ALLOUEZ, Wis. — Never in her more than 40 years of teaching has Kay Bessert, a longtime kindergarten teacher at Webster Elementary in Green Bay, Wisconsin, counted down the number of days to the end of the school year.
Bessert hates endings, she hates reading the last page of a good book, and most of all, she hates every spring when she has to say goodbye to her students, whom she carefully guided through their first year of school and, she hoped, "set the tone" for the 12 years of education ahead of them.
But this June, Bessert faced perhaps the most difficult farewell of all, as she retired from a 43-year teaching career and 24 years at the Green Bay School District in the midst of a global pandemic that shuttered schools across Wisconsin.
Instead of walking her children to the playground on that last day of school, tearfully saying goodbye and giving them one last hug as their teacher, Bessert found herself alone in the mostly empty school, cleaning out her classroom and decades of teaching materials while socially distanced from the fellow teachers and administrators she'd worked alongside for decades.
"It's just unreal. You don't know how to really put it into words. I never thought I'd end my career this way — it's sort of empty," Bessert said. "I just want that final hug, that closure, the goodbye, even though I usually don't like it.
"The whole emptiness right now is so hard," Bessert added as she started to tear up. "When I close my door the last time, it's not just the end of the school year, it's the end of the career."
Bessert is among the many other educators — teachers, administrators and other school staff — who find themselves retiring after the most abnormal academic year in memory.
After the state Department of Health Services required all K-12 public and private schools to close in March, school leaders and teachers were forced to quickly pivot, ready or not, to long-term distance learning.
Retiring teachers from around the state told USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin that it was difficult not getting those last few months to soak up their last days as an educator. They wanted to appreciate the children, as well as the teachers and school staff they worked with for decades, before they walked out of their classrooms for the final time.
"In my wildest dreams, I would've never guessed that this is the way my 30-plus-year career in education is coming to an end, that's for sure," said Jean Born, outgoing superintendent of Sheboygan Falls School District.
Since schools shuttered, Born has worked both at home and at school. But it's nothing like the school she's grown accustomed to. These days, she socially distances herself from others by mostly staying inside her office. The high school, attached to the district office, is quiet.
"It's really unusual. It was kind of like summer time, when you don't hear kids in the hallway, all the noises and the bells," said Born. She's been superintendent for nine years after 16 years as the district's director of curriculum and instruction and stints as a middle school English language arts teacher and reading specialist.
Born has been able to communicate with her staff through phone and video calls. On a weekly basis, she meets with her principals and pops into other staff meetings to check in. But it's not the same.
"By nature, I'm very much a people person — that's kind of what teaching is all about. I'm very much the person who wants to have that conversation, get that hug and that's certainly not going to happen anymore," Born said. "So this is really difficult for me, ending these 30 years in Sheboygan Falls without being able to see the people that I've worked with for many years and have grown to be very good friends with, both professionally and personally."
For Cam Markwardt, a fifth grade teacher at McKinley Elementary School in Appleton, the best part of her job has always been simply standing in front of the classroom and her students showing they understand the material and are excited about learning.
Not getting to do that one last time after 25 years at the Appleton Area School District was difficult to say the least, she said.
Although Markwardt has kept in contact with her fifth-graders through weekly small group Google Hangouts where she reviews material they'd already worked on in the classroom, and she also hosts a weekly non-academic meeting for the whole class to play games and socialize, nothing compares to that feeling.
At the same time, though, Markwardt feels good ending her teaching career with a challenge. She feels district staff came together to do what they do best: Provide a quality education to all children.
"Nobody expected to end (the school year) this way," she said. "But it seems like we're all — teachers, staff and students and parents — doing the best we can. ... I've been lucky to have this career. I spent so much time working with incredible people."
Going months without leading his students in song has been particularly painful for Kevin Meidl as he ends his 37-year career as a choir teacher at Appleton West High School and, before that, at Einstein Middle School.
Unlike other classroom teachers who have students only for a year or semester, Meidl has many of the same students for four years. And, he said, singing is by nature a social bonding activity that just can't easily be replicated by a video conference.
"When we raise our voices in song together, we help to understand each other better and our world together, and those are important things about being human," Meidl said. "I'm sure (the students) are missing that as much as I am."
Meidl said he's proud of all he's accomplished over the nearly four decades he's spent in Wisconsin's sixth-largest school district — most of all the thousands of students he's guided through gigs at professional conferences, national television programs and through both national and international tours in over 30 countries.
Although there's certainly been less fanfare for Meidl and other educators who are retiring during a global pandemic, the Appleton Area School District still managed to make them feel special, Meidl said.
While they couldn't have the typical in-person luncheons other retirees have gotten, colleagues and former students who graduated as many as 35 years ago gathered for a Google Meet to salute him and other departing teachers.
It even culminated in his students singing a song Meidl closed class with every week, "The Friday Song."
"I couldn't speak after it was over because it was such a profoundly emotional moment for me," Meidl said. "It was beautiful, and I'll remember it until I'm off this planet."