In a normal year, Geary County Unified School District 475 and Geary County Schools Foundation staff and volunteers would recognize retiring employees during a banquet at the end of the school year. But 2020 is not a normal year.
The banquet was one of many events canceled because of COVID-19. Sascha Dent, USD 75 Marketing and Media Relations Coordinator, said the initial plan was to recognize everyone in small groups at upcoming school board meetings. Before that could happen COVID-19 reared its ugly head and put a stop to it.
Instead, Dent called each of the retirees and asked for them to come in and pick up their retirement bell, which they would have presented to them in front of their family, friends and coworkers.
“The reactions when I made those phone calls were so wonderful.,” Dent said. “These guys thought that they had just faded into the sunset and nobody had remembered. Their last day of school was spent at home — alone. And that’s not ever happened before.”
She said USD 475 staff was hurt knowing they couldn’t give each of the retirees the recognition they deserved. They wanted to do something special but couldn’t.
“While we are always sad when our employees decide to retire, we know that their dedication and sacrifices have earned them this milestone” she said. “We look forward to the opportunity to thank each of them personally for their service each year, but this year, it was not possible for us to do that. We held out hope for an opportunity to present itself, but unfortunately, it was determined that a group presentation would pose too much of a risk for our retirees and our staff.”
The last thing they would have wanted was to send them off with an engraved bell, appreciation and a virus that could potentially kill them.
“After it was discovered that one of the board members had tested positive for COVID-19, we felt it would be too much of a risk to do a large gathering for the presentation, but we also knew it would not be fair to make the retirees wait until an undetermined time to receive their bells,” Dent said.
While there may not have been a formal presentation, she said she hopes they all know how appreciated they are.
“Their absence from our halls will be noticed, and we wish them every happiness on the next step in their journeys,” she said.
Greg Gooden was one of the many staff members who retired at the end of this school year. Walking away during the start of the pandemic was surreal, he said.
He ended a 39-year-career as a music teacher in May. The last 15 of those years were spent teaching military children at Fort Riley Elementary School.
He shut the lights off in his classroom, turned in his name badge, room key, gate pass, and computer and walked away from a school void of the sound of children. He described it as an empty feeling.
“The big thing was never getting to say goodbye or see my students,” he said. “You know, I didn’t think that it was gonna be like that. I thought that they’d come back and bring their computers back and stuff — I’d plan to be there.”
But then the children were told to keep their computers to make it easier for the next school year. Gooden said it makes sense to do that so they don’t have to worry about distributing them later. But it took away the last chance he had to see the children.
“I was so disappointed after that, because I was thinking, well, at least I’ll get to wave at them or something when they come back, and then they never came back,” he said. “The last time I saw them was on a zoom screen.”
His final year teaching ended in a way he never could have imagined. He said he had so many things planned for those last few months — and never got to do them.
Although his plans may not have panned out, the way he had envisioned — he is now retired and looks forward to when COVID-19 goes away so he can enjoy work-free days.
Gooden said he hopes he can resume the Geary County Children’s Choir, maybe do some volunteer work and visit family in Spokane, Washington without having to wait until summer break.
As he sees what teachers returning to the classroom for the next school year will have to deal with, he said he’s not sure how he would have been able to teach music.
“If all the kids are having to wear masks a music class is going to be difficult to teach,” he said. “In that sense, I’m glad that I retired at the time I did but I’m gonna definitely miss the kids and especially the kids that I didn’t get to say goodbye to.”
The other teachers who retired in this school year were:
Shelley Buchanan, instructional coach, Spring Valley Elementary
Andra Kaye Burgett, grade 1 teacher, Spring Valley Elementary
Gregory Gooden, vocal music teacher, Fort Riley Elementary
Sandra Gray, special education transition specialist, Junction City High School
Diana Habig, grade 3 teacher, Seitz Elementary
Angela Hook, vocal music teacher, Seitz Elementary
Johnnie Johnson, grade 3 teacher, Spring Valley Elementary
Kaylyn Keating, library media specialist, Fort Riley Middle School
Cynthia Kelley, English Language Learner teacher, Westwood Elementary
Mary Lathrop, gifted teacher, Junction City High School
Judson Lebo, social studies, Junction City High School
Debra Major, kindergarten teacher, Westwood Elementary
Sandra Patton, Success for All tutor, Ware Elementary
Clark Peters, elementary special education coach, Devin Center
Ginger Powers, instructional coach, Ware Elementary
Virginia Traxel, grade 3 teacher, Fort Riley Elementary
Brandys Zolnerowich, clinical instruction, Junction City High School
Janet Himelick, cook, central kitchen
Betty Coleman, academy secretary, Junction City High School
John Hagerty, adaptive communication and social skills para educator, Junction City Middle School
Jeannie Upham, library media secretary, Professional Learning Center
Linda McDonald, para educator, Junction City High School
Kathy Hutchinson, adaptive communication and social skills para educator para educator, Eisenhower Elementary
Wava Schweitzer, library clerk, Morris Hill Elementary
Sherry Martin, receptionist and counseling secretary, Junction City High School
Marilyn Newlon, teacher assistant, Early Childhood Center