JAFFREY — In addition to the conventional cap and gown, Conant High School graduates also donned a rather nontraditional piece of graduation regalia Friday evening: masks.
The school provided all 85 members of the Class of 2020 with masks in the school colors, orange and black, one of a number of preventive measures taken to allow the seniors to celebrate an in-person graduation ceremony in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
Seniors sat at least six feet apart and could invite only a maximum of four guests, whose seats were similarly spaced out. Everyone in attendance had their temperature taken upon arrival, and there were no handshakes or hugs as students crossed the stage set up outdoors at the Silver Ranch Airpark, though they did get to take off their masks for a photo after receiving their diplomas.
But for these students, who finished their time at Conant learning from home, the fact that they even got to gather for graduation made all of the precautions worth it.
“It’s been pretty hard on all of us since we’ve been in quarantine, not being able to see our best friends every single day in the hall, or even walk the halls that we once owned, or see our favorite teachers anymore,” Abigail Drew, Conant’s senior class president, said in her speech. “But I’m really thankful that we were able to have this ceremony here and gather together as a class.”
Valedictorian Wren Wolterbeek urged her classmates to focus not on the events they missed out on at the end of their senior year, but on the times they had together, and even the skills and attitude they have developed over the past few months.
“We have shown not only perseverance but adaptability, which is going to help us for the next chapters of our lives,” Wolterbeek said. “... When faced with an uncertain graduation, and disappointment, we did not despair. Instead, we all banded together to problem-solve and think of new ideas for our senior spring.”
The class invited David Dustin, an assistant principal at the school and its soon-to-be principal, to be the guest speaker at graduation. Dustin said he shares a special connection with this class, not only because they were some of the last students he taught in class before becoming an administrator, but because he, too, celebrated a graduation during an uncertain time.
“In my own not-too-distant graduation from college, in 2009, this year ended up being the peak of what would be one of the greatest financial recessions since the Great Depression,” Dustin said.” The ripple effects of that were felt all over, and it was a pretty scary time to be entering the world.”
To make it through that challenging time, Dustin said he relied on the support of the people closest to him, but he still had to find the strength to carry on. The Conant Class of 2020, he said, has all of those tools already.
“You know that you have a community here that cares deeply about each one of you. The perseverance part and the pushing-through part, that rests with you,” he said.
Salutatorian Jillian Patria agreed.
“We are the class of 2020,” she said. “It’s a new decade, and even though it started with fires, pandemics and murder hornets, we are stepping into the world with a solid foundation.”
Manea A. Aho, Evelyn M. Anderson, Noah J. Arruda, Zachary T. Arruda, Jackson J. Bartlett, Mason F. Bernier, Silas J. Bernier, Alexis C. Brown, Daniel C. Bryant, Jacob M. Bush, Mia E. Caron, Madisyn A. Chamberlain, Morgan K. Chamberlain, Hanna M. Ciampa, Pedro E. Cortes, Garrett W. Cournoyer, Lyndsay R. Cramb, Rilley J. Creamer, Caleb J. Davis, Siobhan M. Day, Bailey R. Despres, Maximus A. Devore, Chyann L. Donley, Abigail M. Drew, Haylie E. Drew, Garrett D. Dubois, Maria A.E. Dupuis, Alexys H. Faircloth, Alexis L. Gallagher, Gabrielle M-S Gardiner, Jason M. Gates, Anthony T. Gauthier, Carly K. Given, Madison G. Gleason, Sarah C. Glodgett, Everett W. Goen, Patrick J. Greenough, Hunter D. Guevara, Abigail B. Hampson, Connor H. Hart, Evan J. Hill, Dennis L. Jewell, Elias X. Johnson, Christopher L. Kerswell, Decker T. Ketola, Preston J. Kirby, Aiden M. Kullmann, Scott E. LaBrecque, Julia L. Lafrennie, Hannah M. Lambert, Ruth E. MacQuarrie, Amber J. Mann, Eric J. Marrotte, Madelyn J. Mistark, Mekyra M. Niemela, Hannah B. Nye, Jerome M. Olin, Isabelle R. Ortiz, Jillian W. Patria, Ryan J. Pepin, Trevor D. Pierce, Thomas K. Porter, Victoria R. Russell, Antonio Sangermano III, Giovanni P. Sarcione, Hannah G. Schlim, Liam E. Smith, Reilley M. Smith, Victoria G. Stenersen, Christopher E. Taylor, Isabelle M. Tenters, Amber M. Trudeau, Janelle E. Vitello, Bailey A. Wanke-Brewer, Samuel H. Weinmann, Kayla D. Whitcomb, Aden H. Whitney, Jacob R. Wilber, Aaron J. Wiley, Kurt A. Wolfe, Georgia W. Wolterbeek, O’Neil Thorin S.A. Woodman, Jamieson A-R Woodward, Amber M. Wooster and Connor T. Zola
Jennifer Badger has always wanted to be a nurse.
Her mom is a nurse, too, and her dad recently retired as a fire department lieutenant in her hometown of North Attleborough, Mass.
“So I’ve just really been around first responders and caring my whole life,” said Badger, 22, who recently graduated from Keene State College’s nursing program. “Being able to help someone who’s in their most time of need is something that’s always been appealing to me.”
But she never imagined she would begin her nursing career in the middle of a pandemic.
“Obviously being a new grad in general, I’m going to have new-grad jitters, but more especially now that all of us, our whole class, is going to be starting during a pandemic,” she said.
Badger is one of 13 nursing students who graduated last month from Keene State. Nerves aside, she is eager to apply her education and join the fight against COVID-19.
“I’m ready to just jump right in and do what I need to do,” Badger said. “... I’m ready to be there, do the testing, help the patients that are on the [ventilators]. I’m ready to jump in for it. I’m kind of biting at the bit for it.”
Badger is set to begin working as an emergency room nurse in Providence, R.I., in early August. Her classmate, Rebecca Putnam, wants to find a nursing job in an intensive care unit.
“The problem with that right now is the ICUs are filled with COVID patients, so they need nurses with experience and don’t have time to train a novice nurse who just graduated,” said Putnam, 22, of Ipswich, Mass. “So I don’t know if I’ll be able to get in there right away.”
For now, Putnam is working a part-time job at Milton Caterpillar in Londonderry, where she screens employees for COVID-19 symptoms.
“It’s interesting with nursing, now there’s all these jobs that never existed before,” such as people at workplaces conducting screenings, Putnam said. “So it’s just different jobs. I’m taking whatever I can get, whatever experience.”
It’s certainly not what Putnam envisioned for her first nursing job, but she said she’s happy to play a small part in fighting the pandemic, and is ready to find a full-time hospital job.
“I think a lot of us are very eager to help, to get out there,” she said. “I know there’s a lot of older nurses that are tired and that are ready to retire after the end of this. So a lot of us, we’re not totally scared by it. We’re ready to get that protective equipment on and get in there and help.”
Emily Twitchell, a 26-year-old Antrim resident, recently graduated with her nursing degree from River Valley Community College, which had a total of 40 nursing students in the class of 2020. She shares Badger’s and Putnam’s enthusiasm to enter the profession, but has struggled to find work in her desired specialty: the operating room.
“You’d think that it would be easier to find a job,” Twitchell said. “You’d think that this would open up opportunities. You’d think they’d be dying for nurses. But actually it’s been a little harder as elective procedures and appointments and all of those things have stopped.”
As these sorts of jobs start to return, Twitchell is hopeful she’ll find work soon. When she does find a full-time position, she will be nervous about potentially being exposed to the virus, which she could then transmit to her family.
“But that’s also kind of what we signed up for,” she said.
“Basically [I want to do] what we signed up to do when we decided to be nurses, which is helping your patients no matter the risk to yourself,” Twitchell continued. “I mean, we don’t want to be hurt, we don’t want to bring anything to our families, but we also, we want to help people who are dealing with something that we don’t know a whole lot about yet. They’re as scared as we are. So I think bringing people hope during that is a lot more important to me than worrying.”
But even new nurses are prepared for such challenges, said Denise Ruby, who chairs the nursing department at River Valley.
“When you work in health care, you do get used to that in some ways because we do get patients with [tuberculosis], we do get patients with MRSA, we end up with quite a few different diseases that you’re exposed to all the time if you’re working in health care,” Ruby said.
Patricia Shinn, director of nursing at Keene State, also said recent college graduates are ready for whatever their nursing careers bring.
“We’re sure that they’re prepared,” Shinn said. “They learn how to use PPE early in the program. And they really have had a good education at Keene. It’s so well rounded with the liberal arts. They’re good thinkers.”
And whatever changes to the health care system result from the COVID-19 pandemic, Putnam said she and her peers in the class of 2020 will be there to lead the way.
“I think a lot of us are really excited to be new nurses and to be a part of shaping the future of our medical system, and being a part of whatever changes we need now that this big event is happening in the world.”
As calls grow for police departments to be defunded, a Keene city councilor wants to explore alternative means of providing public safety without axing the city’s police force.
In a Facebook post Monday, Councilor Terry Clark, who represents Keene’s third ward, suggested the city consider creating a larger safety department that includes not only fire, police and medical services, but also counselors who could respond to mental-health calls, and possibly other relevant professionals.
“I think this is the opportune time to restart the discussion about how we spend our public safety budget,” Clark said in his post, describing his envisioned “umbrella safety department.” “Why do we send police or fire to a drug overdose, for example? The answer is because that’s what we’re used to doing.”
Clark asked for the matter to be discussed in the coming week, ahead of the City Council’s final budget vote on June 18. He added that the idea could present the city with a chance to relieve the property-tax burden.
In an email Wednesday, Clark emphasized that he is not calling for police to be defunded, but is interested in cross-training personnel, such as hiring counselors who can be trained to perform law enforcement functions. He said he doesn’t have a specific plan at this point for how to rethink the city’s public safety system, but advocated for looking at other communities that have found alternatives and listening to input from “people on the ground.”
Clark said his post was met with mixed reactions. Some city residents agreed it is time for change, he explained, though others were concerned his suggestion would restrict police more than he intends to.
Rallying cries of “defund the police” have become more common in the wake of the May 25 death of George Floyd, a black man from Minnesota, in police custody. During a Sunday demonstration in Minneapolis, nine of the city’s 13 councilors vowed to dismantle its police department. Specifics of their plan have not been made clear, though alternative public safety mechanisms have been floated.
Clark said that’s not what he wants, but did say he’s been concerned about police militarization ever since the city received a BearCat, an armored vehicle designed for military and law enforcement use, through a federal grant in 2012.
“Generally, I have always believed that community policing should be more like Mayberry, and the heavy stuff is a higher responsibility,” he said, referencing the quaint setting of “The Andy Griffith Show. “Local police are the faces that people see, and need to be trusted. They can’t do that if they are seen as the heavies.”
Though he doesn’t feel spending cuts should be made immediately, he said there would be ways to improve efficiency if alternative safety systems were put into place. However, Clark said Keene needs to be less dependent on law enforcement for solving problems.
“I think looking at the three budget lines of police, fire and human services tells an obvious story,” he said. “We have traditionally relied too much on enforcement and not enough on prevention.”
Keene Police Chief Steven Russo said Thursday he hadn’t seen Clark’s post. He did, however, say that perhaps police are performing duties in certain situations that might be better handled by another type of professional.
He gave calls involving children as an example, saying there’s not much police are able to do with them legally and that it gives kids a bad impression of officers. On the other hand, he emphasized that police are needed for responding to situations likely to become violent.
“The problem is that we’re society’s answer to every problem,” Russo said.
A look at the numbers
Keene’s proposed 2020-21 budget would boost the city’s police budget by a little more than $200,000 over the amount approved last year. Meanwhile, the fire budget would increase by about $200,000, whereas the city’s finance budget, which includes human services, would go up by about $4,700.
The $60.6 million spending plan that City Manager Elizabeth Dragon presented last month calls for $7.85 million to be earmarked for the Keene Police Department. Of that, $7.1 million, or 90.7 percent, would be used to cover personnel costs, such as salaries, benefits and overtime. The remaining $732,299, or 9.3 percent, would cover operating costs, such as vehicle maintenance, uniforms and supplies.
These numbers are both up from the approved figures in the city’s 2019-20 budget, which included $6.9 million for personnel and $713,603 for operating costs. Increases have been seen over the past several years in both; in the 2017-18 budget, those numbers were $6.33 million and $626,453, and $6.6 million and $647,913 in 2018-19.
The police department’s budget overall has likewise been going up for the past few years. The department, which currently has 44 sworn officers, received $7.64 million in 2019-20, $7.26 million in 2018-19 and $6.96 million in 2017-18.
The city’s general fund budget has also been trending upward. An exception in recent years was a dip from $39.6 million in fiscal year 2017-18 to $37.9 million in 2018-19. It then jumped to $45.4 million in 2019-20 and is proposed this year at $45.5 million.
The budgets of other large city departments, like the fire and public works departments, have also been increasing, though public works saw a sizable decrease from 2017-18 to 2018-19 before bouncing back up.
“The increase in the [police] personnel budget include all contractual related payroll costs such as medical and dental insurance, workers compensation, and New Hampshire Retirement,” City Manager Elizabeth Dragon said in an email Thursday. “The operating budget increases are due to increases in fleet, PC, and IT support costs as well as a slight increase in the cost of our contract with the Cheshire County attorney who provides the KPD with a full-time assistant county attorney.”
She added that there were no increases to police overtime lines and noted that the police budget includes civilian administrative staff, the city’s dispatch center, animal control and the traffic light program.
Within the personnel services budget line, the single most costly item is general personnel. The $2.36 million expense pays for the department’s officers. Other large expenses include $1.16 million for supervisory personnel, $1.09 million for the police retirement fund and $1.04 million for health benefits.
The most sizable portion of the $732,299 operating expenditures budget is the $405,372 earmarked for the department’s fleet. Other large operating expenditures include $103,431 for professional services, $30,600 for uniforms, $33,000 for “weapons training supplies” and $26,200 for training.
Training is also budgeted as part of the department’s more than $300,000 in proposed overtime for the coming fiscal year.