THE VIEW FROM HERE: Friday, the Thirteenth, Twenty-Twenty

EDITOR’S NOTE: About a year ago, the Governor issued the stay at home orders and Tillamook County recorded it’s first case of coronavirus on March 26, 2020. Here is a perspective from a local teacher and now Tillamook County Pioneer writer and photographer, about the past year. The important lessons we are learning and how we’ve been resilient through the past 365 days as we continue to the journey through a pandemic. Thanks, Don for sharing your personal story.

By Don Backman

March 13th, 2020. All Oregon schools closed at the end of the school day. Activities shut down. Everyone went home to stay.

Friday, the Thirteenth.

My last day of teaching in-person classes at Tillamook High School. It was time to retire, and my teaching career ended in the middle of a pandemic.

On Saturday, March 13th, 2021, the one-year anniversary of schools closing due to COVID 19, I stopped by the COVID 19 Memorial at the Sue H. Elmore Park in Tillamook to take photos for the Tillamook County Pioneer. Laura Swanson, editor, and partner at the Pioneer, asked me to write about what this meant to me. Where to begin? My thoughts went back to school last Spring and when it closed.

Like most educators, I had kept an eye on the news and was aware of the new disease in China. The kids asked a lot of questions as kids do. I tried to explain things as best I could. In my experience, there had been other disease outbreaks from several places around the world, even here in the US. AIDS. SARS. MERS. Ebola. Various forms of influenza, such as Swine Flu. Bird Flu. As a child, I contracted measles with most of the rest of the kids when it swept through my grade school. Later, in college, I would end up working with the institutionalized, and mostly forgotten by society, severely disabled victims of Measles which gave me some perspective to draw from. But never in my lifetime had a whole industrial city such as Wuhan been shut down with millions of people and untold billions of dollars involved.

The weeks went quickly. We began sanitizing tables and touch surfaces such as doorknobs and keyboards, tables, and chairs. We talked to kids about washing hands, not touching their faces, being careful. The kids tried, they were mostly careful. Things rapidly progressed. We had a staff meeting spread out in the auditorium to maintain distancing. The schools were directed to limit group sizes. How do you manage that in a high school of nearly 800 people? Initially, schools weren’t going to close. There were more cases, and districts in Oregon began shutting down. Then, on Thursday, March 12th, we received word.

Friday was the last day.

Friday, the 13th.

We’ve shut down school for floods, snow, and big storms. But none of those were like this. Those all had an end somewhere along the line. It might take a week or more, but eventually we would return. This time there was no visible end. Would we return in two weeks as initially ordered? Who knew. It seemed unlikely.

On the last day, most of the students in my classes came to school in the morning. It seemed that there had been slow but steady attrition all week of kids not coming in. The hallways seemed emptier. On the last day before shutting down due to a pandemic, what do you teach? What do you talk about? Of course, we discussed the pandemic. I repeated my spiel on hand-washing correctly. Not touching your face. Social distancing. I answered countless questions as best I could. We focused more on students well being. Trying to give them the facts as we knew them on how to be safe, and what was going on in the world. As an aside, for once the water in the bathroom sinks was warm. It seemed everyone was washing their hands.

Throughout the day, the steady stream of kids checking out and going home accelerated. A few kids who normally complained about hating school, a few who only grudgingly did their work, suddenly asked for work to take home so they could continue learning. Students wanted to know what was next.

School days are a lot like running a drift boat down a fast-moving river. You are swept along, time passes quickly, the bell rings, kids leave, come back in, problems arise, there are the usual fast water sections to get through, and rocks and logs you have to dodge. Then, all of a sudden, there’s the take out, the trip is done. The kids go home. The last meeting is over. You pull to shore, take your boat out, and go home.

The final bell rang and the remaining kids left. Some stopped by to say goodbye to the staff. Some had been stopping by all day. We had been telling them to check their school district email from home. Stay safe. Hang in there.

My assistants gathered up their things and went home. Like me, their duties would bring them back into the school many times. The building was quiet. Eerily quiet. You could hear the walls creak. It would be that way until June. I went to the counseling center to drop off something, then the office. A few staff members dropped by, spread out. We talked, speculated. No one knew much. We were told to stay out of the buildings the next week as the custodians were going to sanitize them, a nearly herculean effort. Later, after I was able to go back in, one custodian showed me his hands. They were still raw in places.

I had started to develop a slight catch in my chest, not a cough though, just had to clear my throat. Sort of the beginnings of a sore throat, but I had been talking to the kids a lot. Paranoia? Power of suggestion? Anyone who has been in schools knows that kids share everything. Pencils, paper, snacks, coughs, sniffles, you name it. It was late winter. Kids were coughing, hacking, sneezing all the time, and some coming to school sick with a fever and no way to go home. Situation normal.

Being home was weird. A low-grade fever set in over the weekend and ran off and on for the next week, fluctuating throughout the day, never reaching the magic number of 100.5. The catch in my throat developed into a light cough. I felt tired, somewhat achy, and lost 7 lbs in two weeks. In writing this article I looked up the current symptoms for COVID-19 as we know a lot more about it now. It could have been, or not. A lot of people had been sick. Who knows? To follow guidelines, I self-isolated for 14 days from the onset of the general catching in my throat. Isolation came crashing down.

Later that week we held our first online staff meeting. The Oregon Department of Education (ODE) had given some directions. After Spring Break we were to begin Plan A, the first of what felt like an ever-changing stream of directions and plans from ODE. In my opinion, the District 9 Administration team was stellar during this time.

Spring was one of the most challenging times of my career. This is compared to other fun jobs I’ve had, such as working on wildfires for 40 plus straight hours, digging fire lines all day, and using a chainsaw to mow wet brush on hillsides to release trees so they can grow better. In other words, it was full days and full weeks, countless documented phone calls to parents, countless e-mails, virtual meetings, driving into school (our files and resources were there), calls on weekends, calls in the evening, Zoom meetings (Google Meet, actually). working online, paperwork, tracking students down – some who were out of state. In other words, doing what educators did. I’ll say here, after making what seemed like endless phone calls to parents and endless e-mails to them, the parents were awesome.

What did the Memorial for COVID-19 mean to me? It brought back memories. We finished the entire school year online last year, and there wasn’t the last day to bring things to a close. They just stopped. Things felt unfinished.

Wil Duncan, who teaches Business Education at Tillamook High School, responded to an e-mail question about how it was for him to return this fall after finishing online last year. “It’s been an interesting year,” he said, being a master of understatement. I know enough about schools to realize it was more than just interesting. “I think I’m glad I stayed to experience kids coming back.” Duncan went on to say. “Would have been a bummer for me to go out last year teaching from a computer at home.” I find myself wondering about the same thing, but from the other side. Occasionally, I’ll run into students from last year around town, usually, they are working which is good to see, and we talk from six feet – no hugs, no handshakes – and see how they are doing. Kids are extraordinarily resilient. They bounce back.

The Memorial to COVID 19, and the efforts of the people who took the time to create it, meant a lot. There have been deaths, there has been discord, lives have been upended, even here on the coast. Last Spring we wondered what COVID was going to do to Tillamook County. Was it going to sweep through our Senior Citizen living facilities as it had done elsewhere? Was it going to overwhelm our hospital? Remember when they set up a triage center to screen patients? We only need to look toward some rural counties in Eastern Washington and Eastern Oregon and the cases and deaths they have suffered to see what could have been.

Cases are rising at the time of writing this. At one time Tillamook County was one of the few counties in the state with really low numbers. We have now lost two lives to COVID. We feel lucky, which is, in a way, a horrible thing to say. Covid seems to have changed perspectives. When did losing one life become lucky? We have sacrificed a lot, here in the US, in Oregon, in Tillamook County. A lot of people have been hit very hard and paid a high price to get here, where we are, with vaccines and now a finish line of sorts in sight.

As Samantha Goodwin, who coordinated the event, put it, “I don’t want people to forget the price that was paid.”

Neither do I.

It would be a shame to waste that sacrifice. Hang in there and get vaccinated.

Friday, the 13th.