit that incorporated social distancing and masks.
James Chang, school nurse, had carefully planned health protocols and times so parents could drive up near the school to safely make the exchanges. Sure Start through second-grade students arrived at designated times June 8 and third- through sixth-graders had their day June 9.
Fumi Marquez, a kindergarten teacher, and Reynalda Espinoza, her classroom aide, waved, smiled and sent hugs to their students when they saw them inside vehicles.
“It’s exciting to see them,” Marquez said. “Their attendance on the virtual media has been phenomenal, but it’s always better when you get that in-person visualization of each other, to see their smiles real-time.”
Espinoza, meanwhile, couldn’t wait to see how much their students had grown.
“It hasn’t been that long, but it has been long enough because they usually make a big growth toward the end of the year,” Espinoza said.
In honor of the occasion, many parents pulled up in vehicles decked out with decorations.
Amanda Bryan, president of the school’s Parent Teacher Organization, said the PTO asked parents to decorate their vehicles as a fun way to thank the teachers.
“[The teachers] have worked so hard this year, especially during the virtual school,” Bryan said. “Instead of just dropping off the books and going, this increases the fun factor of the last day of school.”
Bryan’s children, Rivers Prokopi, 11, and Greyson Prokopi, 12, dressed up for the occasion and made signs. Rivers dressed in a taco costume and held a sign that read, “Taco bout an awesome school,” while Greyson dressed as a pirate and held a sign that read, “Last day of grades five and six at Arnn.”
Greyson said he opted for the pirate theme because the school’s name lends itself well to pirate speak.
“They say ‘arrgh,’ and it sounds like Arnn,” he said.
Rivers said the idea for her sign and outfit just came to her.
“I wanted to say thank you to my teachers because they gave me a great year of school,” Rivers said.
Gwen Baxter-Oakley, school principal, said it was great to see the school spirit at Arnn.
“I think the faculty, the staff, our stakeholders and our students really know that everyone cares about their success and their future,” Baxter-Oakley said.
The switch to online learning went smoothly for the school, Baxter-Oakley said, and teachers went above and beyond to help students.
“Some of the teachers even met with students after hours because of parents’ unique schedules, and I think it’s just because Arnn is such a warm, welcoming place that we just want the students to know we miss them and we want them to continue to do well,” Baxter-Oakley said.
Lucinda Ward, Camp Zama school liaison officer, said the school did a wonderful job setting up the item exchange.
“I love how everything is flowing and the parents are so supportive and the teachers are really into it, so it’s great,” Ward said.
Some educators made their own signs for the students. For example, Eimilly Cabrera, a kindergarten aide, made a sign that read, “You are so loved,” and showed it to her students whenever she had the chance.
“These kids deserve a sign and so much more,” Cabrera said. “They worked really, really hard this year, and just have been so resilient to all the changes, so loving, and the parents have been ridiculously supportive. A sign really seems like the least we can do to show them how much we miss them and love them.”
Danielle Borja, meanwhile, an Arnn Elementary parent and substitute teacher, gave her children’s teachers T-shirts that read “Distance Learning Expert,” and “Quarantine and Teach.”