Despite the COVID-19 quarantines, social distancing, remote learning and the cancellation of traditional graduation ceremonies, Chester Grade School Junior High teachers and staff did their best to give 8th graders as much graduation fun as possible on May 15.
On the day after what would have been 8th grade graduation, junior high teachers and staff piled into a SWIBCO mini bus and three staff vehicles to cruise the Chester area, visiting all 74 graduates.
Nicki Wingerter, a junior high special education teacher, said she and Gail Kordys, Robyn Korando and Jenny Krantz started planning this weeks ago.
"Once it was certain there would be no graduation, we decided the kids deserved something special," Wingerter said.
"From working with them for the past six or seven weeks, it was apparent they were very sad -- they missed out on their class trip, spring sports, the annual spring concert, music contests and graduation, as well as the final two months of grade school.
"We could tell they were down spiritually and emotionally and we felt really bad for them."
With support from Principal Bill Grafton and Superintendent Brian Pasero, Wingerter's group recruited the rest of the teachers and staff, all eager to help.
They also got support from Rick Juelfs, owner of the Southwestern Illinois Bus Company, Marsha Ehlers, the bus driver, and the Chester Grade School PTS.
Juelfs donated a SWIBCO mini school bus which Ehlers volunteered to drive. The PTS donated special 8th grade "Quarantine" T-shirts for every graduate.
The caravan left CGS at 8:30 a.m. and didn't finish until about 3 p.m. Seventy-two of the 74 grads were at home to receive the caravan.
"I am sure our students will remember this event for the rest of their lives," Wingerter said. "The day went really fast. It didn't seem like we were gone for almost seven hours."
As the caravan arrived at each house, horns honked, "Pomp and Circumstance" blared and masked teachers and staff cheered each graduate. Official diplomas were included in the gift bags.
At one home, a girl was shocked to see her teachers arrive, and once she realized that they had all come to celebrate with her, she burst into tears.
Another family had flowers waiting for the caravan. One house had "Thank you, teachers" across their front windows.
"Another student came running out to our bus and tried to get on board with us," Wingerter said. "One male student was wearing his cap and gown."
The bags of "goodies" included candy bars and "memory books" made by each 8th grade language arts student. Sue Colonel put together a CGS Band bag of goodies.
Jenny Krantz is creating a video of the events of the day.
The two most coveted awards pertaining to graduation were bestowed on the caravan. Mabry Wingerter was named the 2020 GS valedictorian, and Scott Brown of Ellis Grove was declared the salutatorian.
"It was very difficult at times to avoid giving and receiving hugs from the grateful students and family members, but we managed to obey all the rules and had a safe, successful event!"