Aquebogue Elementary School teachers and staff members displayed encouraging messages in a video for students.

The coronavirus quarantine may have closed schools across New York for at least a month, but local teachers aren’t letting that stop them from connecting with their students at home.

Educators and staff across Riverhead Central School District have found a variety of creative ways to cheer up their classes during the quarantine, even while classrooms have been forced to shut their doors.

“Even through these tough times, we’re still here for them,” said Jennifer Simoes, a first grade teacher at Aquebogue Elementary School. 

Teachers have staged drive-by “parades,” rallied alumni to record videos on social media and conducted school-wide campaigns to create signs with messages of encouragement for all the local children stuck at home.

“We want them to know that they might not be in our classrooms, but they’re in our hearts,” Simoes said.

School is not just an important source of social activity and academic enrichment; for some, the classroom provides an envinronment that may be safer and more supportive than the one students have at home.

The relationships teachers develop with their students are extremely important, Simoes says — not just for educational growth, but for emotional support too.

“To maintain those relationships requires more than a computer or an assignment,” Simoes said.

Local educators have therefore needed to get creative to stay connected with their students in the age of social distancing.

Last Monday, Phillips Avenue students were treated to a socially distant “parade” of buses through their neighborhoods. The parade visited students at their neighborhood bus stops, where teachers and staff waved from their vehicles and displayed signs of support through car windows.

Staff members at Riley Avenue Elementary School decorated the building’s windows with colorful cut-outs of rainbows, along with a giant message from teachers: “We miss you! See you soon!”

On Friday, educators from Pulaski Street School recorded a massive Zoom call where dozens of staff members could be seen waving at their cameras. In the middle of the screen, a message in large type read: “WE MISS YOU!”

Teachers and alumni from Riverhead High School Blue Masques also recorded messages of encouragement for the theater group’s performers, whose spring production of Les Miserables has been postponed due to the quarantine.

For three months, students have been rehearsing feverishly for a production that now might not ever be performed in front of a live audience. On Thursday, when the show was originally scheduled to debut, teachers and alumni released a video of their recorded messages of support for the cast.

“I wish we were having our opening night tonight,” director Dena “Tish” Tisham said in her portion of the video. “I’m sorry that we can’t. I know it’s making all of you sad.”

“I know how hard you all worked to get to this point,” said Sean O’Hara, high school principal, who directed Blue Masques from 2000 to 2008. “We’ll have to put it off for a while, but I have no doubt that we will have an opportunity to see your amazing performance and see you shine, as you always do.”

This weekend, Aquebogue Elementary School produced school-wide effort that led to teachers and staff creating dozens of colorful signs with messages of encouragement for their students.

“We’re looking for ways to connect with our students on a more personal level while we’re apart,” said Simoes, who organized the effort and edited the video.

Just 48 hours after she put out the call to her colleagues, every staff member at the school had returned photos of themselves holding up signs of support, from teachers to aides to secretaries to administrators. 

“Seeing that emotion on a face or a sign—that helps to keep the connection going with the kids,” Simoes said.

Simoes edited the photos into a video, which was posted to the school’s Facebook page on Sunday.

Messages ranged from a coach encouraging his “silly rabbits” to walk 30 minutes a day with an adult, to a third grade teacher dressed as Winnie the Pooh, standing six feet of measuring tape’s distance away from a middle school teacher making a guest appearance as Eeyore.

“6 feet away, Eeyore! 6 feet away!” says Pooh’s poster. “#SocialDistancing in the 100 Acre Woods!”

No matter the delivery, each sign was a colorful reminder to students of how loved and missed they are.

“I can’t wait to see you. Always remember, you are: loved, special, smart, kind, talented, unqiue, creative.”

“You are all in my heart every single day. Please keep smiling and stay safe.”

“You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”

“Remember… this IS a challenge, but I CAN do it!”

The survival of local journalism depends on your support.
We are a small family-owned operation. You rely on us to stay informed, and we depend on you to make our work possible. Just a few dollars can help us continue to bring this important service to our community.
Support RiverheadLOCAL today.

Katie, winner of the 2016 James Murphy Cub Reporter of the Year award from the L.I. Press Club, is a co-publisher of RiverheadLOCAL. A Riverhead native, she is a 2014 graduate of Stony Brook University. Email Katie