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Pandemic puts Peterborough math teacher's problem-solving skills to the test
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PETERBOROUGH — It’s the last period of the day, and Michelle Hautanen walks with purpose into her classroom at South Meadow School, where nine 7th-graders are waiting for her to begin their math class.

She passes a bulletin board with an indigo background, adorned with brightly colored motivational messages like “I will embrace challenge” and “I can come up with creative solutions.”

Those may as well be the mantras for Hautanen, and all area educators, as they continue to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.

As she settles onto a stool near a computer at the front of the room and prepares her materials for the day’s lesson on linear expressions, Hautanen also puts on a wireless headset, and soon welcomes two more students who join the class remotely via Zoom.

She doesn’t stay on that stool for long, though, and spends the next 45 minutes in near-constant motion, managing two classrooms — physical and virtual — simultaneously.

Hautanen, 50, of Peterborough, begins Tuesday’s lesson by walking her students step by step through a few problems as they work on their school-provided Chromebooks. She periodically pops back to the front of the room to check the work the remote students have put into Zoom’s chat box.

“I need my roller skates today,” Hautanen jokes as she crisscrosses the room once more.

After the class finishes going through questions together, Hautanen distributes papers to her in-person students to finish the period with individual work, speaking into her headset as she passes out the worksheets.

“You can type your answer in. I’ll be right there to check,” Hautanen tells her remote students.

In the last few minutes of class, Hautanen’s 7th-graders grow restless, and ready their backpacks to head home.

“Stay at your spots so we keep our six feet of distance,” she reminds her 12- and 13-year-old students, all of whom are wearing masks.

Then, at 2:15 p.m., the announcement comes through the speakers. Hautanen’s students are dismissed, and another school day is in the books.

Aaron Lipsky  

South Meadow School math teacher Michelle Hautanen helps Gus Hatmaker, 13, of Peterborough with his work on Tuesday.

Finding a routine

This sort of class period has become fairly routine for Hautanen. Educators throughout the region and across the country have adapted to a diverse array of in-person, remote and hybrid learning models throughout the pandemic. These different methods have led to often unprecedented changes in how schools interact with students, families and staff members.

South Meadow, like all elementary and middle schools in the ConVal district, has offered in-person classes five days a week since the beginning of the school year, aside from a pair of planned remote-learning segments centered around winter and spring breaks. Families also have been able to choose to have their kids learn remotely throughout the year.

Regardless of the medium for instruction, though, Hautanen said maintaining some sense of consistency has become more important than ever for students and teachers during the pandemic.

Aaron Lipsky  

South Meadow School math teacher Michelle Hautanen on Tuesday refers to content visible both to students in the classroom and to those learning remotely.

“So, in other words, just having a routine to fall back on, the students find very comforting,” Hautanen said. “... I think for a lot of kids, they feel like the rest of their life is kind of out of their control, but if you can keep school very routine and very familiar, it kind of gives them that touchstone so that they know they can still be themselves at school and they don’t have to worry that we’re still there.”

Hautanen’s own pre-pandemic routine was upended in March 2020, when schools statewide transitioned to remote learning at Gov. Chris Sununu’s order.

Thankfully, she said, all students at South Meadow — which enrolls about 360 middle-schoolers primarily from Peterborough, Greenfield and Temple — already had Chromebooks. So teachers spent the week leading up to Sununu’s order — when they had begun to hear that some mandated shift in learning environment was on its way — reviewing with students how to use digital tools like Zoom and Google Classroom.

When the switch to remote did happen last spring, Hautanen said she started by recording video lessons for her four 5th-grade math classes, and making herself available via live video for students who needed extra help. This was a lot of work, and Hautanen found it difficult to separate home and school.

Teachers were expected to be online and available to students during normal school hours, she said, “but then it was hard when a student would email you and say that they could only go online when their parents got home after 4, and they’d want to meet with you. So you’d meet with them at 4 because you couldn’t go anywhere else.”

Aaron Lipsky 

South Meadow School math teacher Michelle Hautanen on Tuesday discusses content visible both to students in the classroom and to those learning remotely.

Beyond meeting with students online and preparing assignments and video lessons, Hautanen also had to find time to review students’ work and provide feedback — all resulting in a lot more work than usual.

“So it was a time-consuming endeavor,” she said.

ConVal — which covers Antrim, Bennington, Dublin, Francestown, Greenfield, Hancock, Peterborough, Sharon and Temple — ended its 2019-20 school year two weeks earlier than initially planned, leaving the first two weeks of June for staff members to prepare for the fall.

At the time, though, the end of the year felt like a finish line, Hautanen said.

“It was great to feel like we had kind of finished it,” she said. “I think at that point, we were all hoping that we would come back in the fall the way every other school year had started.”

Return from remote

But for Hautanen and about 70 other school staff, parents and community members who joined ConVal’s reopening task force, the work was just beginning. The group, which was divided into several committees, worked throughout the summer to design the district’s school-reopening plan.

As part of that plan, South Meadow School divided students and staff into five “pods” to limit the interaction between the groups, and minimize the impact on the school in the event of a COVID-19 exposure. As a result of the pod system, Hautanen, who is in her 20th year at South Meadow, went from teaching four 5th-grade math classes to one class each in grades five through eight.

Aaron Lipsky 

South Meadow School math teacher Michelle Hautanen, right, and Principal Ann O'Bryant flank the computers-and-whiteboard setup that allows Hautanen to simultaneously teach students in person and online.

This system has its benefits, she said, like connecting with more students and gaining a deeper understanding of how math curricula develop throughout middle school.

“But it’s also been a huge time commitment to basically master quickly three new subjects,” she said. “I mean, you know your content in your grade level, but knowing it and teaching it are often two different things.”

Ultimately, that means Hautanen’s days this year are just as long and stressful as they were last spring when schools switched to remote learning.

“The difference is that it’s more in the planning than in the meeting with students after hours,” she said. “The planning for the four different grade levels, and for the remote and in-person at the same time, that planning piece is actually, I think, longer this year than it was in the spring for us.”

Hautanen said she’s grateful that the three children she has with her husband, Brent — son Alex, 27, and daughters Anastasia, 25, and Natalia, 21 — are grown, and mostly out of the house.

“I cannot imagine having done any of this and having had an elementary-school student at home,” she said.

A balancing act

Even though her kids are older, Hautanen said this school year has still caused its fair share of stress, particularly at the beginning of the year.

“I volunteered for an outside classroom in the fall because being outside felt more comfortable to me than being in the classroom,” she said. “Even though we were assured the air-filtration systems and so forth were good, there was just something reassuring about being outside.”

Over the past seven months, Hautanen said she and her students have grown increasingly comfortable with COVID-19 protocols like masking, distancing and frequent sanitization of shared surfaces such as desks and pencil sharpeners.

Thankfully, she added, South Meadow has had very few coronavirus cases. However, her pod did have to switch to remote learning shortly before Thanksgiving because several employees needed to quarantine, leading to staff shortages.

Aaron Lipsky 

South Meadow School math teacher Michelle Hautanen instructs students whose desks are spaced far apart, as well as children learning remotely, on Tuesday.

After experiencing remote learning, Hautanen said students and staff have adhered to health and safety measures in order to remain in school.

“When you can be in-person, I don’t want to say it’s worth the risk, but you don’t focus on it as much,” she said. “Everybody knew that they had to work together to stay safe. And I think the kids took it seriously, the adults took it seriously.”

Still, this school year has pushed Hautanen more than any in her career. She said the challenges do not always stem from the stress of the pandemic, but also little issues that she never had to deal with before, like technological challenges for remote students.

“I think I’ve probably cried more this year than in the entirety of my career of teaching,” she said. “Because when the Zoom crashes and kicks you out of your online class, and a student gets left as the teacher, and all of your connectivity issues kind of crash, you kind of keep it together in front of the kids, and then you kind of go somewhere and privately put your head down and try to juggle that.”

So, she added, this year has taught her how to prioritize balancing her personal and professional life.

Hautanen has adopted several stress-relief exercises, like the Zentangle method of drawing — a way to create images by drawing structured patterns called tangles — that she also has shared with her students.

And with students and teachers alike finding themselves in new and uncomfortable situations during the pandemic, Hautanen said the experience has helped her grow as an educator.

“I think it fosters more empathy for all types of learners, and for trying to anticipate how you can help them,” she said. “I always thought I did a good job in meeting kids where they were and helping them grow, and I think through the experience of this year, I know that I still have lots of work to go. It’s going to be a never-ending process, because technology is constantly changing, things are different for different kids’ home lives.”

And that connection with students, Hautanen said, lies at the core of her work as a teacher, during the pandemic and beyond.

“The kids were the shining point,” she said. “They were the ones that got you through the day. It was all the other little things that were hard to manage.”

Jack Rooney can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1404, or jrooney@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @RooneyReports.

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A moo-ving proposal: Cow lends a hoof to Hinsdale prom request

HINSDALE — When Travis Sweetser asked Chandra Burnham to prom Wednesday outside Hinsdale High School, he wanted it to be special. So he brought along a friend from her work — a 6-year-old brown Jersey cow named Aster.

“She just wasn’t like any other average girl, so she didn’t get an average ‘prom-posal,’ ” Sweetser, 18, said.

Sweetser knew Burnham, 17, loved the cows at Echo Farm on Route 63, where she works. So he asked the farm’s owners, sisters Courtney and Beth Hodge, if they could bring Aster — Burnham’s favorite.

“She’s adorable,” Burnham said. “I love her.”

Sweetser, a senior, and Burnham, a junior, said they’re good friends who have known each other a long time. They had already talked about going to prom — slated for May 15 at the Northfield Golf Club, to allow for social distancing in an outdoor venue — but Burnham wasn’t expecting an actual proposal.

Sweetser began plotting a few months ago, reaching out to the farm and gathering intel — all without tipping off Burnham. “Some of my mom’s friends work there as well, so they were trying to get little hints on what her favorite cow was,” he said.

It couldn’t have been hard to figure out, Burnham said. “I talk a lot about the cows there, so it’s pretty easy to see which one is my favorite.”

She said she used to like Holsteins — the iconic black-and-white dairy cows. But she’s gotten to know other cattle breeds at Echo Farm, which produces its own puddings as well as milk for Cabot cheese. “I just fell in love with Jerseys” like Aster, she said.

“They have a lot of personality,” she said. “… They all have their own little thing.”

Jerseys are an energetic and curious breed, Beth Hodge said. “If we’re setting up a ladder to change the lightbulb, then guaranteed there’s gonna be a Jersey sniffing around the bottom of it.”

Burnham recalled her first real encounter with Aster: “She was in her barn, and I had to go in it to fix something, and she was looking at me the whole time I was trying to fix it. And I sat there and pet her for a little bit, and then I was walking away for a little bit, and she followed me.”

Burnham also noticed that Aster always showed up first whenever she put out food.

“She’s just very kind,” Burnham said. “And she just loves food, which I think is so adorable.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Sweetser didn’t tell administrators he planned to bring a cow to school grounds until the last minute, he said, not wanting to be denied permission. But he said Principal Ann Freitag likes animals and was into it.

“She’s like, ‘What kind of cow is it?’ ” Sweetser said. “I was like, ‘I don’t know, it’s a brown cow.’ ”

A few miles away at Echo Farm, Beth Hodge had given Aster a bath. Hodge led her out of her pen and into a trailer — the cow stopped to sniff the grass along the way — then Hodge and Heather Jutras, one of the farm’s employees, drove to the high school parking lot.

Burnham’s physics class was in the middle of an experiment behind the school. Burnham was told the principal had to speak to her immediately.

“I was like, ‘I don’t want to be in trouble, I didn’t do anything wrong!’ ” Burnham said.

Freitag radioed the vice principal and said they had to go outside. Walking out the front lobby, Burnham saw what was going on.

“I looked out the window, and I said, ‘Ms. Freitag, that’s a trailer. I don’t think we’re talking,’ ” Burnham recalled. “And she said, ‘Is that a trailer?’ I go, ‘Yeah, that’s a trailer, and that’s my favorite cow!’ And I walked out with all my science gear on and my dirty hands.”

Sweetser held a bouquet of sunflowers and a sign that read “Hello My Name Is ASTER.” Aster wore a tutu, and another sign hung from her neck: “Can I See Your Mooves At PROM?” (The answer was yes.)

Hodge said Aster behaved well and “appreciated all the attention.” She seemed especially interested in the sunflowers, sniffing and licking them during a group photo.

Hodge said the Echo Farm team was thrilled to help make two teenagers’ day a little more special, especially after such a tough year for everyone. “We live in Hinsdale, it’s our community, and we love being a part of it,” she said.

For his part, Sweetser is grateful to the farm for playing along.

“I just wanted to make it special for her,” Sweetser said, “because I don’t think any other girl in Hinsdale’s gonna get a cow in the parking lot.”

US virus cases drop as spring wave of infections ebbs

The spring wave of coronavirus infections that began in March is subsiding in most of the country, with 42 states and D.C. reporting lower caseloads for the past two weeks. Hospitals in hard-hit Michigan and other Upper Midwest states that were flooded with patients in mid-April are discharging more than they’re admitting.

The daily average of new infections nationwide has dropped to the lowest level since mid-October. Many cities are rapidly reopening after 14 months of restrictions. The mayor of virus-ravaged New York City, Democrat Bill de Blasio, said he plans to have the city fully open by July 1.

The positive trends are not uniform across the map, however. The Pacific Northwest is seeing a surge in cases amid the spread of coronavirus variants. Oregon is the hottest of the hot spots, and Democratic Gov. Kate Brown declared that the state is moving backward.

The progress against the virus has received cautious applause, with public health officials aware that the virus continues to evolve and the vast populations of Brazil, India and the Philippines are enduring catastrophic, late-pandemic surges of infections and death.

Infectious-disease experts emphasize that the public needs to remain vigilant even as government restrictions on activities are incrementally lifted. The country’s seven-day average of newly reported cases is at about 52,000. That’s the lowest since Oct. 12, but still many times higher than what public health officials say is necessary if the pandemic is to be declared under control.

Hospitalizations and deaths are also down nationally, although more modestly, as those numbers tend to trail, by several weeks, the rate of infections. The seven-day average for daily deaths stood Thursday at 686, a dismayingly high number but barely more than a fifth of the 3,347 daily average recorded Jan. 17 during the peak of the winter surge.

Multiple factors are driving the ebbing of the spring wave, said Natalie Dean, a University of Florida biostatistics expert.

“Things are all very encouraging, even despite the circulation of these variants, because so many people are vaccinated and because there had already been a fair amount of infection, and because we’re moving into the spring,” she said. “There could be smaller, local flare-ups, but in general, things are looking really good as we move into the summer.”

The exceptions can be found, mainly, in the American West. Oregon has shown the sharpest increase in cases, up 42 percent in the past two weeks, followed by Washington state at 22 percent, according to a Washington Post analysis of government data. More modest increases have been reported in Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming.

Jeffrey Duchin, health director for Seattle and surrounding King County, where cases have continued to climb, cautioned in an email that it is premature to compose any eulogies for the spring wave.

“I hesitate to prognosticate with certainty about the course of the pandemic,” Duchin wrote. “I don’t think we fully understand why SARS-CoV-2 does what it does when it does and the vagaries of human behavior.”

He noted that in recent weeks, vaccinations have largely protected the most vulnerable population — the elderly. Now, young people ages 20 to 29 outnumber the over-70 patients in hospitals, he said.

In Michigan, the coronavirus patient count in the Beaumont Health system dropped from about 800 to 540 during the past week, said Nicholas Gilpin, Beaumont’s top infectious-disease doctor.

“Everybody’s getting a bit of relief right now,” Gilpin said. “We were really at our breaking point there about a week ago.”

He warned, though, that there remains a large contingent of people vulnerable to infection, and another surge is possible.

“When we’re in a period of substantial transmission, such as we are right now, people in the community need to recognize there’s a greater-than-ordinary risk,” he said. “People need to be more cautious, they need to be sure they’re wearing their masks, practicing their social distancing, staying home if they’re sick, and getting vaccinated.”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky, who just weeks ago repeatedly expressed alarm about rising infection numbers — at one point going off-script and saying she had a feeling of “impending doom” — this week highlighted the “really hopeful decline” in cases.

One scenario advanced by infectious-disease experts is that the country is entering a warm-weather period in which the virus will struggle to spread, both because of the growing immunity in the population and the environmental conditions that disfavor the spread of respiratory viruses.

Scientists are generally cautious about saying that this coronavirus is “seasonal,” because it remains novel and has been able to transmit in all conditions — including last summer, when there was a moderate wave that built in the Sun Belt. Some experts suspect that hot weather drives people indoors and makes them more likely to catch the virus.

Whether this short-term trend continues to drive down cases in the coming weeks and months depends on multiple factors not easily estimated, including coronavirus vaccine uptake. The news on that front is mixed.

Nearly four in 10 adults are fully vaccinated and more than half have had at least one dose. Older Americans, who are most vulnerable to severe illness, are largely vaccinated. Vaccines that performed well in clinical trials have proved to be just as safe and effective in their full deployment, with post-vaccination “breakthrough infections” rare, as are dangerous allergic reactions.

But vaccination rates — a point of pride for the Biden administration as it twice exceeded its goal for getting shots into arms — have dropped since April 13, when the country hit a peak of 3.4 million daily vaccinations on average. It has dropped since then to 2.7 million. Vaccination is dropping in every state.

At the Wicomico Youth & Civic Center in Salisbury, Md., hundreds of people lined up for shots on the first Monday in April; three weeks later to the hour, there were no lines and perhaps one-fifth as many people.

“We got the easy ones out of the way,” said Janis Orlowski, chief health care officer for the Association of American Medical Colleges. “Now, it’s the hard work of getting to the people who are in the middle, who are sort of wishy-washy — ‘Do I want a vaccine or do I not?’ ”

New Hampshire peaked a week earlier than the country and has dropped by 88 percent, to an average of fewer than 4,000 shots a day. Alaska, Mississippi and Nevada are all down by almost two-thirds. The Veterans Health Administration reports a decline of more than 60 percent in vaccinations. The Indian Health Service is down more than 50 percent, and the Department of Defense more than 40 percent.

The decline may reflect a combination of factors: The coronavirus vaccine “early adopters,” the most enthusiastic and motivated to get their shots, have succeeded in their quest. Many people who are willing to get vaccinated are in remote locations or have jobs or caregiving obligations that lack flexibility.

And finally, polls suggest that a large cohort of the unvaccinated population does not intend to get vaccinated. Some portion of that population may have a degree of natural immunity to the virus from a previous infection, but vaccines generally trigger a more robust immune response.

The near-term future of the pandemic in the United States depends in part on whether young people — who are typically more mobile and are major spreaders of the virus — seek vaccinations. From the virus’ perspective, it doesn’t matter how old a person is, because the virus just wants hosts in which it can replicate. But individuals calculate their own risk, and young people are significantly less likely to have a severe or fatal case of COVID-19 and may feel less motivated to get shots.

Popular podcast host Joe Rogan drew the wrath of public health officials when he told his audience that he would not recommend that a healthy 21-year-old get vaccinated. He later backed off his comment, saying he was not a doctor (“I’m not a respected source of information”).

In the interval between those comments, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on NBC’s “Today” that young people are vulnerable to the virus and also need to think about more than just their own interests, because they can spread the virus. If someone focuses solely on personal risk, “you’re talking about yourself in a vacuum then.”