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Keene Catholic high school more than doubles enrollment in year two
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Tessa Pearson was the first student to enroll at Our Lady of Mercy Academy when the Catholic high school in downtown Keene opened last year.

On Thursday evening, the Nelson resident, who is entering her sophomore year, was one of three students who officially cut the ribbon in front of the building at 161 Main St. as part of a dedication ceremony postponed from last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.


“It’s definitely a year in the making, but I’m glad that the area is going to be able to finally experience this, and everyone’s going to be able to see the school,” said Tessa, who graduated from St. Joseph Regional School, the pre-K-through-8th-grade school on the same campus.

After the ceremony, the Mercy Academy held an open house, allowing the public into the building, which previously housed a convent and offices for the Parish of the Holy Spirit, for the first time since it opened as a school.

Chris Smith, the principal of both schools, said Thursday’s event served not only as a celebration of a successful inaugural year, but also a way to thank the parents, donors, students and staff who helped get the Mercy Academy off the ground in the midst of the pandemic. Smith has said that the high school grew out of parents’ desire to choose a Catholic school after their kids graduated from St. Joseph’s.

“It’s strange, a little bit, obviously because we’re open, and we’ve been open for a year,” Smith said. “But I think it’s really important that we thank all of those people that initially got us started and helped with all of the planning and preparing that was needed, that took years to finally get us open. And I just don’t think we ever had that chance to really thank everybody, and maybe publicly thank everybody.”

When classes resume Monday at Mercy Academy, the school will have more than double the number of students it did in its first year. The school, which started with just freshman and sophomore classes, has added a junior class as its enrollment jumped from 16 to 41 for the coming academic year. Mercy Academy plans to add a senior class next year, with the goal of eventually enrolling about 100 students.

“I’m really excited there are going to be a bunch more students,” Tessa said. “Some I know from St. Joe’s, some I haven’t met yet, but I’m really excited to have a bunch of new people be able to experience this, and be able to continue on with all of my classes.”

One of those new students is Emma Schriver, an incoming freshman who lives in Swanzey and Winchester. Emma, who also cut the royal blue ribbon using a pair of oversized scissors, said she is one of four students in her class who has been attending Catholic school in Keene since preschool at St. Joseph’s.

“I’m a little nervous, but I get to go in with most of my class, so that’s kind of easing part of my nerves right now,” she said.

Emma added that she’s particularly excited to participate in Mercy Academy’s house system, which she likened to Hogwarts from the Harry Potter series. But unlike the books, where the houses are named for legendary witches and wizards, Mercy Academy’s four houses are named for Catholic Saints: Ursula, Thomas Aquinas, Drogo and Josephine Bakhita. And rather than being residential groups, the houses at the high school are designed to foster friendships and school spirit in small clusters.

This sort of close-knit experience is what drew Fitsum Visser of Keene and his family to Mercy Academy. Fitsum, who is entering his junior year at the school after attending it last year, was the third ribbon-cutter at Thursday’s ceremony.

“Coming out of freshman year, I was at Keene High, and we were just looking for somewhere that was a bit more individually focused and just a smaller area, a smaller school with a strong community, faith-based, which was really good,” he said.

Fitsum’s father, Ken, said the school has been a great fit for their family, and added that their other son, Melkamu, is starting his freshman year at Mercy Academy.

“They have really small class sizes right now, so that was to his advantage, I think,” Ken Visser said of Fitsum’s experience at Mercy Academy last year. “He’s getting really nice personal instruction.”

And while Fitsum had hoped to begin the new school year without COVID-19 precautions like masking in place, he said he’s always felt safe and comfortable on campus. His mother, Sarah, agreed.

“I really am pleased,” she said. “I really think that they’ve done a great job, and have been just really communicative all along. I feel like they’ve really taken things seriously, and we’re thankful that we really haven’t had any outbreaks.”

Mercy Academy and St. Joseph’s — which has about 210 students — had initially planned to begin the year by allowing parents to choose whether their children would wear masks at school. But after the state health department issued guidance earlier this month recommending schools mandate masks when communities are experiencing substantial COVID-19 transmission (as Cheshire County currently is), the schools adopted the state’s mask matrix, and will begin the year by requiring masks indoors.

“We’re going to be re-evaluating our status and the matrix after the first two weeks, and then every week after that,” Smith said.

The Diocese of Manchester, which oversees 18 Catholic schools statewide, is urging, but not requiring, all staff and students 12 and older to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Smith said St. Joe’s and Mercy Academy could not have made their own decision to mandate coronavirus shots.

“But it is strongly encouraged,” he said. “The position of the diocese is certainly: ‘Get vaccinated.’ “

And with small class sizes, and health and safety measures like masking and increased sanitization, Smith said he’s confident Mercy Academy is on the cusp of a second successful year.

“When many high schools in the country were closed or partially closing, we opened,” he said during the ceremony. “And we stayed open every day all of last year. And we’re here today with more than double our original enrollment, ready to open the doors for year two.”

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Councilor offers alternative option to honor former Keene mayor
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After failing to win a Keene committee’s support, the city councilor who proposed renaming North Bridge in honor of the late former Mayor Philip “Dale” Pregent has suggested focusing on another bridge instead.

Pregent, who died in March at age 84, served two terms as mayor and also two separate stints as a city councilor. Councilor Bobby Williams proposed renaming the bridge, which carries the Cheshire Rail Trail over Routes 9, 10 and 12 just south of Kohl’s, in his memory after being approached by his son, Greg Pregent.

“Mayor Dale Pregent was closely involved in the planning and development process for North Bridge, which was built the year after he left office,” Williams said in June. “Today, North Bridge is a vital link in Keene’s growing network of pedestrian and bicycle trails, and we are all the beneficiaries of his effort and vision. I think renaming the bridge in his honor is a fitting way to show our city’s appreciation for his many years of dedicated service.”

But members of the city’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Pathways Advisory Committee had reservations about the name change, according to minutes from their July 14 meeting. The committee said the bridge has become colloquially known as North Bridge and recommended that the city explore naming a portion of trail between Island and Pitcher streets, which includes North Bridge, in Pregent’s memory instead.

However, at Wednesday’s meeting of the City Council’s Municipal Services, Facilities and Infrastructure Committee, Williams said Pregent’s family wasn’t thrilled with this idea. As an alternative, he suggested naming a bridge being rebuilt over Swanzey Factory Road for Pregent.

“This is a really cool bridge, and I think we should bring more attention to this project,” Williams said. “This is a World War II surplus bridge that has been doing service on Island Street here for decades and is being reconstructed over Swanzey Factory Road.”

That bridge, which is scheduled to be taken down next summer as part of the city’s Winchester Street reconstruction project, would be reassembled at Swanzey Factory Road, according to City Engineer Don Lussier. It would link to the nearby Stone Arch Bridge and a 216-foot bridge from Londonderry that Keene officials expect to purchase and rebuild over Route 101 as part of the city’s planned Transportation Heritage Trail — a rail trail expansion project celebrating the region’s transportation history — he said.

Williams joked Wednesday that it would be a fitting tribute because the Island Street bridge, which he said doesn’t really have a name now, is an antique, and Pregent was an antiques dealer.

Greg Pregent, who once served on the city’s bicycle and pedestrian committee, said he introduced his father to the need for more non-motor transportation infrastructure around 2010 or 2011, and the elder Pregent was quick to take up the cause.

After Greg Pregent approached Williams about renaming North Bridge, Williams agreed, and brought the idea to the council in June. Mayor George Hansel referred it to the MSFI Committee, which in turn referred it to the bicycle and pedestrian committee.

North Bridge is no stranger to disagreements about its name. There was a great deal of discussion and debate about what to call it prior to its opening in 2012.

“North Bridge” was meant to be a temporary moniker, but it stuck.

“If you want controversy, try naming a bridge after a person,” said Councilor Randy Filiault at Wednesday’s MSFI Committee meeting, adding that people will often make their own suggestions of who a bridge should be named for.

Filiault suggested the MSFI Committee respect the wishes of Pregent’s family by not going forward with the bicycle and pedestrian committee’s recommendation.

Councilor Janis Manwaring, chair of the MSFI Committee and a member of the bicycle and pedestrian committee, pointed out that creating a plaque to install along the trail in recognition of Pregent is something that could be done quickly. Renaming a bridge, she said, could take years.

Williams said he will submit a new request for the council to consider naming the Swanzey Factory Road bridge for Pregent instead. The MSFI Committee voted to accept the bicycle and pedestrian committee’s recommendation as informational, a procedural step that requires no additional action.

Many measures of Earth's health are at worst levels on record, NOAA finds

A fatal virus and a massive economic downturn did not stop planet-warming gases in the atmosphere last year from rising to their highest levels in human history, researchers say. Barely a year after the coronavirus grounded planes, shuttered factories and brought road traffic to a standstill, the associated drop in carbon emissions is all but undetectable to scientists studying our air.

In fact, according to the newly released “State of the Climate in 2020” report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Earth is arguably in worse shape than it’s been.

While humanity grappled with the deadliest pandemic in a century, many metrics of the planet’s health showed catastrophic decline in 2020. Average global temperatures rivaled the hottest. Mysterious sources of methane sent atmospheric concentrations of the gas spiking to unprecedented highs; sea levels were the highest on record; fires ravaged the American West; and locusts swarmed across East Africa.

These findings may sound familiar, coming on the heels of a similarly dire assessment from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. And they echo NOAA’s report from last year, which also detailed record-high greenhouse gas levels and unprecedented warmth.

“It’s a record that keeps playing over and over again,” said Jessica Blunden, a NOAA climate scientist who has co-led “State of the Climate” reports for 11 years. “Things are getting more and more intense every year because emissions are happening every year.”

Sometimes Blunden feels like a doctor whose patient won’t listen to health advice, watching a mild illness morph into a chronic disease. By this point, the patient practically has multiple organ failure “and still they keep eating those Cheeto puffs,” she said.

Without consistent, concerted efforts to reduce emissions from burning fossil fuels and other human activities, scientists warn, Earth’s condition will continue to deteriorate.

NOAA’s assessment, published this week in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, draws on the work of 530 scientists from 66 countries.

In the atmosphere, the researchers found no evidence that last year’s 6 percent to 7 percent dip in global annual emissions had any lasting effect. The roughly 2 gigatons of carbon dioxide not emitted during the most severe pandemic-related shutdowns have been dwarfed by the more than 1,500 gigatons humans have unleashed since the Industrial Revolution began.

As Glen Peters, a scientist at the Center for International Climate Research, put it on Twitter: “The atmosphere is like a (leaky) bathtub, unless you turn the tap off, the bath will keep filling up with CO2.”

The average concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in 2020 was 412.5 parts per million (ppm), about 2.5 ppm above the 2019 average. That is higher than at any point in the 62 years scientists have been taking measurements. Not even air bubbles trapped in ice cores going back 800,000 years contain so much of the gas, suggesting current levels have no precedent in our species’ history.

Carbon dioxide typically lingers in the atmosphere for a few hundred to 1,000 years. Humans will have to stop emitting for much longer than a few months to make a meaningful dent in concentrations of the pollutant.

Even as carbon dioxide emissions briefly slowed, 2020 saw the largest annual increase in emissions of methane. The gas only stays in the atmosphere for about a decade but can deliver more than 80 times as much warming as carbon dioxide in that time frame.

Scientists don’t know why the concentration of methane spiked so dramatically — rising 14.8 parts per billion to its highest level in millennia. The drilling and distribution of natural gas helps drive up methane emissions. But it is also produced by munching microbes, which are found in both natural environments such as wetlands, and human-built ones such as landfills and farms.

“It’s really an ongoing investigation,” said Xin Lan, an atmospheric chemist at NOAA’s global monitoring laboratory in Boulder, Colo.

But Lan has uncovered some clues. The kind of methane that comes from fossil fuel sources disproportionately includes carbon atoms with an extra neutron in their nuclei — a variety, or “isotope,” known as carbon-13. Microbial sources of methane tend to be rich in carbon-12, which lacks the extra neutron and is slightly lighter.

Lately, the proportion of methane carrying the lighter carbon isotope has been rising, suggesting that the recent surge in the greenhouse gas has microbial origins. It might be coming from bacteria in the guts of livestock, or decomposing sludge in landfills.

But the more worrying possibility is that natural methane sources — such as salt marshes, peatlands and mangrove forests — are emitting more as the planet warms. Higher temperatures can boost microbe metabolisms and thaw out permafrost, while rising sea levels may turn some coastal areas into methane-emitting bogs.

“That could be an indication of a climate feedback,” Lan said. “So that would give us an extra challenge in [predicting] the future climate.”

Events from 2020 show that the planet has already changed dramatically in response to human emissions. Depending on the data sets consulted (the NOAA scientists looked at five), last year was either the hottest year in history, tied for first, or among the top three.

The high temperatures were especially noteworthy because they occurred during a La Niña year, when natural variations in the movement of wind and water tend to cool the planet down. No previous year with a La Niña climate pattern has been so hot.

Global average sea levels in 2020 rose for the ninth year in a row, NOAA said — a consequence of melting glaciers and ice sheets and expanding warmer waters. Sea levels are now about 3.6 inches above the average in 1993, when scientists began taking satellite measurements.

The litany of broken records was endless.

The far northern town of Verkhoyansk, Russia, notched a high of 100 degrees Fahrenheit — the hottest temperature ever recorded within the Arctic Circle. On the other side of the planet, Esperanza Station broke Antarctica’s temperature record by 2 degrees Fahrenheit, hitting a balmy 64.9 degrees. Death Valley, Calif. may have seen Earth’s highest temperature in almost a century. Europe, Mexico, Japan and the Indian Ocean archipelago of the Seychelles all saw their hottest years.

And the escalation of extreme weather was devastating.

Super Typhoon Goni was the most powerful storm to make landfall, NOAA said, slamming the Philippines with 195 mph winds. There were so many tropical cyclones in the North Atlantic that meteorologists ran out of letters of the alphabet for naming them; by the time two Category 4 storms hit Nicaragua in a two-week span in November, officials had to use the Greek letters Eta and Iota.

Burning forests and grasslands spewed 1,714 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere. Powerful floods caused devastation to the countries around Lake Victoria in eastern Africa, while Chile endured its 11th year of drought. About 84 percent of the ocean surface experienced at least one marine heat wave.

“It’s the extremes that really stand out to me,” Blunden said.

But 2021 already rivals last year’s extremes. This July was the hottest month documented, according to NOAA. The Pacific Northwest was scorched by a heat wave that scientists say was “virtually impossible” without human influence. Floods have deluged China, Germany, the United States and Bangladesh. Drought in Madagascar has pushed the nation to the brink of what the United Nations calls the world’s first climate change famine.

“These things are getting more and more intense every year,” Blunden said. “If we don’t slow down greenhouse gas emissions it’s just going to continue ... And one way or the other, it’s going to affect all of us.”

Supreme Court votes 6-3 to strike down CDC eviction moratorium

WASHINGTON — A divided Supreme Court has ended a national moratorium on evictions in parts of the country ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic, removing protections for millions of Americans who have not been able to make rent payments.

A coalition of landlords and real estate trade groups in Alabama and Georgia challenged the latest extension of a moratorium imposed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, issued Aug. 3 and intended to run through Oct. 3.

In an unsigned opinion released Thursday night, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority agreed that the federal agency did not have the power to order such a ban.

“It is indisputable that the public has a strong interest in combating the spread of the COVID-19 Delta variant,” the opinion said. “But our system does not permit agencies to act unlawfully even in pursuit of desirable ends. ... It is up to Congress, not the CDC, to decide whether the public interest merits further action here.”

The court’s three liberal justices dissented and said the majority’s rush to end the moratorium was inappropriate and untimely.

“The public interest strongly favors respecting the CDC’s judgment at this moment, when over 90% of counties are experiencing high transmission rates,” wrote Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

It was the second loss of the week for the Biden administration at the Supreme Court. Earlier, the conservative majority said the administration had to comply with a court ruling ordering it to reinstate a Trump-era policy that requires asylum seekers to wait outside the country before making their pleas.

In a statement Thursday night, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the eviction opinion meant “families will face the painful impact of evictions, and communities across the country will face greater risk of exposure to COVID-19.”

The moratorium had already been considered once by the high court. A district judge in the District of Columbia and several other courts around the country said in a series of rulings that powers granted to the CDC to protect public health during a pandemic did not include a ban on evictions for those who fell behind on their payments.

But U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich stayed her order so that the administration could appeal.

Although the Biden administration asked the Supreme Court to preserve what it called a “lawful and urgently needed response to an unprecedented public emergency,” a majority of justices already had signaled agreement with Friedrich.

Over the objections of the court’s four most conservative justices, the court in June left in place a previous version of the eviction ban that was supposed to expire at the end of July. But Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who cast the deciding vote in that decision, also said he believed any extension of the ban would require explicit congressional action.

Congress did not respond, however, and initially the Biden administration said its hands were tied. After pressure from constituent groups and liberals in Congress, one of whom camped outside the U.S. Capitol to draw attention to the issue, the administration issued a new and slightly narrowed version of the moratorium. But even the president was fatalistic.

“I went ahead and did it,” President Joe Biden told reporters. “But here’s the deal: I can’t guarantee you the court won’t rule [that] we don’t have that authority. But at least we’ll have the ability, if we have to appeal, to keep this going for a month at least — I hope longer than that.”

The challengers in their brief to the court used the president’s words to argue that the administration knew it was on unstable legal ground. “The only plausible explanation for the extended moratorium is that it was issued in response to political pressure from Capitol Hill for the express purpose of using litigation delays to distribute more rental assistance,” their brief says. “Nearly a year of overreach is enough.”

Congress originally imposed an eviction moratorium. When it expired, President Donald Trump ordered the CDC to impose one, which has been extended several times.

The legal issue involves the Public Health Service Act. It gives the agency authority to “make and enforce such regulations ... necessary to prevent the introduction, transmission, or spread of communicable diseases” across states or from foreign lands.

But challengers, and some lower courts that have reviewed the issue, say the power is limited by another provision contained within the act. In describing the agency’s power, it lists measures such as “fumigation, disinfection, sanitation, pest extermination, destruction of animals or articles found to be so infected or contaminated as to be sources of dangerous infection to human beings, and other measures, as in his judgment may be necessary.”

To the challengers, that means the CDC is finding its broad authority in a “rarely used statute from 1944 whose domain has previously been limited to matters such as the sale of baby turtles.”

They say the CDC is claiming “unqualified power to take any measure imaginable to stop the spread of any communicable disease — common cold included — whether it be eviction moratoria, worship limits, nationwide lockdowns, school closures, or vaccine mandates.”

The CDC said its ban applies to renters who “otherwise would likely need to move to congregate [or shared-living] settings where COVID spreads quickly and easily, or would be rendered homeless and forced into shelters or other settings that would increase their susceptibility to COVID.”

But the Supreme Court majority wrote: “It strains credulity to believe that this statute grants the CDC the sweeping authority that it asserts.”

The moratorium did not wipe away rental bills for people who had fallen behind on payment. To address that need, Congress allocated $46.5 billion in emergency rental assistance. But the distribution of the money has been painfully slow.

Technical glitches dogged online systems. Landlords and tenants without Internet had even more trouble applying for aid — if they knew about the funding at all.

The amount of money that has actually reached people is a fraction of the $46.5 billion appropriated by Congress for emergency aid.

Of the $25 billion appropriated in December, state and local programs spent about $5.1 billion between January and the end of July, according to figures released Wednesday by the Treasury Department.