Ever since the pandemic forced Austin to close businesses and ask employees to work from home, downtown has been eerily silent.
But the block between Rio Grande and West Avenue at 11th Street was jubilant Thursday.
Teachers and staff from Pease Elementary lined up on the sidewalk outside the downtown school. Bubble machines perched on stone walls flooded the sidewalk with soapy rainbows. Staff members waved streamers. A teacher shook a tambourine, and music from a giant speaker filled the block.
It was a party for the line of cars slowly snaking its way around the school building.
Most of the cars had balloons or signs taped to the side, with messages like “We Love Pease” and “Bobcats Forever” written in children’s handwriting.
The parade was a farewell to the school, which has existed here for more than 100 years. In November, the Austin Independent School District's board of trustees voted to close it and three others as a way to save money.
After the vote, Principal Stacy Foss said there would be a few events to celebrate the last semester – but like so many other things, COVID-19 changed those plans.
“We had some things like the art night that was planned [and] the May Fete," she said. The idea was to spend the last couple months together, "celebrating the relationships that we’ve made here."
Instead, she planned a socially distanced parade.
Soon-to-be third-grader Aniya stood on the center console of her mom's car, her upper body poking out through the sunroof as they stopped in front of the line of teachers.
“I liked my teachers that I had,” she yelled.
Aniya said it’s hard to leave her friends behind.
“I have a bestie, Lyla,” she said. “She’s going to Mathews and I’m going to Bryker. But I have her phone number, so I can call her and we can have play dates.”
In the front seat, Aniya's 16-year-old brother, Jeramiah, said he has great memories from attending Pease. Anya Wiley, their mom, said she's also saying goodbye.
“I went to school here, also. It’s very hard to see,” she said. “It’s emotional. I haven’t cried yet because it hasn’t sunk in yet but it’s really difficult, it’s hard to understand.”
Two miles away, at Brooke Elementary in East Austin, a quieter celebration took place. The school board also voted to close Brooke at the end of the school year. Rather than organizing a parade, though, the school invited families to stop by any time to say goodbye to staff and pick up a T-shirt that says, “Once a lion, always a lion.”
Laminated photos of students, teachers and parents at events throughout the school year were attached to the fence outside. Plush lions were posed in front of the door, along with blue and gold balloons.
Gloria Vera Bedolla, the parent support specialist, said the subdued goodbye party was drastically different from what the community had planned before the pandemic.
“We have our signs up for our last festival, but it’s not going to happen,” she said. “We had a DJ that was going to come out here. ... We had spoken to Eastside Memorial and their band was going to come out and perform. Martin [Middle School] was going to come perform. We had food booths, games. It was huge. It’s all down the toilet; it’s heartbreaking.”
Bedolla said when school buildings closed, she lost contact with some of the Brooke families. She’s been helping pass out homework packets and distributing food at the Central Texas Food Bank as a way to try and see them.
The district said students who attend Brooke can go to either Govalle or Linder, depending on where they live. Bedolla will become Govalle's parent support specialist, but she’s not sure how many Brooke kids will attend. She said she's heard many families are leaving AISD because they're upset about the closure.
This scattering of students and staff is difficult for Principal Griselda Galindo Vargas.
“I still wish they had given us a true answer as to why we closed, and we still don’t have that yet,” said Vargas, who took a principal job in her hometown of Decatur. “We worked so hard the last three years, and now I have commercial developers calling me about what’s happening and how they can contact the district.”
A truck pulled up with a first-grade student sitting in the back. Bedolla and other staff members gave her a T-shirt and took a photo of her in front of the school.
They asked the adult driving where the child is going to school next year. He said she’s moving to Idaho and will find an elementary school there.
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