One of the things we learned as pilots is the “GO, NO-GO” decision point. On a long flight over water, there is a point of no return to be able to get back to land safely. Or, just beginning the flight at all, continuing or not rather than carry on into marginal weather, or having some mechanical or system issue develop in the aircraft, so do you find the nearest airport and land or continue on? There is a common saying in aviation; “It’s better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air, rather than being in the air and wishing you were on the ground.” We know how to make good decisions, and decisions that are made to avoid real risks, not just an inconvenience.

As director of the Highlands County Aviation and Aerospace Academy I have a responsibility to provide an effective and safe program. Besides a comprehensive curriculum, students are working with power tools in the construction of a full-size aircraft. Doing that safely is the top priority. This is my frame of mind as I monitor what is happening in the state of Florida, and in the counties surrounding Highlands County. The cases of COVID-19 are increasing at an alarming rate and it appears there is a lack of community discipline to do what has proven to help slow down the community spread. In my opinion, we have a “Cat-5” storm of COVID-19 infections headed our way, and it appears more could be done to prepare for it.

Our school district has worked hard to find effective solutions to a complex problem, since we had to close schools last academic year. Hours and hours have been spent looking for the safest and most effective way to serve our students, faculty, staff and the community. I appreciate the plans the school district has made to make the schools as safe and sanitized as possible; but without the community making the same effort by wearing masks, social distancing, and minimizing trips outside the home, the virus will continue to spread. Our school district cannot solve this virus issue alone, it will need the cooperation of the community.

The aviation program at the EAA hangar would require students to work shoulder-to-shoulder working on the aircraft in teams. After a student uses a tool, it has to be wiped down and sanitized before the next student uses the tool. The hangar classroom is not large enough to provide enough space for students to be spread out, even when we reduce the number of students in the program. Four of the five staff conducting the program are in the high-risk category and expressed a desire not to continue the program face to face until the spread of the virus is reduced and contained to safe levels. These considerations led to the decision to conduct the program remotely for the first semester of 2020.

We have options. We conducted the program at the end of the last school year remotely and we can do it again. We will re-evaluate the COVID-19 situation in December and hopefully we will be able to continue face-to-face instruction in January for the second semester. There is no one more disappointed than me for having to do this. I miss “my” students. We formed a tight bond with the student teams bringing an AirCam to near completion for retired NASA astronaut Story Musgrave. These students are an amazing group that have attained incredible skills. They started the next AirCam build shortly before we shut down for the first round of COVID-19. They are eager to get back to “the build.”

I understand and appreciate the concerns of parents when their children are not in school. As I indicated earlier, it is not just a school district issue and what the schools do to make the buildings safe, it is a community issue. Our first responsibility is for the safety of our children, teachers and staff. Our immediate action should be to require serious community mitigation efforts. I encountered a man recently in a store who was standing a foot behind me in line without a face mask. I asked him to give me the 6-foot space and then he proceeded to lecture me forcefully, saying I was the problem wearing a mask and staying 6 feet apart. He said he was free to breathe without a mask and would continue to do so when and where he wanted. You sir, and others with that attitude, are the problem.

If we are going to contain the spread of the virus, the community needs to come together and do the right things that have proven to work. Put aside your ego, stubbornness, and your political soap boxes. This is a serious situation and will require a serious effort to make the changes to bring the virus under control. Businesses may consider adjusting work schedules and shifts so parents have more flexibility so they can be home for their children. We have to look after each other, and be patient and understanding. Are you ready and willing to do what needs to be done?

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.