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My (socially-distant) Valentine

CDC releases new school guidelines
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The Centers for Disease Control on Friday released new guidance to safely get students back into classrooms amid the pandemic.

The CDC’s “road map” included five mitigation strategies, and prioritized the first two – mandatory and proper mask wearing by students, teachers and staff, and maintaining at least six feet between people by grouping students in cohorts.

The other strategies the agency emphasized are hand washing, cleaning facilities, and conducting contact tracing and implementing quarantine when people have been exposed.

Additionally, the CDC said states should prioritize COVID-19 vaccines for teachers, but said vaccinations will not be required for schools to reopen.

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky emphasized during a news briefing that the department is not requiring schools to reopen at this time.

“These recommendations simply provide schools a long-needed road map for how to do so safely under different levels of disease in the community,” she said.

Walensky said bringing students back into the classroom setting, where they have access to support systems school districts provide, is important, and she noted that in-person learning has not been identified as a substantial driver of coronavirus.

She called reopening schools a shared responsibility.

“The safest way to open schools is to ensure that there is as little COVID-19 as possible in the community, so everyone must do their part to protect each other and reduce the level of the virus in the community,” said Walensky.

The CDC, emphasized that reopenings should be based on community transmission rates.

It introduced a color-coded chart, based on rates of new cases per 100,000 and percentage of positive tests, to determine the model of instruction schools can use, ranging from full in-person to virtual only.

Walensky noted that schools across the country have been operating under a variety of learning models for months.

At Bentworth School District, about 83% of students have been attending full-time, in-person classes since the start of the school year.

Superintendent Scott Martin said the district has had to close the high school only twice, for two days each time.

“It’s a combination of everyone pulling together – teachers trusting colleagues and administrators, parents trusting that schools are doing all they can to keep students safe, and schools trusting parents not to send anyone to school if they’re sick,” said Martin, noting the district’s mitigation, masking, and social distancing efforts.

Walensky assured parents that the CDC’s strategy is science-based, with the goal of protecting students, teachers, and staff.

President Joe Biden has said he wants schools to reopen within his first 100 days in office, but he stressed that he wants them to reopen safely and will rely on health and medical experts to determine the guidance to resume in-person learning.

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8th grader starts card campaign, Art for Heart

What started out as a small act of kindness for a Mon Valley middle school student has grown into a much larger operation that’s spreading love throughout the region’s most vulnerable population.

After his summer basketball program was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 14-year-old Patrick Weldon, of Monongahela, decided to use his free time to volunteer with Meals on Wheels. He and his mother, Alexis Weldon, delivered meals to about 23 homes in their community for months.

“I pretty much realized that most of the people we delivered meals to are in wheelchairs or not very mobile,” Patrick said in a recent interview. “They stay in their homes pretty much 24/7.”

Especially during the pandemic, older populations and people with limited mobility found themselves homebound and isolated. Patrick decided to start making cards for folks to deliver with their meals.

“I thought if I let them know that people are thinking of them, that would help,” he said.

He said people were so excited to receive a new card each week, and even kept them on display in their homes.

“It really opened my eyes to the isolation of some people and how something simple like a card could really change their whole day and just really affect them,” Patrick said.

When he realized the impact of the cards, he decided to pitch a larger project to his art teacher, Susan Wagner, and principal, Ken Klase, at St. Louise de Marillac Catholic School in Upper St. Clair. He wanted to get his class involved with making cards for the Meals on Wheels program and also area nursing homes.

“It started at the beginning of the school year, and it started out small,” Klase said in a recent interview. “He saw the need to bring people’s spirits up. He thought it would be a good idea for his class to make the cards.”

Klase said that since the Catholic school does many service projects throughout the school year, they saw this as an opportunity.

“I think that’s part of our mission here – being a Catholic school is to reach out to others who are less fortunate than ourselves,” Klase said. “Our Gospel value this year was hope.”

Patrick has been learning remotely, lending some extra time and lunch breaks to be able to deliver meals and cards. Just last week, while on a school break, he and his mother were able to deliver a batch of cards to Monongahela Valley Hospital.

The approximate 550 students in preschool through eighth grade at the school started making cards with cheerful notes, Patrick said. Before delivery, they’d let the cards sit for three days to ensure they wouldn’t be spreading the virus.

Klase said it was amazing to see the students, their families, parents and grandparents get involved with the project and make cards together.

“It took off like wildfire here at the school,” Klase said. “It started out in art classes, but our kids took it upon themselves to start making them at home. It was spearheaded by Patrick. He’s a wonderful boy.”

They held “card drives,” Patrick said, around the holidays, sending out 500 cards at Thanksgiving and 700 at Christmas. Patrick is now coordinating the card deliveries with 15 different facilities across the region. He calls the project “Art for Heart.”

After UPMC Mercy Hospital in Pittsburgh contacted Patrick asking for cards for their patients, Patrick decided to hold a winter/Valentine’s Day card drive, during which they sent out 3,040 cards. One student created 200 cards himself, Patrick said.

“We had enough cards to cover every patient in the hospital, plus a surplus for six other hospitals,” he said. “It started out pretty slowly, but this last drive, I couldn’t believe we got that many.”

Even Patrick’s grandfather, who was recently in the hospital, received a card through Patrick’s campaign.

“He’s very close with his grandparents, and he is an only child, so he really bonded with the people he delivered meals to because he’s just used to being around older people,” Patrick’s mother, Alexis, said. “My husband (Patrick Weldon Sr.) and I are extremely happy and proud that he channeled his energy in this direction. It’s nice to see he realizes what an impact something so simple can have.”

Klase was also quite proud of Patrick. That’s why he nominated Patrick for the Prudential Spirit of Community Award, a national program with scholarship winners at the high school and middle school level per state. Patrick won the middle school level for Pennsylvania’s top youth volunteer of the year.

The award included a $2,500 scholarship, a silver medallion and an invitation to a national ceremony in April, where he could potentially become one of 10 honorees to be named America’s top youth volunteers of the year.

“He’s well beyond his years for taking on something like this,” Klase said. “No matter what he does, he goes above and beyond.”

Patrick thanked his classmates, teacher and everyone involved with his project, for their support and participation. Though it’s his last year at the school, he plans to be involved with the card campaign for years to come.

“COVID was the main reason for the isolation, but I think it would be a good thing to continue no matter what,” Patrick said. “I think we could probably keep up the numbers.”

Patrick also wants to reach other schools and organizations to collect even more cards for donation. Anyone interested in joining his efforts can visit his Facebook page, “Art for Heart.”

Klase said he suspects the school will continue the card campaign in the future, and possibly turn it into an annual Valentine’s Day tradition.

“I think Patrick is a true ambassador for our school,” Klase said. “He’s going to leave his mark in the community whatever he does.”

Trump lawyers argue impeachment based on 'hatred,' not facts

WASHINGTON – Donald Trump’s impeachment lawyers accused Democrats of waging a campaign of “hatred” against the former president as they sped through their defense of his actions and fiery words before the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, hurtling the Senate toward a final vote in his historic trial.

The defense team vigorously denied on Friday that Trump had incited the deadly riot and said his encouragement of followers to “fight like hell” at a rally that preceded it was routine political speech. They played dozens of out-of-context clips showing Democrats, some of them senators now serving as jurors, also telling supporters to “fight,” aiming to establish a parallel with Trump’s overheated rhetoric.

“This is ordinarily political rhetoric that is virtually indistinguishable from the language that has been used by people across the political spectrum for hundreds of years,” declared Trump lawyer Michael van der Veen. “Countless politicians have spoken of fighting for our principles.”

But the presentation blurred the difference between general encouragement to battle for causes and Trump’s fight against officially accepted national election results. The defeated president was telling his supporters to fight on after every state had verified its results, after the Electoral College had affirmed them and after nearly every election lawsuit filed by Trump and his allies had been rejected in court.

The case is speeding toward a vote and likely acquittal, perhaps as soon as Saturday, with the Senate evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans and a two-thirds majority required for conviction. Trump’s lawyers made an abbreviated presentation that used less than three of their allotted 16 hours.

Their quick pivot to the Democrats’ own words deflected from the central question of the trial – whether Trump incited the assault on the Capitol – and instead aimed to place impeachment managers and Trump adversaries on the defensive.

His lawyers contended he was merely telling his rally crowd to support primary challenges against his adversaries and to press for sweeping election reform.

After a two-day effort by Democrats to sync up Trump’s words to the violence that followed, including through raw and emotive video footage, defense lawyers suggested that Democrats have typically engaged in the same overheated rhetoric as Trump.

But in trying to draw that equivalency, the defenders minimized Trump’s months-long efforts to undermine the election results and his urging of followers to do the same. Democrats say that long campaign, rooted in a “big lie,” laid the groundwork for the mob that assembled outside the Capitol and stormed inside. Five people died.

“And so they came, draped in Trump’s flag, and used our flag, the American flag, to batter and to bludgeon,” Rep. Madeleine Dean, one of the impeachment managers, said Thursday as she choked back emotion.

On Friday, as defense lawyers repeated their own videos over and over, some Democrats chuckled and whispered among themselves as many of their faces flashed on the screen. Some passed notes. Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal threw up his hands, apparently amused, when his face appeared. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar rolled her eyes. Most Republicans watched intently.

During a break, some joked about the videos and others said they were a distraction or a “false equivalence” with Trump’s behavior.

“Well, we heard the word ‘fight’ a lot,” said Maine Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats.

Colorado Sen. Michael Bennett said it felt like the lawyers were “erecting straw men to then take them down rather than deal with the facts.”

“Show me any time that the result was that one of our supporters pulled someone out of the crowd, and then we said, ‘That’s great, good for you,’” said Delaware Sen. Chris Coons.

Trump’s defenders told senators that Trump was entitled to dispute the 2020 election results and that his doing so did not amount to inciting the violence. They sought to turn the tables on prosecutors by likening the Democrats’ questioning of the legitimacy of Trump’s 2016 win to his challenge of his election loss.

The defense team did not dispute the horror of the violence, painstakingly reconstructed by impeachment managers earlier in the week, but said it had been carried out by people who had “hijacked” what was supposed to be a peaceful event and had planned violence before Trump had spoken.

“You can’t incite what was going to happen,” he said.

Acknowledging the reality of the January day is meant to blunt the visceral impact of the House Democrats’ case and pivot to what Trump’s defenders see as the core – and more winnable – issue of the trial: Whether Trump actually incited the riot. The argument is likely to appeal to Republican senators who want to be seen as condemning the violence but without convicting the president.

Anticipating defense efforts to disentangle Trump’s rhetoric from the rioters’ actions, the impeachment managers spent days trying to fuse them together through a reconstruction of never-been-seen video footage alongside clips of the president’s months of urging his supporters to undo the election results.

On Thursday, they described in stark, personal terms the terror they faced that January day – some of it in the very Senate chamber where senators now are sitting as jurors. They used security video of rioters searching menacingly for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Mike Pence, smashing into the building and engaging in bloody, hand-to-hand combat with police.

Though defense lawyers sought to boil down the case to a single Trump speech, Democrats displayed the many public and explicit instructions he gave his supporters well before the White House rally that unleashed the deadly Capitol attack as Congress was certifying Democrat Joe Biden’s victory. And they used the rioters’ own videos and words from Jan. 6 to try to pin responsibility on Trump. “We were invited here,” said one Capitol invader. “Trump sent us,” said another. “He’ll be happy. We’re fighting for Trump.”

The prosecutors’ goal was to cast Trump not as a bystander but rather as the “inciter in chief” who spread election falsehoods, then encouraged supporters to come challenge the results in Washington.

The Democrats also are demanding that he be barred from holding future federal office.

Trump’s lawyers say that goal only underscores the “hatred” Democrats feel for Trump. Throughout the trial, they showed clips from Democrats questioning the legitimacy of his presidency and suggesting as early as 2017 that he should be impeached.

“Hatred is at the heart of the house managers’ fruitless attempts to blame Donald Trump for the criminal acts of the rioters – based on double hearsay statements of fringe right-wing groups, based on no real evidence other than rank speculation,” van der Veen said.

Trump’s lawyers noted that in the same Jan. 6 speech he encouraged the crowd to behave “peacefully,” and they contend that his remarks – and his general distrust of the election results – are all protected under the First Amendment. Democrats strenuously resist that assertion, saying his words weren’t political speech but rather amounted to direct incitement of violence.