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Community adjusts to life in a COVID-19 world

May 13, 2020
NEW DURHAM — These are challenging times; COVID-19 has done an efficient job of disrupting lives. No family remains untouched in at least one way or another.

Of course, it's not London during the Blitz; but, without much warning at all, our jobs were radically different, or our jobs were gone. Our lives have been turned upside down and, for some, lives were threatened.

New Durham is fortunate to be a small, rural community with very few cases of the Coronavirus, so far. Residents and Town officials, however, have all had to deal with unprecedented situations.

How is everyone faring?

To start, all town services are functioning as before, although Town facilities are closed to the public under the governor's stay-at-home order. Telephone, e-mail, virtual meetings, on-line portals, the mail service, the Town Hall drop box, and the opportunity to make appointments has kept the business end of things going strong.

All departments are still staffed, with some staff members telecommuting.

As far as long-term operations go, Town Administrator Scott Kinmond reported that officials are looking at protection of staff by way of controlled access to facilities, health screenings, a walk-up service window at Town Hall, and maintaining social distancing.

"The COVID-19 pandemic crisis is expected to continue for up to many months," he said, "and this will likely change our way of doing business."

In anticipation of revenue shortfalls, the Board of Selectmen has frozen approximately $260,000 of several budgeted expenditures from departments and projects.

"We appreciate all of our town employees," Kinmond said, "who are all essential workers, staying healthy and continuing to serve the town."

In a recent Town Administrator's Update, Fire Chief Peter Varney observed, "Even while much of the world is focused on a national emergency, the fires don't stop."

He indicated that even as the first responders are "bogged down with the corona virus precautions," there are still daily operations to handle and calls continue.

Varney wrote, "The men and women of this department serve this community without reluctance or delay. My hat is off to them and I am proud to be their Chief. To them I say, "'Thank you.'"

Wearing another hat, Varney serves as the Emergency Management Director, a job he considers "24/7" during this crisis.

He stated, "We need to stay on top of this situation, as it is critical to the safety of the residents of New Durham and the emergency services in this community."

The emergency management department has been operating at a heightened level and Varney noted that would continue until the governor and New Hampshire Emergency Management has determined the threat has subsided."

He reported that the Fire Department has provided adequate personal protection equipment (PPE) for the town's essential services operations for the short term.

Selectperson Dorothy Veisel said the response in New Durham has been truly "heartwarming," citing "neighbors checking on neighbors and running errands for our vulnerable seniors."

She said the community Food Pantry has been overwhelmed with donations of food, supplies, and cash.

"With continued service to residents as their priority, the Selectmen, Town Administrator and our amazing town employees have made accommodations," she said. "I'm grateful to be a member of this community in such uncertain times because the one fact I'm sure of is that caring neighbors abound, and help is only a phone call away."

Schooling, tipped upside down and sent through the ether, is another aspect of New Durham life that is rolling right along.

New Durham School Principal Kelly Colby-Seavey said the teachers and support staff there "rallied unbelievably" in mid-March, working for multiple days to get remote learning up and running.

"Our teachers were ready ahead of the district launch date of March 20," she said. "Teachers are making daily contact with students, continuing to hold morning meetings, then whole class, small or individual groups for instruction."

The school works closely with parents and guardians who, in some cases, are continuing to work in healthcare, continuing to travel to work, or are having to work from home all while assisting their children.

In a time of remote learning, the digital divide became readily apparent. About 70 Chromebooks and 40 iPads have been loaned out for student use.

"A few families needed hotspots to help with their WiFi," Colby-Seavey said, "and were supplied with those from the district."

The New Durham School staff continues to provide and even deliver weekend food bags for several families.

If there weren't enough complexities for a school to deal with when children were in attendance, there are even more when they are not.

"We have sixth graders who are missing their friends and the normal traditions of spring in grade six," Colby-Seavey explained. "We have young children who are expected to engage with screens longer than we and their parents would like. Big, long-looked forward to field trips are all postponed or canceled."

Some children may be feeling the financial stress of the virus on their families, may be feeling depressed about the continued stay at home situation, or may have underlying medical needs that are cause for the school's concern.

"Our teachers and staff are trying to provide families with anything they need, as possible," she said. "Staff members are providing lunch bunches to allow students more supervised, social engagement, even if it is on-line, spirit days and more flexible Friday schedules."

The children at home are making the best of the situation. One woman said it was working out well for the youngster in her household, as it seemed the child received "more one-on-one" with the teacher.

"We have received so much love and support from families," Colby-Seavey said. "They continue to be amazed at the attention, caring, and engagement our people provide to their children."

In an attempt to show the children how much they were thinking of them, teachers prepared a video telling them they missed them.

"And then, in honor of Staff Appreciation Day, the families sent video clips to the staff," Colby-Seavey said.

She recounted that one parent stated, "I think you'd be hard pressed to find a school that has handled this better than New Durham."

The Town's Parks and Recreation Department has held a modified town-wide Easter Egg hunt and scavenger hunt. Residents are hopeful of a return to a small degree of normalcy as they watch work being done at the Town Beach.

The New Durham Public Library streams programming and sends out weekly e-newsletters containing websites to inform, teach, and entertain, and activities that families can do away from screens.

Schools and town departments are working hard in the midst of a pandemic, but the community is made up of individuals with unique situations.

Next week, we'll hear from a variety of perspectives as residents from all walks of life speak about how COVID-19 has affected them, and how they are coping.

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