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Sarasota Thursday, Apr. 30, 2020 2 months ago

Teachers find ways to connect with seniors during final weeks

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Teachers in the Sarasota County Schools district reflect on the final weeks with the 2020 senior class.
by: Brynn Mechem Staff Writer

In April and May, seniors typically spend their time studying for finals, getting ready for the prom and perfecting their graduation outfit.

Although their teachers are prepping finals and helping bring those staple events to life, they’re also preparing to say their final goodbyes to students they might have known for years.

With the last six weeks of the 2019-20 school year being held online, high school teachers throughout the district are striving to find ways to connect with students before they move on to the next stage in life.

Sarasota High School Principal David Jones said that coordinating the response to COVID-19 has been difficult because it’s harder to build relationships with the students online.

“There’s no substitute for being face to face with a student; there just isn’t,” Jones said. “Our teachers are phenomenal. They’re doing everything they can to stay in contact with these kids, and it’s amazing what they’re doing, but it just isn’t the same. We miss these kids so badly.”

Sue Graham and Alana Hodge greet students as they pull into the parking lot at Sarasota High School.

Although teachers throughout the district are finding creative ways to connect with students through videos, Zoom and text messages, many said it’s difficult to end the school year online.

“It’s so hard not getting to see them,” Sarasota High School teacher Alana Hodge said. “We’re still communicating with them. We’re still teaching them, but it’s so much different than seeing them face to face.”

This year’s graduating class is the first Hodge has taught all the way through high school, so their graduation will be special for her.

She said that when the students left for spring break March 11, they left all of their belongings, thinking they’d return for their final weeks of school.

“They never got to come back,” Hodge said. “They don’t get those big senior moments and the last couple weeks in the school. There is hope for graduation, and I really hope we get to see these kids off in the way they deserve to be seen off.”

Although traditional May events, such as prom and graduation, initially were canceled, the district still plans to honor the 2020 senior class. 

A digital tribute will be created for each school’s graduating class, and senior dances and graduation ceremonies are planned between July 16-26.

However, students will still miss out on a graduation bash, sporting events and the final weeks in the classroom, something English teacher Kimberly Cullen is sad to see happen.

“All the games, prom, everything for the rest of the year is all stored in my phone,” Cullen said. “I have mostly juniors and seniors, and these are big moments in their lives that we want them to get to experience.”

Now, Cullen, like many teachers in the district, is trying to find ways to connect with her students, not just to teach classes but also to maintain some form of connection before they graduate.

“They’ve been so sweet,” Cullen said. “I’ve made so many phone calls and texts and emails to keep in touch with everyone. We do Zoom conferences to maintain a bit of normalcy. We know they’ve been shortchanged, and we’re all just starved for ways to recognize them and their accomplishments.”

Sarasota High School principal David Jones talks to each student as they wait to pick up their graduation caps and gowns.

One way many teachers at Sarasota High School did so was by cheering on seniors April 23 as they drove by the school to pick  up their graduation garb. Teachers decked out their cars and dressed up in crazy outfits to wave to students as they drove past. 

Senior class adviser Amanda Mavrikas organized the event as a surprise for the students.

“I just feel like the seniors have already had so much change, and I just felt like it was really important to keep as much the same as possible,” Mavrikas said. “If there’s anything we can do to make these last few weeks special for them, I’m all in.”

Although they won’t get to spend time with their students during the last weeks of classes, many look forward to graduation in July, even if it means postponing their own summer vacations.

“I’ll just tell the family, ‘Vacation will come when it will come, but I need to be here for my kids,’” Cullen said. “They’ve worked for 13 years to get here, and they need their proper send off.”

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