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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / East Lake Elementary teacher Rachel Hoefflin waves as she leans out of her car as the parade passes students and their families on 14th Avenue. On what would have been the last day of school, East Lake Elementary School teachers held a parade and drive by student houses in the East Lake community Friday.

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"We are so proud of you!"

"Have a good summer!"

"We love you," teachers from East Lake Elementary School in Chattanooga shouted out their car windows Friday afternoon. Running excitedly from their houses or front porches, gathered on the side of the road, students smiled and waved back.

On what would have been the last official day of school for Hamilton County Schools, nearly 40 East Lake teachers decorated their cars with streamers, signs and car paint and held a "teacher train" parade.

The group drove through their students' neighborhoods, many of which are home to immigrant families and low-income households. The area has been hit hard by the coronavirus in recent weeks as the virus spreads rapidly among Hamilton County's Hispanic population.

"It's been really hard not to have that face-to-face interaction," Keeley Stewart, a teacher at the school and one of the parade organizers, said of her first graders. "It's been a really strange year."

When Hamilton County Schools initially closed on March 16 due to the spread of the coronavirus, students and teachers weren't sure when or if they'd be back this year.

When Ruby, a first grader, ran outside her house to watch the parade and was asked if she went to East Lake, she answered sadly, "I used to."

Most teachers have tried to stick to regular class schedules and have held video conference meetings over Zoom or even called their students each day. Finding access to broadband internet was initially a challenge for some East Lake families. Communication could also be a challenge, said the school's community liaison, Emily Clegg. Nearly 43% of the school's students are English language learners, and some parents do not speak English at all.

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East Lake "teacher train" parade

"They need us now more than ever," said April Gregorcich, a fourth grade teacher at East Lake. Gregorcich drove an hour and a half from her home in Ellijay, Georgia, to join Friday's parade. She's taught at East Lake for 10 years and said it's worth the 65-mile daily drive.

"I think they truly miss us. We miss them," Gregorcich said of her students. "I was explaining to my students on our call this morning that this was our last day to meet online, and many of them seemed sad about that."

Gregorcich said she might still try to meet with her students some over the summer — something that could help with another one of Principal Joyce Lancaster's biggest worries.

"One of our biggest concerns is gap closure and student achievement," Lancaster said. "We've been pushing them to keep learning every day, and we are just trying to make sure they are still learning so when we get them back they aren't too far behind. We are trying to do everything we can for our children."

As the cars rolled by the corner of East 49th Street and Walthall Avenue, a group of students gathered on the corner, waving. Down the street, a parent yelled, "Have a good summer!"

Carson will be a second grader next year. He said he's been missing his teacher.

"And my friends and doing math and science," he added shyly.

Yesenia, a fifth grader, is worried about going back to school in the fall. This was her last year at East Lake.

"It's going to be different, and there won't be the same people," Yesenia said. "I'm going to miss how kind [my teachers] are."

As the parade neared an end on 14th Avenue next to the school, the teachers turned the corner and found nearly a dozen students with chairs pulled up, holding handmade cards and balloons.

The extended family of brothers and sisters and cousins ranged from kindergarten to two fifth graders. They waved and cheered.

One teacher, Rachel Hoefflin, leaned out of her car to call to her student. Others honked loudly.

"I can't wait to be back," said Noe, a first grader, as he danced and wiggled a balloon. "I love my teacher."

When asked what else he misses most about school, Noe answered enthusiastically, "the lunchroom!"

Contact Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.

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