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A new way to say goodbye: Teachers turn to parades, post videos on last day of school

For Chippewa Valley students, the last day of school in June has always meant celebrations, yearbook signings and hatching summer vacation plans.

But during the coronavirus pandemic, there’s a new normal. Teachers are holding parades on bus routes to see their students in person one last time, or giving their students end-of-year messages through YouTube videos. Families are venturing out, some clad in cloth masks, to return students’ internet hotspots, iPads and laptops to their schools.

Today, on the last day of classes for many school districts — including Eau Claire, Chippewa Falls and Altoona — teachers say the moment is bittersweet.

On Thursday in Altoona, staffers passed bags of students’ items left in their lockers to families, one by one, and teachers are planning one last hurrah with their students before summer.

“We knew that the last few weeks were going to be hard for a few reasons,” said Jennifer Bain, fifth-grade teacher at Altoona Intermediate School. “We wanted a way to mark this very odd year, and still show that we were not only finishing strong, but that we still have reasons to celebrate.”

During the last weeks of classes, Bain and other Altoona teachers created “Camp AIS,” which they dubbed an online version of summer camp. Teachers filmed themselves creating survival forts, making their own trail mix, even building a bird feeder — and students ran with the challenge.

“We want to get back to having the fun that we looked forward to when we were in the classroom,” Bain said.

As classrooms sit empty, Chippewa Valley schools are turning increasingly to video. Many are shooting, editing and sharing compilations of teachers addressing their students this week. South Middle School in Eau Claire is no exception.

“I am so sorry I didn’t get to see you all this year,” said Lori Greenwood, a German and Spanish teacher at South, in the school’s farewell video to eighth-graders. “I’m super proud of you all for graduating and heading off to high school.”

All kids — but especially eighth-graders graduating this spring and heading to high school — need support as classes end, said Jacqueline Strayer, who teaches eighth-grade Spanish at South Middle School.

South teachers know that a video isn’t an equal substitute for those canceled end-of-year traditions, Strayer said — including the traditional eighth-grade trip to Valleyfair amusement park or signing yearbooks after class.

But “we’re all desperately trying to make those connections with students,” Strayer said. “It was just one other way we could let those students know we care about them.”

Another wave of Eau Claire and Altoona teacher parades are slated for today, celebrating the final day of classes.

For some smaller schools, teachers and staff will drive their vehicles on the bus route to greet students on sidewalks; at others with larger populations, staff will greet families, who are invited to drive past the school building.

Parades will take place today with teachers from: Locust Lane Elementary School at noon; Altoona Elementary at noon and 12:45 p.m.; Lakeshore Elementary at 12:30 p.m.; Roosevelt Elementary at 1 p.m.; Sam Davey Elementary at 3 p.m.; and at Sherman Elementary at 4 p.m. Parade route information can be found at the schools’ Facebook pages.

Though it’s not a perfect solution, parades have been “very touching” for teachers, Bain said.

“I never imagined I’d be part of a parade, just to touch base with my students,” she said Thursday. “There are kids perched out on their driveways with signs and noisemakers. They knew exactly the staff member they wanted to see.”

South Middle School’s parade is slated for 3 p.m. today. Staff will line up on Mitscher Avenue and wave to families, who are invited to drive past.

“We’re hoping to get kids, parents, family members, grandparents to come through and give us a wave,” Strayer said.

Bain and Strayer said they’re thankful for their students’ parents for helping with online learning throughout the spring.

“There’s a sense of relief,” Strayer said Thursday, one day of school left in the semester. “This has been a great deal of work. Many of us aren’t trained to produce online instruction. Of course you worry (if) students are understanding it, able to access it.

“There’s also a sense of disappointment, because there are — especially for eight-graders — so many things (missed).”

But teachers universally encouraged kids to use the summer to recover, rest and explore.

“Read everything you can get your hands on,” Strayer said. “Take a walk, lay in the grass, go through the sprinkler, take time to reflect and enjoy the simple things.”

Ex-firefighter being treated for PTSD completes 80-mile fundraising run

CHICAGO — A day after he ran 80 miles to raise money for colleagues struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, former firefighter and paramedic Ryan Mains was sore, tired and thankful.

“I don’t know how I can express my gratitude,” he said from his home in Huntley. “The support we got in the months leading up to it and yesterday was so incredible.”

Mains’ 21½-hour odyssey Saturday was meant as a tribute to the 130 firefighters and EMS personnel who took their own lives in 2019 — he ran 1 kilometer for each of them — and as a way to bring visibility and funds to a cause with which he has painful personal experience.

Mains, 40, an Iraq War veteran and a longtime first responder, left his job with the Woodstock, Ill., Fire and Rescue District last year to be treated for PTSD, and is still trying to secure disability benefits. Long runs serve as a form of therapy, and he decided to create an event, dubbed “Run for Our Lives,” that would raise money to help others in the same situation.

He left at midnight from Woodstock Square and followed the Fox River Bike Trail on a journey more than twice as long as the 31-mile run that marked his previous distance record. The path was not in pristine condition after recent rainstorms — the water was knee-deep in one spot — and he had to switch out his socks and shoes every time they got wet.

Nutrition was another problem. He didn’t eat enough in the early hours of his run, and grew nauseous as the day wore on with his diet of applesauce (for the carbohydrates) and pickles (for the sodium). But he persevered, always accompanied by at least one pacer.

“Honestly, I tried to not think a lot,” he said. “I tried to make a point to not do that, to not think about what was coming up, to stay where I was. That helped a lot. I feel my spirits were good most of the day. I was pretty out of it sometimes, but I never felt like I couldn’t finish, that it was too much.”

Finally, he arrived back in Woodstock at 9:30 p.m. to a reception of about 200 people waiting for him in the square. His run had raised $18,000 for the Illinois Firefighter Peer Support Group, an organization that assists first responders in crisis.

Danielle Mains said her husband’s success, achieved despite his own struggles, gave her immense pride.

“Every day he had a training run, he would do it; it didn’t matter if it was raining or cold,” she said. “He could have just sat on the couch and said, ‘Woe is me, I don’t care, I’m upset with the system and what happened to me,’ and he didn’t. He has a lot more perseverance and grit than that.”

Mains’ father, Joel Mains, a retired Downers Grove firefighter who now lives in North Carolina and drove up to assist on the run, said watching his son meet his goal was inspiring.

“I’ve seen people run marathons, but to watch what he did not only physically but mentally to himself yesterday, all trying to make things better for someone else, people he will never meet, it left me overwhelmed,” he said.

After resting up, Mains plans to tackle another race this month in which he will run 10 miles a day for 10 consecutive days, and then, perhaps, set his sights even higher.

“I want to try more,” he said. “I want to try longer distances. I want to be better. I wanted to finish (the 80-mile run) stronger than I did, but I finished, and at the end of the day, that was my main objective.”