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‘I have to see them.’ Pasco teachers drive around town to cheer up students.

‘I miss them,’ Veterans Elementary kindergarten teacher Tammy Hickey said.
From left: Adam Frapwell, Chandler Frapwell, 6, Gretchen Frapwell, and Genevieve Frapwell, 5, acknowledge teachers with Veterans Elementary School as they circulate through the Westbrook neighborhood in a caravan on Thursday, March 26, 2020, in Wesley Chapel. This idea is playing out at schools across Pasco County as a way to reconnect, raise moral and encourage students while teachers prepare for digital classrooms as the coronavirus pandemic works its way through the United States. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]

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WESLEY CHAPEL — The cars started to roll into the Veterans Elementary School parking lot just after 9 a.m. Thursday.

The teachers inside weren’t expected to show up for work. In fact, they’d been told to prepare for digital learning from their homes. All training would be done virtually.

But they didn’t come to set up classes. Remote learning, all agreed, could wait.

They were there to make a show of support for their students, all home with schools closed to stem the spread of coronavirus. They arrived in force to parade through the school’s neighborhoods, to remind everyone how much they care.

“I have to see them,” music teacher Stacy Works said. “I want to stop and hug. But my driver (her husband) has been given directions that he can’t stop.”

Veterans Elementary School 3rd-grade teacher Andrea Lewis, 32, of Zephyrhills, prepares a message for her students before participating in a teacher's caravan on Thursday, March 26, 2020, in Wesley Chapel. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]

Across Pasco County, Florida and the nation, teachers have turned to caravans as a way to have an in-person yet socially distant interaction with the children whom they have spent so much of their time with the past three quarters of the year. They had anticipated returning from spring break to see smiling faces and get back to learning.

Instead, COVID-19.

“This is hard,” said Veterans third grade teacher Bridget Thompson. “It’s only the third day out (since vacation ended), but it just seems so much longer.”

Behavior coach Joseph Hall said he expected to keep in touch with his “kiddos” through Zoom, Google Voice and other online services going forward. But the parade idea mattered just as much, if not more, he suggested.

“It’s going to give the kids a sense of security that we’re there for them," he said. “We’re all in this together.”

At 10 a.m., as the staffs from Seven Springs and Lake Myrtle elementary schools also planned to parade, the dozens of Veterans educators streamed out of the parking lot in their sign and streamer-festooned vehicles, honking and waving as they approached the first neighborhood.

Several students and parents stood ready to greet them.

C.J. Bernardo, 10, Chris Bernardo, Mackenzie Bernardo, 11, and Regan Bernardo, 12, acknowledge teachers with Veterans Elementary School as they circulate through the Westbrook neighborhood in a caravan on Thursday, March 26, 2020, in Wesley Chapel. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]

Fourth grader Ra’Kelle Davis pointed and waved as she recognized faces in the cars, trucks and vans headed up Progress Parkway toward her. She said she was happy to know everyone was out and about, thinking of each other.

“I haven’t seen them in a long time,” she said.

The interaction, however brief, was important to fifth grader Gio DeSantis, too. A school safety patrol officer, Gio has regular dealings with students, teachers and others in the school, so being away is tough.

“We’re not going back to school until April 15,” he said. “That’s kind of a long time.”

Piper Adams, 11, a student at Veterans Elementary School, sends a message to classmates while circulating through the Westbrook neighborhood in a caravan on Thursday, March 26, 2020, in Wesley Chapel. This idea is playing out at schools across Pasco County as a way to reconnect, raise moral and encourage students as teachers prepare for digital classrooms as the coronavirus pandemic works its way through the United States. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]

Kelly Jonke stood at the intersection with her second grader Addelyn, who would only shyly nod when asked whether she missed her teachers. Jonke praised the staff for taking the time to come out, some from more than an hour away, to cheer up their students.

“It gives these kids something to talk about,” she said. “Any kind of engagement, especially with people they love — which is their teachers — it’s worth it.”

That sentiment ruled the day across Pasco County, where similar activities also took place at Odessa, New River, Calusa, Fox Hollow, Trinity, Chasco and Longleaf elementary schools. (And those are just the ones we know about.)

“We want the community to know that not only do the teachers want to connect with families, but that there are community resources available to those in need,” said Chasco Elementary teacher Kristi Theurer, who helped organize her school’s effort.

So today we did a thing! Thank you to my colleagues who were able to come out this morning, to parade through our school...

Posted by Kristi Theurer on Wednesday, March 25, 2020

In Odessa, families lined the sidewalks and stood outside their homes to greet their teachers.

Several students made signs of their own to send messages to the educators who had come to cheer them up.

Several wrote, “We miss you!” Some also wanted all to know “We love Odessa.”

“Our parade was absolutely amazing,” said Odessa Elementary principal Teresa Love.

We had a very successful parade yesterday! It was great to see all of our smiley Wildcat families out waving and holding...

Posted by Odessa Elementary School on Thursday, March 26, 2020

“Many of us were quite sad leaving our classrooms today, carrying our boxes filled with supplies and necessities,” Fox Hollow teacher Marissa Montano said. “Seeing the smiling faces of our sweet students really helped ease some of those feelings.”

Fox Hollow Elementary teachers paraded through their students' communities on March 25, 2020, to remind children they will miss them during remote learning because of coronavirus. [Courtesy of Marissa Montano]

Bottom line for these educators: Sure, class must go on. But school is much more than instruction.

“Relationship and connection are so vitally important and this experience demonstrates that need. This experience touched so many peoples hearts and gave them hope,” said Sonya Basinger, New River Elementary assistant principal. “It is truly one of the most amazing experiences I have witnessed in my life.”

Chase Huckins, 6, joins his mother, Veterans Elementary School 4th-grade teacher Trish Huckins, 38, right, in a teacher's caravan on Thursday, March 26, 2020, in Wesley Chapel. This idea is playing out at schools across Pasco County as a way to reconnect, raise moral and encourage students as teachers prepare for digital classrooms as the coronavirus pandemic works its way through the United States. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com.

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