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Charlotte Teacher Caravan Provides Rollicking Fun As Virus Upends Lives

It was a strange morning in the Olde Providence parking lot Wednesday, what with the suit of armor wearing a surgical mask and the teachers whooping it up like it was Friday night before a big game.

Then again, there haven’t been any normal days at the south Charlotte elementary school or anywhere else, with schools closed to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Going into the second week of closure, Principal Patti Johanson said her staff was doing all the usual things to convert to distance learning – the Zoom staff meetings, the teachers using technology to connect with their kids.

"Some are doing entire homerooms. Some are doing small groups. Some are doing one-on-one. And the parents are really thrilled about seeing that happening," Johanson said.

PE teacher Ricardo Soler is even making videos to lead his students in burpees, pushups, jumping jacks and other exercises at home.

But something is still missing, Johansen says: "The bottom line is we all miss the kids and families."

At least some of the students agree.

"It’s terrible being quarantined and I wish I was at school  with my teachers instead of doing home school. That’s just sad," 7-year-old Reese Waybright said.

An Olde Providence Elementary family waits for teachers with signs of appreciation.

She was standing on a sidewalk with a cluster of kids and parents Wednesday morning. They were keeping a safe 6 feet apart, more or less, while they waited to see their teachers.

Her dad, Jason Waybright, says having the kids home from school has been a challenge for the whole family: "Two parents working from home, two kids -- trying to play teacher and make sure they stay occupied."

Over the weekend, some of the teachers saw reports of teachers around the country – one school as close as Fort Mill, S.C. – parading through neighborhoods in their vehicles to show their students they haven’t been forgotten.

The Olde Providence faculty organized fast, drawing up a route and alerting families. Johansen said she made sure everyone understood they still had to keep their distance.

The plan was to roll out at noon Thursday. Then, on Tuesday, the county announced a stay-home order that takes effect this morning. So the Olde Providence parade moved up 24 hours.

Susan Tevebaugh's car included surgical masks on the car and a knight statue, as well as a roll of toilet paper on the back.

At school, teachers pulled out suits of armor – the school mascot is a knight – and decorated their cars with streamers, balloons, shoe polish, signs and even a roll of toilet paper.

Families lined the sidewalks. Gisel Zambrano parked a block away from the cluster that included the Waybrights. She didn’t want her two school-age kids to be tempted to get too close to friends. "We have a baby, so we’re scared," she said.

So why take the risk of going out?

"Oh, support for the teachers," Zambrano said. "They’ve been doing so much for us, helping us with home-schooling and all."

A little after noon the caravan appeared, led by a police escort. Horns honked. Teachers waved and shouted while families held up signs voicing appreciation.

One teacher spotted a student celebrating his sixth birthday. "Oh my goodness, Logan! Happy birthday," she called out.

It was a joyful moment on a sunny day when everyone’s life has been upended.

Afterward Johanson and her staff returned to figuring out all the complexities teaching kids to read, write, do math – and stay fit – through at least seven more weeks of home-schooling. Johanson knows it’s tough for parents, too, even those whose jobs let them work from home.

"Of course," she said, "now I’m thinking what do we do in a month’s time to keep them motivated and excited?"

Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.