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Years ago, as a whitewater guide, I got my raft and crew into a part of the Penobscot River that is avoided. In unfamiliar territory, there was not time to contemplate my errors upstream; they’re called “rapids” for a reason. The only thing prudent was to guide my crew and use my paddle based on what I could see of the river ahead: the flow, the rocks, the evidence of submerged rocks, the waves, the holes.
Those who’ve been rafting on Maine’s amazing rivers know the guides’ words: all ahead, back on the right, tips are appreciated, dig in hard, etc. We bounced and spun from rock to rock, trying to avoid getting stuck, flipped, or sending someone out for a dangerous swim. We were all in it together.
On any of Maine’s rafted rivers, your guide starts right off with bad jokes and paddling practice. You can make a better run down the river with a team of twig-armed kids paddling together than with a crew of bodybuilders each doing their own thing.
I was a mediocre raft guide, and I’m for sure not an epidemiologist. I’m an educator, one of many who worked hard to do best by students, staff, and community in this spring’s emergency, and who are working hard to do even better this fall.
We’re planning for a school year moving flexibly back and forth between remote and in-person instruction as community transmission of COVID-19 shifts, with some participating remotely all year (e.g., those immunocompromised), with precautions that meet Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Maine guidance, making it safe for all, engaging, effective and as fun for kids as we can — and doing it in a way possible for the taxpayer in economically devastating times.
As hard as this spring was — and I know it was far harder on others than me — I reflect often that we’re really fortunate to be navigating a pandemic in Maine. I have family and friends in places much harder hit than Maine (so far) by COVID-19, with greater population density, less open space available and much less community spirit than we have in Maine.
Through hard decisions and sacrifice, we’ve bought time in Maine. In that time, researchers have learned more about SARS-COV-2, about effective treatment, about fairly simple efforts to reduce risk to others or ourselves (masks, distance, hand washing). In that time, researchers have expanded testing and begun to develop vaccines.
We’ve kept the spread of COVID-19 slow in Maine — and need to keep doing that, because this appears to be a very long set of rapids.
Every route ahead appears extraordinarily difficult, our actions intermingled. Our habits and the spread of COVID-19 influence to what extent we can safely bring kids and staff back into schools, which affects how families can return to work, our livelihood and state economy, the safety of front-line workers and more. How people celebrate Labor Day will influence transmission, which will influence whether kids are learning remotely or in-person weeks later. As hospitalizations, deaths and painful recoveries erupt elsewhere, we can choose our route and recommit to paddling as a team.
Unlike the crews in my rafts that were stuck with me, we can also choose our guide. We can choose experts such as the Maine CDC or U.S. CDC, or we can choose to be guided by the social media posts from our distant relative’s neighbor’s best friend that used to work at a hospital.
Together we can wear masks, keep distances whenever possible, wash hands and keep the spread slow. We can separate political bluster from reality; neither a Class IV rapid nor a virus care what you think or believe. We can keep tuned in to the Maine CDC about how we can apply what we’ve learned about COVID-19. As my crew and I did on the river, we can paddle as a team through the roughest rapids.
Jon Doty is the director of curriculum, instruction, and assessment for RSU 34. In 2020, he was recognized as Maine Curriculum Leader of the Year. The opinions expressed here are his own.