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The last day of school is always poignant for students, parents and teachers, but this year because of the coronavirus, it felt especially bittersweet.

That’s the word parents, kids and teachers all used Thursday morning when Irving Elementary School celebrated the last day of school for more than 6,600 Bozeman students.

Irving held a “reverse parade” to let students and families walk, ride or drive by the school on South Eighth Avenue, to say goodbye to friends and teachers they hadn’t seen in almost three months, since the virus forced school closures in mid-March.

“We felt it would be easier for the majority of parents to come to us,” Principal Jennifer Westphal said, rather than have teachers drive in a car parade to far-flung neighborhoods.

“It’s bittersweet for sure,” Westphal said. “The last day is always sad. We can’t hug them — usually you get about 250 hugs on the last day.”

Teachers put homemade signs up on Irving’s lawns saying, “Have a Great Summer,” “We Made It,” “Goodbye Owls” and “You are Why I Teach.”

Lots of fifth-graders and their parents congregated on the north lawn, chatting, laughing and blowing soap bubbles. Some parents brought bouquets of tulips.

“This is a pretty big day for me,” said Gary Barnhart, a fifth-grader who will start middle school next fall. “I’m graduating from a school I’ve been in six years. Half my friends are going to a different school. It’s kind of like a bittersweet moment.”

“It’s monumental and heartbreaking,” said his mom, Carmen Barnhart. “They’re growing up.”

“Irving is amazing,” she said. “We’re a little community. It’s a very, very special place … because it fosters tolerance and unity. They have Irving International Day and learn respect for each other and all the cultures. It gives me goose bumps.”

Vania Morales, a fourth-grader, came with her parents and younger brother to say goodbye to people like Samantha Parent, her favorite teacher.

“I feel like sad, and kind of excited,” Vania said. Learning from home, it’s been hard to keep up, she said, especially when she has trouble with her computer.

Reading teacher Kristin Dantagnan said the last day get-together “means a lot to us, when families take the time. It makes us feel they still care.”

“We’re grateful for what the students and families have done to get to the finish line,” Dantagnan said. “We couldn’t have done it without them.”

Bianca Allen-Hostetler, 11, came with her dad and tiny dog Boo-boo.

“I’m sad,” Bianca said, because most of her friends will go to Sacajawea Middle School next year, while she’s heading to Chief Joseph Middle School.

Learning at home was “boring,” she said, though she did like learning whenever she wanted to.

Her dad, Jeff Hostetler, said the farewell parade “means a lot to the kids. They’ve missed each other a lot.”

“It’s been a long spring,” said Peter Strand, a fifth-grade teacher. “For teachers it has just been bizarre.”

Strand did his best to cajole fifth-graders to keep at least a few feet apart on the lawn, to comply with virus rules. “I’m trying to keep them distanced — which they’re not.”

Though the day felt both “sweet and sour,” Strand said, it was happy to feel that today, summer was finally starting.

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Gail Schontzler can be reached at or 582-2633.