Burnette Elementary School fourth grader Jaycen Melendez set down the piece of poster board he was holding for a few minutes to throw a football with his dad at the entrance of the Chattahoochee Run subdivision in Suwanee. After a few days of cold weather, rain and digital learning it felt good to be outside.

After about 15 minutes, he and a few of his Burnette Elementary classmates and neighbors were focused on a line of cars rolling into the neighborhood behind a Suwanee Police Department cruiser. Jaycen and his sister, Gianna, waved at the caravan as he held up his sign that read, “THANK YOU FOR TEACHING US.”

“He’s missed his teachers,” their mother Yvette Melendez said.

While students still see their teachers daily through digital learning, Thursday was the first day in more than a week that students got to see their teachers in person — from a safe social distance. A few students waved from driveways covered in chalk messages as roughly 30 cars drove through the neighborhood.

A few teachers waved from convertibles, held signs through their sunroofs, jingled cowbells or painted their cars to show Burnette Lions spirit. It seemed to be as refreshing for the teachers and administrators as it was for students.

“We like being able to wave and say a quick, ‘Hello, we care about you,’” Principal Kim Reed said. “There’s something about seeing the actual person face-to-face.”

Sandi Star, a founding charter staff member of Burnette, was heavily involved in planning the parade. She said Burnette staff were eager and she planned the route based on bus stops to give as many students an opportunity to participate as possible. A Burnette teacher whose father worked for the Suwanee Police Department helped coordinate the police escort.

Star said the police department stressed maintaining social distance while preparing for the parade. She was the only one outside her vehicle organizing the procession before the caravan set out.

“We waved at each other in the parking lot for 20 minutes before the police department showed up to escort us out,” Star said. “I think we did a good job of keeping that intact.”

Star said she saw students from her days at Parsons Elementary, now in high school, standing outside houses yelling her name on the parade route.

“I think it was received very well,” she said. “We were all crying at the very first stop seeing all the kids excited.”

Burnette is one of a few different Gwinnett schools with a teacher parade. Duncan Creek Elementary School in Hoschton organized a parade for one of its neighboring subdivisions earlier this week and said the school is planning more in future days. Another Suwanee school, Roberts Elementary, organized a parade on Wednesday for its surrounding subdivisions. Sycamore Elementary School in Sugar Hill announced it would host its own parade set for Friday.

Burnette’s parade is part of a larger spirit week that will continue Friday. On Monday, in honor of services workers continuing to work throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Burnette students wee encouraged to dress as a superhero from home for friends to see on video conferences. On Tuesday, some students honored teachers by dressing to match their favorite careers. On Wednesday, students dressed as their favorite book character and Friday will be college and high school spirit day.

“We have lots of things built in to keep the kids excited,” Reed said.

Reed reports most students have been engaged in digital learning with 91% participation. Teachers have reached out to the other 9% and found for some of them poor internet connections or sharing devices with multiple siblings was preventing them from logging in regularly.

“Those are a couple of the obstacles, but those are a very small percentage,” Reed said.

Though they’re not in school, teachers are still making personal connections to students with individual video calls. Jaycen’s teacher, Courtney White, has helped students break things down, even from a distance.

“She’s helped them on parts where maybe they get stuck or they don’t know where to go, she’s able to walk them through it live,” Yvette Melendez said.

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Taylor Denman is a reporter born and raised in Gwinnett County. He came back home to seize the rare opportunity of telling stories about the county in which he grew up.

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