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Shine a light till the end

SoVaNow.com / December 09, 2020
If we’re all going to be honest with ourselves, there’s no denying the sadness in leafing through the pages of this newspaper and seeing photos of everyone wearing masks over their faces. Especially with the usual assortment of Christmas photos — children, parents, sometimes Santa Claus himself all masked up, their smiles and cheery expressions hidden by garb more appropriate for the hospital ER. You know what’s even sadder? Seeing people die. As the tagline goes in the TV commercials, our current predicament, it’s not complicated.

Please, folks, wear those masks — simple acts of personal responsibility and kindness can save someone’s life, including your own.

On a related note: His decision won’t make folks happy, but let’s give a round of applause for Superintendent of Schools Paul Nichols, who on Monday pulled the plug on in-person instruction in Mecklenburg County Public Schools. MCPS began the school year in September with the region’s most aggressive plan for returning students to the classroom — with full, four-day in-person instruction for all elementary students and a limited number of middle school and high school students (such as high-need special education learners), and families granted the option of keeping their kids at home for distance learning. That the school year has proceeded thus far without a major outbreak of COVID-19 inside one of the school buildings is a minor miracle, and a testament to the diligent work by teachers, support staff and administrators to keep the disease at bay.

That said, the pandemic has caught fire since November, jeopardizing the health and safety of anyone gathered together indoors all day long, especially in tight spaces. While children may be relatively unlikely to suffer long-term consequences from COVID-19,the same can’t be said for the adults who make the school day possible. Going forward with business semi-as-usual could be a death warrant for some.

Mecklenburg’s caseload since the pandemic struck, for a time the highest in the region in population-adjusted terms, has settled into the uneasy mid-range: 3,448.6 cases per 100,000 population through Tuesday. (Say a prayer for our neighbors in Greensville County, where the number of covid cases per 100,000 has gone through the roof: 8,162.) Halifax County has a population-adjusted rate of 2,509.9; in Brunswick County the figure stands at 3,106.7 per 100,000. Venturing further west, the City of Danville has a per-1,000 caseload of 4,452.9 persons infected, not too far from the rate locally.

One thing that makes Danville noteworthy is the transparency of Danville Public Schools in publicly reporting all covid cases and exposures at its facilities. In a single week in mid-November, DPS reported seven cases and 14 exposures, prompting the superintendent there to send students home until after the Thanksgiving break. From Dec. 1-8, DPS reported an additional 14 cases involving staff and students. The Danville school board has extended the stay-at-home policy until after the Christmas break. Given that community spread of the virus is rampant in Danville and elsewhere, it’s hard to imagine students will be returning to class even in January — or frankly, at any point till spring, at the earliest.

It’s extremely unlikely that Danville Public Schools is an outlier among school divisions; its central office simply seems more committed to the proposition that everyone should know about the spread of covid inside its facilities. Along with Danville, Halifax County Public Schools has decreed that all students must stay at home for distance learning through January. (Halifax has been very cautious about bringing back its students, although in marked contrast to Mecklenburg, HCPS has yet to cancel its winter and fall sport seasons.) Let’s not sugarcoat what is going on here: prolonged school closures and built-on-the-fly platforms for virtual learning (for those who have decent internet) constitute an educational and humanitarian disaster, inflicting damage on children and families that we haven’t even begun to fully assess. A light is shining at the end of the tunnel with the development of effective vaccines in a very short period of time, but if the pandemic ended tomorrow it would stand as the worst worldwide crisis since World War II, without question. The U.S. is barreling towards a death toll of half a million people, maybe more, with hundreds of thousands more suffering irrevocable damage to their physical and mental health from this strange disease. The idea that we can go about daily life amid this grim reality without making painful sacrifices is sheer fantasy.

The silver lining is the sacrifices aren’t forever and don’t have to be too drastic — just as wearing a mask isn’t the worst thing in the world. Simple preventative steps, such as social distancing and crowd limits (which go hand-in-hand) can carry us through the darkest of these pandemic times until mass vaccination kicks in and we can protect the most vulnerable among us. (And yes, I will line up for the vaccine in a New York second.) Let’s hang in there for the sake of everyone, family, friend or otherwise. If America cannot unite around a message that we’re all in this together, now more than ever, to safeguard the health of all involved, including you and me, it’s hard to know what common cause can exist in this country. Enough with the politics and the junk science already. It’s way past time to do the right thing.

***
Turning to some good news, Virginia State Parks has laid the groundwork for the purchase of Falkland Farms in Halifax County, a 7,362 acre estate that once reigned as one of the largest hunting preserves in Virginia. The plan is to eventually incorporate Falkland Farms into Staunton River State Park, thus creating Virginia’s largest state park and one of the largest parks of its kind on the East Coast. Falkland Farms and Staunton River State Park (approximately 2,400 acres) sit at the headwaters of Kerr Lake, at the confluence of the Dan and Staunton rivers. The location makes this project not only a massive win for Halifax County but for the region as a whole.

The Department of Conservation and Recreation (parent agency of VSP) is purchasing the land from computer gaming billionaire Tim Sweeney, whose company, Epic Games, brought the wildly popular Fortnite to the world. (I say this in the literal sense, given the global audience of Fortnite fanatics). Sweeney is a longtime nature conservationist who bought up Falkland Farms in late 2019 for the tidy sum of $11.5 million. The property sits adjacent to Staunton River State Park, with shoreline access to the Dan, Staunton, Banister and Hyco rivers and Kerr Lake. Being a hunting preserve, Falkland Farms features trails and woodland cut-throughs that could easily be added to the existing trail system at SRSP. In fact, the site could be the connective tissue for a long-envisioned, multi-county recreational trail in Halifax, Charlotte and Mecklenburg counties. If one really wants to think big, it’s conceivable the acquisition of Falkland Farms could allow development of a new marina at the mouth of Kerr Lake. Bringing more recreational opportunities to the area (and putting a marina on the Halifax side of the lake) would be a boon for new and incumbent Lake Country businesses alike.

What needs to happen? Our local lawmakers must fight for state funding to bring these aspirations (and others) to fruition. Can they or will they do so? I have no idea. One can hope. The case for building up a constituency of recreational users at an expanded 10,000 acre Staunton River State Park goes hand-in-hand with the other incredible benefit of this acquisition: preserving the environment and battling climate change by encouraging wise public use of nature’s open spaces. (Falkland Farms is a massive carbon sink.) There are obvious pathways for members of Southside’s legislative delegation to enlist allies in a shared cause of maximizing this region-wide investment, but all such approaches will demand creativity and willingness to compromise, including on points of party dogma such as (cough, cough) climate denialism.

Speaking of which: next Monday, the Electoral College will certify the victory of Joe Biden as America’s 46th president. From the time the outcome of the election became crystal clear, many Republicans — from the top rungs of the party down to low-level functionaries like our own state Sen. Frank Ruff — have questioned the legitimacy of Biden’s victory, with zero evidence of wrongdoing and negative good faith. It’s been a disgraceful display. No less than a federal judge appointed with the strong support of the far-right Federalist Society tossed a Trump campaign lawsuit to overturn Biden’s victory in Pennsylvania, describing it as a “Frankenstein’s monster” riddled with “strained legal arguments without merit and speculative accusations.” Alas, there’s apparently no shaming the shameless. This disgusting abuse of the court system isn’t just about or even mostly about Joe Biden — it’s an exercise in trashing democracy and subverting the will of the people. Some folks may view the mockery and disrespect aimed at Republican politicians who promote these dangerous and destructive lies and think it’s all too much. On the contrary, the argument is far stronger that it’s not nearly enough.



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