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Principals left at school 'alone' get creative to connect with students

"It's just not the same without you guys here."
/ Source: TODAY

When schools shut down in the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic, teachers and administrators jumped to construct virtual schools for their students to finish the 2020 school year at a distance.

Now, as many states have decided instruction will remain remote until the fall and teachers and kids are working from home, school principals are getting creative and going above and beyond to connect and support their students emotionally as well as academically.

Across the country, principals are calling students on their birthdays, dropping in on class video chats, and challenging students with social media spirit days to keep their spirits up while they tackle distance learning.

Then there is principal Andrew Orefice from Hawkswood School in Eatontown, New Jersey, who decided to make a video parody of "Home Alone" for his students — "A school comedy without the school" — featuring him running amok in the empty buildings.

At first, Orefice has a lot of fun, jumping on a mini trampoline, pumping the bathroom soap dispensers, running and dancing in the hallways, eating ice cream and a pizza just for him. But at the end of the video, Orefice's tone grows more serious.

"It's just not the same without you guys here," he said to the camera. "I can't tell you how much I miss you all, and I can't wait to be back together with the whole Hawkswood family.

"Stay safe. I hope to see you all back here very soon. You're very missed. I can't wait to see you," he said.

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Orefice, who has been known for his Halloween costumes and creativity over his past six years as Hawkswood School's principal, told TODAY Parents that he believes that at heart, administrators are on top of everything else, the motivators for everyone in a school building, both staff and students. "We have to set the tone in both the good times and the trying times," he said.

"This situation is unprecedented," he said. "There is no book on my office shelf about how to lead in a pandemic. I know I have a lot of aching hearts out there, and I can't sit idly by."

Lake Mary High School principal Dr. Donna "Mickey" Reynolds in Lake Mary, Florida, feels the same way. In an effort to stay in touch with the teenage students from her school, Reynolds decided to meet them where they are and started an Instagram account.

"Students, I miss seeing you in our hallways terribly," said Reynolds in her first post, "So I thought maybe this would be a good time to hear from you through social media. Why not Instagram?"

In one, Reynolds — who has been known to go viral with her dance skills before — showed off some TikTok-style dance moves while giving a shout-out to the school's boys' volleyball team, whose season was abruptly ended by the coronavirus outbreak.

The video was a hit with the students; it now has over 4,000 views on Instagram. "You killed that," commented one student. "Kinda iconic," said another.

At Lynch Elementary School in Winchester, Massachusetts, vice principal Christine Capodanno has taken a less high-tech approach to reaching out to the nearly 500 students in grades kindergarten through fifth grade.

Capodanno has been writing personal letters to each of the school's students, beginning with fifth graders and working her way down.

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"My fifth grader received a handwritten letter from Mrs. Capodanno a couple weeks after the schools closed," parent Tamara Pizer McDonald told TODAY Parents. "The letter addressed my daughter specifically, including asking whether she was able to keep up with her hockey skills at home."

McDonald, who has two daughters, Ella, 11, and MJ, 9, said that Lynch has always been a close-knit school that places an emphasis on the social and emotional well being of its students. "Mrs. Capodanno's letters made the kids — and me — feel just a little less isolated from our school community."

Hawkswood's principal Orefice had words of encouragement for parents who are struggling to keep their chins up along with their children's. "Do the best you can, and know that we are here to hold your hands in whatever way you need them to be held," he said.