When the school year ended, Washington Elementary School lost seven staff members to retirement.

They included Rhonda Chapin, Jill Elwood, Julie Schultz, Laurie Thudin, Mary Bakken, Leanne Schmidt and Lori Alaspa.

Principal Robbi Mondati said the educators had 191 years of combined experience.

“It’ll be sad and a lot different,” Mondati said of starting the 2020-21 school year without them.

The Pine Journal spoke with three of the educators to see what their last few months of teaching were like.

Second grade teacher Leanne Schmidt said she had a tough time deciding to retire.

“I kept thinking of the pros and cons, but ultimately decided it was time,” Schmidt said. “The pandemic was not a factor in my decision.”

When Minnesota schools were forced to go online in March because of the coronavirus pandemic, Schmidt said the transition was tough. She missed everything from goofy mornings with her student to working on end of the year projects.

However, she said an upside to distance learning was getting to students and their families better.

“We tried hard to give activities that would get them up and moving that could involve the family as well,” she said.

Julie Schultz spent 23 years at Washington Elementary. She taught first grade.

For Schultz, seeing colleagues retire over the last few years helped her make her decision. She also said the increasing role of technology in education was a factor.

“I want more interaction with the kids,” Schultz said.

Schultz and her husband moved to the East Coast once school was over. Her husband was transferred there for his work.

Mondati will lose head secretary Alaspa and secretary/receptionist Thudin, which will be a big change for the school.

“Operationally they do a tremendous amount,” Mondati said.

The educators said they appreciated the parades at the end of the school year.

Jill Elwood, Cloquet School District library media specialist, spent 33 years with the district. In 2019-20 she worked at both elementary schools, as well as the middle and high schools. Elwood said she was surprised that students and families gave her flowers, photos and cards at the event.

“My former students drove by with their children,” Elwood said. “I’m almost crying thinking about it.”

Schmidt said she "loved" getting the opportunity to see her students - past and present.

While they enjoyed the parade, they said there is still not a sense of closure.

Schmidt said she will be back to teach for one month in September and hopes that will help.

Mondati said she understands why the situation would make retirees feel like they missed out on a true end of the year.

“No educator goes into teaching to not work with kids,” Mondati said. “We never dreamt the kids wouldn't be back this year.”

The school district was able to fill all the retiring educators' positions, Mondati said. She said she is confident that the new staff will feel welcome.

“There are excellent folks coming in to fill those big shoes,” Mondati said.