COVID and Community: How the pandemic is changing us

[  By Snow Burns  ]

Editor’s Note: Snow Burns and her family are recent transplants to the Gunnison Valley living in Mt. Crested Butte. Snow is conducting a series of interviews with people directly impacted by changes brought on by COVID-19. This week she talks to Crested Butte Community School teacher Lisa Hart.

This interview series, devoted to the Gunnison County community’s collective COVID-19 efforts, looks back on many ways our community has supported each other in the past year. Even in this most difficult year, there have been countless acts of adaptation, innovation, grit and love; we have somehow managed to become closer than ever—all while remaining physically apart. It is a pleasure to be able to share a few of these stories.

Crested Butte Community School

As our students return to school, we have two stories from the Gunnison Watershed School District. By working together, our community has given Gunnison County students an incredible gift: the ability to continue to grow, learn and experience a degree of normalcy in this strangest of years. This has not been without an expense—first and foremost on our educators, but also on the choices we all collectively have to make in order for schools to remain open. As the first semester came to a close, I had the privilege and pleasure to learn from Lisa Hart and Jennifer Diamond about how they have adapted, how the students are coping, and their thoughts on education and community. Lisa’s interview is featured this week.

Lisa Hart, Middle and High School Science Teacher

Note: Lisa cheerfully wore her mask throughout this whole interview, as she spoke to me from the CBCS library.

Tell me a little bit about yourself and your relationship with the Gunnison County community.

I moved to Crested Butte in 1995, from Lake City. I teach middle school and high school science. Right now I have 140 students.

What does community mean to you?

I love the word community. I have always loved that it’s in the name of our school—and it’s the same in Gunnison. To me, it’s a powerful word. I like living someplace where it matters that you are here. I don’t know everybody in the valley—but I know we can’t live in isolation. I don’t know that there’s anybody that’s a self-made person, unless you fell off a train and grew up in the woods. We’re made to be in a relationship. It’s caring about one another, and making it a priority that the people around you are doing well. It’s not just enough that I’m doing well—because I’m not going to be doing well if nobody else is doing well.

We deal with people here—not issues. Society is so divided that the way to bring it back is to know people. Otherwise, people become a list of things you disagree with. But really, there are a lot of things we mutually care about—and we all care about the kids.

Tell me about the work that you do, and how the pandemic has impacted and changed it.

When we started in August, some people thought we’d be in for two weeks, four weeks—whatever. And we’re still in! And it’s looking good. And it comes back to community: look what we did! It’s a celebration. How is this possible? Leslie Nichols is giving great leadership, in terms of taking it on and finding something that can work. And then Bob Piccaro, working so hard all summer on the protocols. And our principal, Stephanie Niemi, works hard to keep teachers empowered. She communicates openly with us, and we can count on her to appreciate our concerns and to do what is possible to address them.

We hit the door with a plan. We didn’t hit the door with hopes and wishes; we had a really well-thought-out plan. The things that are hard are acknowledged. The one thing that makes it possible to do the work, you’ve got to be honest about it. Here’s the risk, here’s how we’re managing it. There’s so much out of our control. If anybody says “We’ve got this under control,” it makes me nervous. Because we can’t. But we do need to have an undergirding of physical safety, and address those very real issues, and we have to think next about how we can be a community. Here at CBCS we have “Seek the Peak” that speaks to how to act in the community: be responsible, be honest, be respectful. And it really works.

With the kids, the main thing is, what can we do to still empower them to grow up? As a teacher, I’ve been thinking about what is really important. Somebody might say, “It’s a pandemic! School doesn’t matter!” And I think, welllll… Anthony Fauci went to school for science. We can’t stop learning when times get tough. We don’t want to let the present crisis keep us from planning for the future. It puts people in a position of powerlessness, which can lead to despair.

But I’ve narrowed the topics that we’re going to cover. Stuff is happening. Students aren’t just out for a day or two, they’re out for a week or two. They’re having to quarantine. So we’re figuring out what we can let go of, what we can make up, how we can empower people to use technology. When is it time to hold the line and say, “You have what it takes to do this,” instead of “We’ll let that slide.” Because I want students to be able to tap into their ability to make a difference. But then to be realistic and go, “Oh, you’ve got to run somebody to the doctor?” Focus on that!

How have students adapted?

Most students really wanted to come back. There was definitely a sweet spot the first few weeks, where they were so happy to be here. But then they started challenging things, which I feel is a good sign. But I haven’t had any pushback about wearing masks, students are wiping off their tables, we keep the windows open. It’s cold right now. How we are able to keep going—it is a combination of risk mitigation factors. So we are bundled and masked up. We definitely don’t have as many dress code violations this year!

How are you doing? Have you been able to feel the community’s efforts to keep the virus at bay?

Everybody’s got to make choices in their own situation. So there has to be grace for people who make different decisions than I do. And along with that, a commitment to making the common good a priority. We’re not gonna make it if we start going rogue. We’re gonna make it if we hang together. And then when it comes to something like the school, there are non-negotiables. You wear a mask. If that’s not possible, there’s an online option. But you have to wear the mask here. I’m not going to say my mask is definitively what keeps me safe, but what I do know is that everything we’re doing is working, and I don’t want to mess with it. Eye on the prize! We are here, we are together. This is working. Let’s keep it going!

Any final thoughts to share with our community?

My first thought is, hey all you guys! I love you! Which is totally cheesy. Like my middle schoolers ending their paper, “I hope you enjoyed my paper!” I love this place, this community. And who we are together. And I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else right now. Going through a pandemic, I’m glad this is my community, that this is who I get to go through it with. Thank you, everybody. Look how far we’ve come!

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