At St. Joseph Parish School in Grafton, the last day of the school year is always a special time. Students clean out their lockers, relive the memories of the last nine months and look forward to a summer full of relaxation, socialization and fun.

St. Joseph Parish School secretary Sue Henke greets students during the school’s Pick- up Day on May 1. (Photo by Tim Townsend)

That “last day of school” tradition and camaraderie were still able to take place — albeit in a slightly altered way — on Friday, May 1. But it wasn’t the last day of the year, and students and teachers weren’t sure when they would see one another again.

“It was a very bittersweet day,” said Amanda Matthews, principal at St. Joseph. “We had not had a chance to see our students since we closed on March 13.”

The school hosted a drive-thru style pickup event where parents and students could collect personal items left at school in March, receive learning materials still needed for the remainder of the year, and get some (distanced) face time with their beloved teachers.

For middle school math and science teacher Matthew Upson, the day provided some moments of connection with students he hasn’t seen outside of a computer in almost two months.

“Especially just having the Catholic school identity, where you’re so used to having a family environment, where these students have been together for so long — it’s always nice to see them each morning in homeroom and see them throughout the day,” he said. “Now we only have an opportunity to see them face-to-face virtually and don’t have an opportunity to see their expressions and care for their needs on a day-to-day basis as much as we could when we were face to face.”

It took about two weeks for teachers and staff to prepare for the day. All teachers had the responsibility of cleaning out the lockers of their homeroom students, bagging up items to be collected and disposing of any trash. “Thankfully, we didn’t find anything too past (its) expiration date in terms of food,” said Upson.

The teachers were then able to load the bags into their students’ cars and have a brief interaction with them. Many of the cars were decorated with signs thanking teachers and acknowledging Teacher Appreciation Week. The day also included a food drive and a collection for local metal stamping company Kapco’s Hero Mail Call, which distributes thank-you cards to frontline workers.

“It felt like the last day of school, everyone kept saying,” said Matthews. “The lockers were hanging open and empty, and we were waving and smiling and saying goodbye because we don’t know if we’re going to see them again until next school year. That piece of it was emotional, especially our eighth grade.”

Matthews actually taught many of this year’s eighth grade graduates when she was a third- and fourth-grade teacher at the school.

“They’re not going to get the traditional things that they always get. We always do an eighth-grade breakfast, we do graduation, we do an eighth-grade field trip. Just seeing the eighth graders was probably the most emotional piece for me because I taught them a long time ago,” she said.

“We’ve been really racking our brains as a staff to figure out what we can do to make this time special, whether that means placing a yard sign in front of their house or sending a Lancer gram — just really to thank them for their time here,” said Upson of the eighth graders. “A few of them are the oldest siblings of other family members that are here and have laid a strong foundation for their siblings; so just making sure that they’re feeling special during this difficult time. We want to make it special for them in the little ways.”