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Conant science teacher to take her love of astronomy to new heights
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JAFFREY — After nearly a year and a half of waiting, Susan Rolke is ready for liftoff.

Though, takeoff might be the more accurate term for the 51-year-old science teacher at Conant High School in Jaffrey, who this week is scheduled to embark on a pair of overnight flights on NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a modified 747 equipped with a specialized infrared telescope.

Rolke, a Fitzwilliam resident, is one of 28 educators nationwide selected in February 2020 to participate in the NASA Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors program, a professional development experience for high school teachers administered by the SETI Institute, a California-based nonprofit research and education organization. And after the COVID-19 pandemic delayed her flight week from last June, Rolke leaves Monday for Palmdale, Calif., home of SOFIA and NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center Hangar 703.

“I’m super excited,” she said. “... I’ve been following this program for a number of years, and just to be selected was amazing. I was so ecstatic that I was selected out of all these teachers that applied. And now, getting to go and fly on the world’s only flying observatory, it’s just amazing.”

Rolke, who grew up in Keene and holds a bachelor’s degree in math and physics from Keene State College, first learned about the Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors program in 2014, when she was working at Mascenic Regional High School in New Ipswich. At the time, the opportunity was available only to teachers in California, said Rolke, who also has a master’s in science education from Montana State University and has taught at Wilton-Lyndeborough Cooperative Middle/High School and Franklin Pierce University in Rindge.

“And in the fall of 2019, I just happened to head over to [the SETI Institute] site to see what was going on with the AAA program,” Rolke said. “And it was just as they were starting up accepting applications for Cycle 8. And so it was just a serendipity moment of, I came to the site and I saw that their qualifications had changed and that I could apply.”

Rolke was the only Granite State teacher selected for the program, which started in 2011 and seeks “to improve science teaching and increase student learning and STEM engagement,” according to a news release from the SETI Institute. In addition to the weeklong research trip to California, teachers in the AAA program receive training on a two-week curriculum developed by NASA to bring back to their schools.

“Typically, you teach it after you go, but because of the flight being suspended, we went ahead and we had a workshop [held virtually last summer],” Rolke said. “We learned about how to teach the curriculum and we experienced the activities firsthand so that we could understand what the students would be seeing and thinking when they did it.”

She offered the unit on the electromagnetic spectrum, using examples from SOFIA, last November in her physics and chemistry classes at Conant, where she has taught for three years. The lesson, she said, started with hands-on experiments with different-colored lights, and colors invisible to the human eye, like infrared light.

“So when we started the activities in this unit, it was really great because we were in person at this time. So, my kids were having a great time exploring,” Rolke said. “... And then, unfortunately, we went remote. And we continued with our exploration, but it was harder.”

Even with the switch to remote learning — prompted by a spike in COVID-19 cases in the Jaffrey-Rindge district — in the middle of Rolke’s NASA-developed unit, she said her students still told her it was one of their favorite lessons of the year. And with her flight week finally here, Rolke said she hopes the AAA program provides her with even more knowledge to bring back to Conant.

During the flights on SOFIA — which flies at 35,000 to 45,000 feet, several thousand feet higher than commercial aircraft, to get above 99 percent of Earth’s infrared-blocking atmosphere and do research not possible with ground-based telescopes, according to NASA — Rolke and her fellow Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors will work with NASA researchers to help collect data for various projects.

“So, [it’s] just a really immersive experience, to be able to work with those subject matter experts so we can bring that information back into our classroom to share with our students and get them excited,” Rolke said.

She added that she is most looking forward to the opportunity to work alongside the NASA researchers.

“It’s one thing to read a research paper or a magazine, and you see part of it,” Rolke said. “You see their end result and you don’t see the whole process. When you get to meet the researchers, the people working on the project, you get to talk to them, you really get to understand it behind the scenes of everything that happens.”

This level of engagement with experts will, in turn, provide valuable opportunities for Conant students, Principal David Dustin said.

“We couldn’t be more proud of Ms. Rolke,” he said. “... Her flight stands as an inspiration to the school community, and especially to learners aspiring to careers in STEM fields, and we’re very excited to see how her experience translates into new opportunities to engage and instruct our learners.”

When Rolke flies on SOFIA, which she’s scheduled to do Tuesday and Thursday nights, she’ll be wearing a blue NASA flight suit adorned with a mission patch that she designed herself. The patch, the first ever for a AAA flight week, was chosen after a competition among the teachers selected to participate and their students, Rolke said.

The patch for AAA Cycle 8, the eighth group of teachers chosen for the program, depicts light passing through a prism. To depict infrared light, Rolke used 28 small white dots — one for each of the participants — representing photons. Around the border of the patch, she included abbreviations for the 13 states represented in the group of teachers.

The spectrum of colors on the patch, Rolke said, harkens back to the discovery of infrared light in 1800, when British astronomer William Herschel used a prism and thermometers to discover the invisible radiation.

“And the other thing is that I was also staring at my poster of The Dark Side of the Moon from Pink Floyd that was hanging in the back of my classroom,” she said with a laugh.

Since last March, Rolke has been blogging about her experience with the Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors program, and sharing some astronomy lessons. She plans to update the blog regularly, if not daily, this week. To read more about her experience, visit www.rolkesofia.wordpress.com.

Marvin Joseph

The United States Marine Drum and Bugle Corps marches as spectators enjoy the Barracks Row Parade celebrating Independence Day in Washington, D.C., on July 4. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Marvin Joseph

David Dee Delgado

Competitive eating champion Joey “Jaws” Chestnut wins the 2021 Nathan’s Famous 4th of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest with 76 hot dogs, breaking his personal best record of 75 at Coney Island on July 4, 2021 in New York City. The first Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest dates back to 1916, the year Nathan’s Famous opened on Surf Avenue in Coney Island. (David Dee Delgado/Getty Images/TNS)

New budget offers hope for home-based elder care

CONCORD — Every week, about 18,000 hours worth of requests for care go unanswered at Granite State Independent Living, due to a severe staffing shortage.

The statewide non-profit organization sends caregivers into the homes of disabled residents to help them maintain a high quality of life. Requests going unfilled include help cleaning homes, making meals, bathing and even getting out of their wheelchairs.

Deborah Ritcey, the organization’s CEO, said their clients are sometimes forced to choose which services are most important to them — often getting out of bed and getting dressed — while other requests, like help getting moving around during the day, are pushed to the wayside.

“They could have nobody in the home all day and somebody might come back at 8 or 9 at night to feed them dinner and put them back in bed,” she said. “They could be in their home sitting in the wheelchair all day with no help. That’s how far behind we are.”

To fill the overwhelming number of hours of requested care, her organization would need to employ an extra 470 workers, a seemingly impossible number in an industry with wages sometimes lower than those of McDonald’s employees.

“It’s not sexy,” she said. “What we do is not something that a young generation is signing up for.”

For the first time in many years, the state’s budget offers Ritcey hope.

This year’s state budget, which was signed last week, includes a number of provisions that fund alternatives to nursing home care, like a 15 percent increase in Medicaid reimbursements for the types of personal care services GSIL offers.

Douglas McNutt, the Associate State Director of Advocacy for AARP NH, said over the years, some critical parts of home-based care system have atrophied as funding has waned.

Adult medical day-care facilities, which offer an affordable place for older, disabled people to stay for several hours while their family members are at work, have been grappling with low Medicaid reimbursement rates for years. As a result, McNutt estimates that half a dozen have closed in the last five years — Concord’s last center closed in 2018, after it fell tens of thousands of dollars behind on bills.

This year’s budget offers relief to the remaining centers by increasing the daily reimbursement rate from $54 to $74.

New Hampshire has historically focused its funding for elderly care on nursing homes while programs centered around home care have often scraped by with modest budgets. However, after COVID-19 ravaged many of the state’s nursing homes, some benefits of home-based became more apparent, Ritcey said. She said during the pandemic, none of her consumers were hospitalized due to COVID-19.

The real benefits of home-based care extend beyond the pandemic, she said. Adults living in their homes still have the freedom of choice — when to get up in the morning and how to spend their days.

“People say I would rather die in my bed, than go into a nursing home,” she said. “I think there’s a time in a person’s life when a nursing home is absolutely the best place for them. Our consumers are not ready for that next level of care.”

Ritcey said the extra funding won’t solve the industry’s severe staff shortages, but it’s a step in the right direction.

“Does it fix it? No, it doesn’t fix it. These employees are still underpaid for what they do,” Ritcey said. “Does it help? Immensely.”

Pandemic was a happy time for pets, but not all had a happy ending

When Tammie Roger and her kids decided to foster a dog, little did they know they would end up with 15.

Roger called her four kids over to help her name all 15 — Blondie, Tucker, Guinness, Glasses, Bam Bam, Walter, Remmington, Apple, Phoebe, Basil, Daisy, Dallas, Keith, Brownie and Loki — they recited.

Two weeks after the Rogers brought Blondie home from Live and Let Live Farms, she gave birth to the puppies.

Besides a hedgehog, the Rogers did not have pets. Things changed quickly at their Bow home.

“The kids have thought about having a dog and we thought it would be a fun experience,” said Roger. “We never thought it would be fourteen.”

Throughout the pandemic, pet fosters and adoptions soared, so much so that nearly every animal with four legs and a tail found a home. Rumors of pet remorse — where someone returns an adopted animal — are generally unfounded a year later. By most measures, the pandemic was a good time for pets — they had more human company and attention than ever.

But not all stories had a happy ending.

While pet adoptions soared, one question remained: When an owner dies or became severely ill from the coronavirus, what happens to their animal?

Fly, a brown and white paint horse, was one of those left behind. When his owner died from COVID-19 complications in September, he was without a home. Then, Live and Let Live Farm in Chichester took him in.

Teresa Paradis, the founder of Live and Let Live, is not new to the rescue business. She has worked with animals since she was 13, first starting with racehorses.

“That’s when I discovered horses needed help,” she said.

But, Paradis helps more than just horses. On the sanctuary’s 70-acre property, lives a mini zoo of chickens, ducks, goats, pigs, rabbits, cats and dogs — to name a few.

Despite the hundreds of animals she’s saved, the losses still hurt.

“There’s a lot of heavy tears in rescue,” she said.

Riding around her property in a golf-cart, Paradis shares each animal’s backstory and care plan. Some animals are suffering from starvation when they arrive, others are not socialized properly. With many of the cases, it may take over a year to heal or train the animal before it is ready for adoption.

Paradis pointed to Nico, who arrived at the farm six years ago, after the horse was found wandering the streets of Weare. Starved at the time, Paradis helped him gain weight and rebuild muscle. But when summertime came, Nico’s white fur summer coat did not grow in. Starvation led to a stunt in hair growth, meaning the horse needed to spend the summer under a big white tent on the property to avoid sun damage.

Now Nico, with regained weight and a new coat, trots the property.

Together, Paradis’ family has built and maintained the farm for the last two decades. Next year will be their 20th anniversary as a non-profit organization.

For the anniversary, they hope to build a new animal adoption center and rehabilitation building. Like other shelters and rescue organizations, Paradis saw an increase in adoptions that has finally started to slow down.

“A lot of people needed the companionship of animals while they were home,” she said.

With puppies, kittens and bunnies available, Paradis plans to restart their adoption windows on Sundays, where interested families can come by and potentially leave with a pet. Throughout the pandemic, adoptions were by appointment only.

Paradis urges new pet owners to have a plan for their pets with a return to work in mind. And for those who want to try out new responsibilities without a long-term commitment, fostering is always an option.

Now at eight weeks old, the litter of 14 puppies raised by Roger and her kids in Bow will go back to Live and Let Live Farm — where they initially fostered Blondie from — and will be up for adoption.

Roger and her family know they will absolutely foster again in the future.

“It is a great way to try to see if dogs are for you before you actually get a dog. It has been a great family experience,” she said. “There is nothing like hugging a puppy.”

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Return to (mostly) normal
Returning to (mostly) normal, towns mull keeping virtual meeting options

As town offices open to the public and meetings are once again held in person, many local communities are considering which COVID-related precautions can be eased and whether to continue virtual options.

A number of Monadnock Region towns — including Marlborough, Winchester, Fitzwilliam, Chesterfield, Marlow and Walpole — are following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance allowing fully vaccinated people to attend meetings and enter town buildings without masks, officials in those communities said.

And when Gov. Chris Sununu let New Hampshire’s pandemic state of emergency expire last month, towns resumed in-person meetings — but that doesn’t necessarily mean these sessions will be exactly as they were before the pandemic.

Some area communities are considering continuing with practices adopted over the past year, including offering online options for those who want to tune in.

Marlow Executive Administrator Jacqui Fay said there were enough benefits to Zoom meetings that the town would like to continue using the platform.

“We actually had more participation when we were doing Zoom than we normally did in person,” she said.

Marlow is considering the logistics of holding hybrid meetings so that people in a Zoom call can interact with people meeting in person, Fay said. Marlow’s town buildings just opened back up to the public July 1, according to Fay, who said it was nice to interact with residents again.

“People were very respectful, asking if they could come in, asking if they should wear a mask,” she said.

Winchester’s selectboard — which met regularly in person throughout the pandemic — will continue livestreaming its meetings, said Town Administrator Karey Miner, and those attending are expected to maintain social distancing. The meetings are being livestreamed to Facebook, according to meeting minutes.

Chesterfield’s selectboard is considering a hybrid option for future meetings, said Jim Barey, the board’s administrative assistant, but for the time being, they’ll be only in person.

“We do ask that people be aware that COVID is still around and to act accordingly,” Barey said.

Though towns are returning to what might be considered normal, it’s taking some getting used to.

“The first couple of days I would walk into the building without a mask, I felt like I like doing something wrong,” Barey said, laughing.

Walpole doesn’t have any plans to continue with a virtual-attendance option, according to selectboard Chairwoman Cheryl Mayberry, but the town will stay vigilant about sanitizing shared spaces and providing masks for those who want them.

In addition to encouraging unvaccinated people to mask up, Mayberry said the selectboard recently moved its meetings to a larger room than where they had been held pre-pandemic to maintain social distancing. She added that she’s glad to see her fellow selectmen and meeting attendees again.

“There’s a certain energy and connection you build with your community [by meeting] in person,” Mayberry said.