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Lynbrook, East Rockaway schools shine bright for senior classes

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At 8:20 p.m. last Friday, the lights inside and outside Lynbrook and East Rockaway high schools were turned on to recognize the 12th-graders who had their senior experience cut short by way of the coronavirus pandemic.

Schools across Nassau and Suffolk counties took part in the Light Up the Night event at 8:20 — 20:20 military time, in honor of the class of 2020. In Lynbrook and East Rockaway, dozens of cars drove by each building as seniors and their families took in the moment.

“It means everything to us,” Lynbrook Superintendent Dr. Melissa Burak said. “I think, collectively, we can agree that our hearts are broken. My heart aches for these seniors who have lost out on so many milestones.”

First, spring sports were canceled, and then, last Friday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that remote learning would continue statewide for the rest of the school year. With the status of prom and graduation looking grim, Burak said, it was important to stay positive and find ways to bring the community together from a safe distance.

East Rockaway Superintendent Lisa Ruiz said the seniors and athletes need to be recognized. “While I understand this gesture does not make up for our seniors and student-athletes missing out on certain memorable events,” she said, “it was a small, but hopefully significant, way for us to honor them from afar.”

For students like Elizabeth Murphy, who had her senior year at LHS cut short and her final girls’ varsity lacrosse season canceled, the event was important. “The Light Up event was very special,” she said. “I think it made the seniors feel really good, especially after hearing the news of the cancellation of New York schools. It lifted our spirits.”

Murphy added that she appreciated seeing teachers and administrators cheering and waving as the students and their families drove by.

Staff members attending the event at both schools wore masks and adhered to social distancing guidelines, while the students and their families mostly stayed in their cars. Burak said that even though the senior class would miss out on many events, the unprecedented circumstances would provide them with stories to share with their children and at their future class reunion. “They’re going to be stronger and better for it,” she said.

Burak also expressed her appreciation to the Lynbrook police and fire departments for helping ensure the event went off safely. The LFD provided a floodlight truck to shine brightly in front of the school on Union Avenue, while the LPD helped keep traffic flowing.

Lynbrook Athletic Director Tom Graham said the event was originally organized in support of senior athletes who lost the spring sports season, but was expanded to all seniors.

“We thought it should be about the whole senior class,” Graham explained. “I think it’s great to see the whole class come by. It’s good for them, and it’s good for us.”

Lynbrook Art Department Chairman Joe Pollotta said he looked forward to the event as much as the students did. “I think how they’re getting through this is with each other,” he said. “That’s what Lynbrook is all about.”

Lynbrook Principal Joseph Rainis praised the senior class for remaining positive during at this time, and for being an exemplary group. “They’ve set a really good example for the younger students, and it’s quite a number of incredibly bright lights that are in the constellation that is the senior class,” he said. “It’s a really nice, bright, articulate, thoughtful group of kids.”

At LHS, the choral staff and students have been working on virtual performances. Students and their parents have placed class of 2020 lawn signs outside the homes of all 206 seniors. And students have made uplifting videos for one another and shared them on social media to keep spirits up. Graham said the Athletic Booster Club is working with him to create a senior athlete slideshow that will be shared virtually.

The camaraderie was also on display at East Rockaway’s event. Coaches and district alumni hosted a free drive-through pizza night while practicing social distancing in the hours leading up to the lighting.

ERHS alumnus Alan Owens helped spearhead the party, at which community members drove around the oval outside the school and received free pizzas. In all, 270 pies were given out on a first-come, first-served basis, one pie per car. The food came from several pizzerias, including Joey’s Pizza in Lynbrook and Villa Maria in East Rockaway. Some pies were donated by the businesses, while others were purchased to help support them.

“This was a small way to give back to the community and say thank you during these tough times,” Owens said, “and to make sure that everyone can just take a night off and enjoy a hot meal. East Rockaway has done so much for my family and I, so we wanted to do something to give back during the shutdown.”

Owens thanked the coaches and teachers who helped organize the event, including Joe Lores, Russell Pager, Dom Vulpis and several other volunteers.

At the beginning of the school year, Burak said, the marquees outside LHS read, “You got this.” At the time, she said, she didn’t realize how appropriate that phrase would become, but it has taken on new meaning after the virus.

“Lynbrook is a very special place,” she said. “Every school district says its community is a strong, tight-knit community, but I think when you are operating inside a place such as Lynbrook, the strength comes out and the support comes out. We’ll get through this, and we’ll come out stronger, wiser and better for it.”