by ALEXANDRA RETTER
The fourth-grade students cast their lines into the lake on a Friday afternoon in June. Toward the end of a school year that consisted of moving between learning in person and virtually, as well as following COVID-19 protocols, the local fishing excursion was a welcome chance for Washington-Kosciusko Elementary School’s (W-K) fourth-grade students and teachers to go on a normal field trip and briefly forget about COVID. “On top of it, there’s so many kids that it just opened up a new world for them of something that they could do in Winona outside of the house, outside of their apartments, outside of the buildings,” W-K fourth-grade teacher Brandon Mehling said.
The last day of school itself also brought some happy, more “normal” moments. W-K fourth-grade teachers Jennifer Woyczik, Carolyn Lutz and Mehling agreed that the last day of school this year was bittersweet, as it always is, with having to say goodbye to students after an enjoyable year together. “You build such a great relationship with them, and especially this year where it’s been such a turbulent year. And it seems like the bond we’ve created this year was as strong as ever, just because we were all going through so much together,” Mehling said. He added, “We’re happy for them, but it’s always sad to see them leave.”
Woyczik said that, particularly for fourth-grade teachers, since their students move on to middle school, the only opportunity to see former students is while out and about in town. “I always tell my classes, every other grade at elementary gets to say, “See you next fall,’” she said.
Hope Lutheran High School Principal Rocky Sandcork said that on the last day of school, “The overall feel of it was still joyous,” though it was “bittersweet for a lot of kids.” Some felt grateful they had been able to go on a senior class trip to the East Coast, he said. “It was a relief that they were able to do some of those things, unlike last year where the spring was cancelled,” he said.
The last day of school included some special events. At Hope Lutheran, students spent time together outside at a local park and marked Memorial Day.
Woyczik, Lutz and Mehling agreed that they were glad they got to see the smiles on their students’ faces, as well as their students’ families, during an outdoor celebration of fourth graders completing elementary school on the last day of the academic year. Since it was held outdoors, they could go without masks. “It felt really nice to just have everyone together,” Mehling said. Last year, the celebration of fourth graders had been even more different, as it took place as a vehicle parade.
The celebration looked a little different this year, but the changes organizers made to it did not take away from the joy of recognizing students as they head off to middle school, Woyczik, Lutz and Mehling said. Staff shifted the ceremony outdoors, and while students would normally sing a song as an entire fourth-grade class, the students in this year’s class each got their photo taken, instead. They posed with the elementary school graduation certificate they received in front of a backdrop with Winhawk orange and black streamers and balloons, in addition to a sign saying, “Congratulations.” Some high school students also livestreamed the celebration. “The whole year’s been that way, where things have been different, but some of the things that we’ve done in place of it have been great additions. So it’s like the whole year,” Lutz said.
Some other positive parts of the school year included gaining technology skills, Woyczik said. She, Mehling and Lutz added that they appreciated fostering comradery with students, families and fellow staff members while facing the pandemic. “Everybody just pulled together,” Lutz said. “I felt like it brought us closer as an entire fourth-grade team, not just the three of us, but across the district,” Mehling said.
The academic year featured some especially memorable moments, as well. Woyczik, Lutz and Mehling were ecstatic when all the students in their classes could attend school in person once more. “We had a really neat group of fourth graders, and I think all of us felt it was going to be pretty special to finally be back in the school building,” Mehling said.
For Sandcork, interacting with students in person five days a week throughout this school year was valuable. As a much smaller school, Hope Lutheran was able to support full-time, in-person learning. “The face-to-face contact really was a blessing for us,” he said.
Hope Lutheran students on a varsity soccer team with another local school were undefeated and won their section, Sandcork said. He was happy there were some themed dress-up days and dances throughout the school year, too.
Teachers embraced those positive moments when the pandemic presented particular obstacles this academic year. When not all students could attend school in person at one time, “We missed the kids,” Mehling said. “We made it work. But it’s always hard when the students aren’t here, because that’s the fun part about what we do. As much as we enjoy each other, we’re here because the kids make each day so fun. And so that was a challenge, just not being able to see them everyday.”
Teachers also worked through moving classes online. “There were some long days when we were planning together, getting assignments and work posted on Google Classroom for our students,” Woyczik said.
Looking to the future, Mehling said teachers will apply the technology skills they learned to educating students in the coming years, and some day-to-day parts of school that have changed during the pandemic, such as lunch and recess formatting, may stick around. Woyczik said she plans to “not take seeing our kids in person for granted.”