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Today is the last day

Today is the end of 2019-2020 school year. What we would have expected to see were students celebrating the beginning of the summer break, teachers saying good-bye with some regret but taking a big sigh of relief as they finished packing up their classrooms and thinking about what they were going to do the first day of their summer break. Not this year.

COVID-19 changed all of that, and I expect changed it forever. I remember the fateful morning of September 11 while in the drafting lab at Lake Placid High School and having the news on. I said to my students “The world as you know it has changed forever.” COVID-19 has done the same.

So, what will happen when school is scheduled to resume next August? Quite frankly, I don’t know, and many of our school leaders don’t know either at this point. One thing we do know, the health and safety of our students and staff is the number one concern. How we deliver and conduct the education of our students will meet that concern first.

An editorial in last week’s paper was insightful. As we open up and loosen the restrictions of stay-at-home orders to restart our economy, we should not open our schools too quickly. We as adults can make decisions about what level of risk we want to take, but children rely on adults to protect them. We have pioneered distance learning on a grander scale than ever before. Is it perfect? No, but we have learned what works and what does not. We can make it better.

I have been in this school district for over 20 years in a variety of roles. I’ve been a classroom teacher, administrator, and union president and chief negotiator. I believe I have a well-earned perspective of the people and programs we have. We have talented and caring people from top to bottom. We have many who could have gone on to better more lucrative situations, but they didn’t. They like it here in Highlands County for the less hectic life style, the folks they work with, and the commitment to be the best we can with whatever limited resources we have. I have never been more proud to be a part of our school district than any other place I have been, and I have been around many others in my 50 years of teaching. Especially now.

I say it now because our COVID-19 crisis is something our school staff and teachers can handle. We have for so many years provided a quality educational system with limited resources and other challenges. We know how to innovate, solve problems, and work as a team to get the job done. I have seen it time and time again. They did with this current challenge. Thanks to all the teachers, staff, and parents who worked hard to make it all work.

So, how will school begin next August? It will take a combined effort of our community to understand the challenges of keeping everyone safe and provide a quality education for our students. We are not alone in this challenge, every school in our nation is facing similar issues. We have an advantage since we have a smaller school district, a track record of meeting challenges, and community that can work together to solve problems.

It will take more space than I have for this column to detail all the specifics that will need to be addressed. Please understand that bringing all our students and staff back into “brick and mortar” buildings, riding school buses, and having large groups of people in close contact with each other is a very efficient way to continue to spread the virus throughout the community. There is no disputing that.

As we move through the summer, our school administrators are working hard with all the stake-holders to develop plans to meet the needs of our students and keep everyone safe and secure. We will need to keep an open mind and understand that the number one goal is to keep everyone safe and healthy. It may require us to continue with some format of distance learning until we have a better understanding of the COVID-19 virus in our community.

We were thrown into the deep end of the COVID-19 swimming pool and had to learn quickly how to swim with the sudden school closing and stay-at-home restrictions. We have become better swimmers, and we may be doing some laps before we get out of the pool and get back to “normal.” Remember we are in this together, and together we will meet the challenge.

John Rousch is the director of the Highlands Aviation and Aerospace Academy, a community partnership between the School Board of Highlands County, the Sebring Regional Airport, EAA Chapter 1240, and Career Source Heartland, and other community groups supporting youth. He can be reached at johnrousch73@gmail.com, call or text 863-273-0522.

When memories are what matters most

I remember every graduation as if it happened yesterday, even though the most recent one took place on a very humid May day 33 years ago. The heat was so intense it shimmered visibly in the air, the mosquitos droned around us at DuPont Pavilion and the speaker, a venerable federal judge who shall remain nameless, droned on too.

Then there was the graduation 37 years ago, from Bryn Mawr College, a day soaked in rain and memories of strange but lovely traditions like step sings and lanterns and hoop races, maypole dances and then, finally, forever goodbyes.

And before that, the graduation that will remain with me until memories fade into the ether of age and forgetfulness, the only one that my father was able to attend because it happened two years before he died, the only one that I keep pictures of in my scrapbook: Merion Mercy Academy, Class of 1979.

Why am I telling you about my three graduations, these personal markers of a relatively unexceptional life?

I think that I felt obligated to write about my own experiences in order to remind you of what matters, what you yourself might have overlooked in this maelstrom of a pandemic, of death and job loss and fear of the other:

The weighty, immeasurable value of memory.

I am the sum total of every experience I’ve ever had, the good and the bad, but the former has outweighed the latter tenfold in my life. Those three graduations were the punctuation points, the celebratory summing up of three great chunks of living.

High school graduation marked the end of my girlhood and launched me into an uncertain young adulthood. College graduation was the cautionary message that the time for soaking up learning simply for the love of it, and without and higher purpose, was over. And law school graduation, fulfilling and exhilarating as it was, signaled the fleeting passage of time, and the need to finally, seriously, begin that career I’d dreamed of as a little girl who watched “To Kill A Mockingbird” until the VHS tape broke.

I wager that for you, these communal moments of achievement, celebration and passage are as important. And that’s why we need to step back a bit, a few feet, choose a vantage point from a safe and objective distance, and try to comprehend the magnitude of loss being felt by students who will not have these markers, these celebrations, these rites of passage.

It’s all well and good to emphasize the public welfare and how we need to social distance and wear this mask or those gloves, and call the authorities if we see our neighbors doing things that violate the rules, and feel so virtuous that we are doing our best to flatten the curve, wrestle it to the ground, and create that “new normal” that is so important to our sense of stopping the plague. I sometimes ridicule the extremes we’ve gone to in our attempts at mitigation, but I understand the need to be cautious.

And yet, I cannot escape this feeling that we are ignoring the very real, very human pain felt by those whose memories are being erased before they can be formed, a pre-emptive Etch-A-Sketch.

I know of parents who grieve the losses that their high school seniors are enduring, no proms, no award ceremonies, no parties with decorations in blue and gold, crimson and gray, white and emerald. No pictures of mortarboards filling the air like seagulls sailing toward an endless future. No poses at the beach (some of which would have been inappropriate for family consumption, but whatever).

No laughter, except from a 6-foot distance, with the windows up.

I want us to feel, deeply, the losses that are accumulating for the Class of 2020, and as we put on our masks, to acknowledge that while we were worried about the future, we were erasing other people’s pasts. It was, perhaps, necessary.

But we owe these kids, and their parents and loved ones, the grace of acknowledging what we stole from them in our utilitarian quest for survival.

And we don’t get to say “but it was all for the best.” Because for some of them, it wasn’t. And if I’d lost the opportunity to make the memories that fill the recesses of my resting mind, it wouldn’t be for me, either.

Christine Flowers is an attorney and a columnist for the Delaware County Daily Times, and can be reached at cflowers1961@gmail.com.

Realistic changes

The public discussion about the new coronavirus over the past couple of months has largely been based in optimism. It is worth it now, as we face an uncertain summer, to consider whether that optimism was misplaced.

Much of the initial legislative and social response looked at shelter-in-place orders, store closings, and changes to our daily routines as — at most — temporary inconveniences. But COVID-19 has continued spreading, job losses have mounted to unimaginable heights, and scientists tell us there likely will be no quick resolution to the crisis.

The longer this goes on, however, the more our society will change. The more our lives will shift. Like it or not, we all may face fundamental changes in what America looks like in the months, years and decades to come.

The question isn’t whether our lives will return to “normal.” Time, as the cliche helpfully informs us, heals all wounds. The question is what “normal” looks like.

Take handshakes, for example. Would you go back to shaking hands, with all the possible germ transmission it entails?

How about the ways offices are organized and run? With so many workers operating from home, will executives see a way to save on real estate costs and phase out centralized offices?

What about the retail space? Small businesses and local retailers are hurting right now, and there is no guarantee that shoppers will return even if they can. Meanwhile, online giants like Amazon are seeing more orders than ever before.

More widely, the unemployment created by the virus looks to be crushing. According to estimates, roughly one in four workers are now without a job, the highest level since the Great Depression. “Reopening” state economies, while possibly helpful, won’t bring all those jobs back. How will we as a society deal with the possible social upheaval?

We aren’t being alarmist here. We believe our country and people will endure and thrive. As a nation we have endured a Civil War, World War II and 9/11, among others. We always persevere and come through stronger.

But change is difficult. No one enjoys seeing the foundations of a society shift. Public frustration likely reflects this. Those who are protesting realize, on a level they probably are reluctant to admit, that their lives have changed. That is unsettling.

We will make it through together. But we may have to accept long-lasting change as we do so.

An editorial from The Topeka Capital-Journal, Kansas.

Sheltering the homeless is key to slowing the spread

The current crisis has exposed a lack of shelters for the homeless.

If this pandemic has proven anything, it’s that homelessness is not just someone else’s problem. When a viral pandemic sweeps through the world, we are all vulnerable.

Perhaps the most vulnerable of all are those women and children who are in abusive homes. We’ve seen reported incidents of domestic violence in which many people have been out of work and stuck at home.

Perhaps as vulnerable as those who are stuck at home are those who have no homes to be stuck in. Homeless people have no choice but to continue to move in public spaces and they often lack the means for basic health care, meaning that they continue to present a risk to themselves and others during the pandemic.

The United Way and other agencies are doing what they can to address the problem, but they need our support.

Honest working people have found themselves out of work as the coronavirus brings some industries to a halt. It is easy to see that without a strong support network, such people can become homeless through no fault of their own.

Hard times can affect any of us, and these days they’re affecting all of us.

We as a community owe it to ourselves to see to it that resources are available to provide shelter for the homeless and for women and children who are in danger at home. This is a key element in slowing the spread of the coronavirus and future outbreaks that may threaten us.

An editorial from The (Anderson) Herald Bulletin, Indiana.