As school year ends online amid coronavirus, PSD students return to clean out lockers

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Lesher Middle School Principal Tom Dodd, dressed in spirited suspenders and a bandanna with school colors covering his face, stood on the school’s basketball court Thursday morning as masked students left the building for the final time this school year.

“Thank you for a great school year, Dr. Dodd,” one sixth-grader said as he passed the principal at a distance. 

Dodd choked up as he talked about what the scene should’ve looked like: Students playing games in the field behind him, children signing each other’s yearbooks, and staff and students sharing hugs as they broke for a highly anticipated summer break. 

Instead, after nine weeks of remote learning because of school closures across the state due to the coronavirus outbreak, Lesher students came back to the school for the first time since departing for spring break to return library books and laptops and to retrieve notebooks and gym clothes. Unsigned yearbooks were also distributed, along with personalized notes written by teachers for every eighth-grader on separate pieces of paper. 

“They miss us,” Dodd said, adding that he wanted to let the students come back into the school one more time this year. “It’s a totally different end of the year. … Kids aren’t excited about summer. They want to come back to school.” 

Starting at 10 a.m. Thursday, students arrived to Lesher in masks, many carrying borrowed laptops and musical instruments. They were greeted by student council volunteers — also in masks — saying “welcome back” and directing them where to go.

“I just wanted to come back and close everything off since it’s just sad that we left like this,” said eighth-grader Emily Piotraschke, a student council member who volunteered to help Thursday. 

Sixth-grader Chloe Wilson said she was excited to volunteer because it gave her a chance to see friends in person who she hadn’t seen in weeks. She said she was also sad for graduating eighth-graders who missed out on end-of-the-year traditions: the talent show; awards ceremonies; athletic events; and band, orchestra and choir concerts. 

Dodd said they tried to do a lot of these events virtually, but it just wasn’t the same.

“Kids aren’t getting that rite of passage. … You don’t get that closure,” Dodd said. “… People want to say goodbye and it breaks my heart that they’re not (able to).”

Lesher teachers who volunteered to help with equipment returns, like co-director for instrumental orchestra and band Loni Obluda, said they hosted a virtual event for their eighth-graders and had almost 100 students log on.

“It was a sad way to end, but we like to see the kids we can see,” Obluda said. 

While students like Piotraschke said she felt transitioning to online learning went relatively smoothly, Dodd said he loses sleep at night worrying about the children who aren’t staying connected to their teachers and who counselors and teachers are having trouble communicating with at all. 

“I know what our families are going through, and I know there are kids in bad situations,” Dodd said. 

About 25% of Lesher students — approximately 200 kids — aren’t engaging regularly, he said.

“It’s not the fault of the teachers and not really the fault of the kids, it’s the (online) system,” Dodd said. “… We’re in a situation none of us wanted.”

Lesher Middle School emphasizes culture and relationships, something that’s been hard to maintain and foster in an online environment, Dodd said. He’s especially worried about not being able to get incoming sixth-graders in the school physically to introduce them to the Lesher culture if they can’t do anything on-campus in the fall.

“We’ve got to find a way to get kids on campus,” Dodd said. “(Online instruction) is not adequate, not even close.”

Sady Swanson covers crime, courts, public safety and more throughout Northern Colorado. You can send your story ideas to her at sswanson@coloradoan.com or on Twitter at @sadyswan. Support our work and local journalism with a digital subscription at Coloradoan.com/subscribe.

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