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County considering new training 'burn building' for fire academy

HOUSTON – County officials and local fire departments think it’s time for the area’s training center burn building to go up in smoke.

A tour of the Washington County Fire Academy near Houston last week showed that the cement block building used for live burning exercises is deteriorating after about 15 years of use, and might be unsafe for training.

Now, the county commissioners and area fire departments are considering whether to fix the current burn building and expand it, or demolish it and construct a new one for training.

“The burn building has so many years of burning in it, the concrete is starting to fall,” North Strabane fire Chief Mark Grimm said. “We haven’t had any injuries in it, but that is a concern as the building continues to deteriorate. We want to get it fixed and get it up to current standards.”

Courtesy of Canonsburg Volunteer Fire Department 

Courtesy of Canonsburg Volunteer Fire Department

Canonsburg firefighters are pictured training at the Washington County Fire Academy’s “burn building” in this 2020 photo.

County Commissioners Diana Irey Vaughan and Nick Sherman toured the center with several fire chiefs Wednesday and are now exploring whether there are federal funds or private grants to build a new burn building. There also are discussions about erecting a separate two-story “maze building” with hallways and rooms that can be used for police training tactics or firefighting exercises navigating through smoke.

“They have limited capacity and ability to train there because the building is falling apart,” Sherman said. “This is the very beginning stages of something we’d like to move very quickly on. It won’t be a huge price tag for taxpayers, but it could be a moneymaker.”

The cost of a new burn building or renovations was not immediately know, although Sherman suggested fire crews from outside Washington County could travel to the fire academy for training if it’s built, which would lead to a new revenue stream.

Grimm, who is also the public safety director for North Strabane, is confident a new training building at the fire academy would attract departments from across the region.

“It’s an investment that will be well worth it because there are a lot of people who use that facility,” said Grimm, who was on the tour with the commissioners last week. “But we feel like if we all put our heads together and come up with a plan, not only emergency personnel in Washington County but other agencies outside the county will use it as well.”

While Grimm said some training is still conducted in the current burn building, many local fire departments are traveling elsewhere to perform exercises. He said some crews are going to training centers in Allegheny and Butler counties, while his department just visited Indiana County for a session.

“There’s only so much you can do in that building,” Grimm said. “It needs updating.”

Waynesburg University celebrates 'spirit of perseverance' during commencement ceremonies

The Rev. James Tinnemeyer, the former Waynesburg University dean of students and chaplain, returned to the Greene County campus Sunday morning to address the graduating class of 2021.

“Standing here before you this morning feels like coming home for me,” he said. “I felt it the moment I came over the ridge and saw Waynesburg spread out in front of me, because this is a place that I love, with people that I really, really love.”

Tinnemeyer, who had also served as vice president for student services and associate professor of Biblical and ministry studies and university chaplain, was a part of the three in-person undergraduate commencement ceremonies on the lawn of Miller Hall Sunday.

Now a pastor at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Tinnemeyer gave a keynote speech during the Christian university’s 10 a.m., 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. commencement ceremonies that suggested to students that success “in the real world” can be found by loving other people.

He said Biblical teachings for what life is all about “are so radically different from what the world offers.”

Exactly 30 years ago, Tinnemeyer said, he was sitting where those graduates sat, ready to move the tassel on his hat to the other side. He said he was the recipients of comments like, “Are you ready for the real world.” He challenged students to think about what their “real world” is and what it means to be successful in it.

“We live in a time when we’re encouraged to grab all we can and to look out for No. 1 and to put ourselves first,” Tinnemeyer said. “But you and I are not defined by that. We are defined ultimately by how well we love others.”

More than 400 undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students from the Waynesburg campus and its Southpointe site were honored at the commencement ceremonies, which were spaced out over the weekend. Graduates, faculty and guests wore masks and took part in socially distanced ceremonies.

The services were also livestreamed on the university’s website, and students unable to attend in person were recognized virtually on a large screen displayed on the lawn.

One of the valedictorians, Joshua Miller, spoke to some of the challenges this year.

“It is easy to feel overwhelmed with new and unfamiliar situations, and many of us have felt weary by this pandemic – emotionally, socially and academically – but we have remained steadfast in our journey to succeed,” he said. “The future is brighter because Waynesburg University’s Class of 2021 can forever share with future generations its experience, wisdom and spirit of perseverance.”

Virus, technology, unrest make stressful year for teachers

MANOR, Texas – The school bell rings, and about a dozen masked first-graders turn to the monitor and wave hello to their classmates – each a tiny Zoom square representing the other half of the class. The teacher – standing behind a plexiglass wall – shares her screen, grabs a pointer, juggles a laptop, projector, marker and board and embarks on another act of her one-woman show.

Ana Saul Romero has seen many changes in teaching methods, testing and technology during her four decades as a teacher. But the past year packed in a lifetime’s worth of tumult.

“It’s difficult for me – I am a baby boomer – it is difficult with the technology, and I have learned more, but it is not enough, it is never enough,” Romero said as she reminisced on the personal connections she made with students when she could see them every day in-person.

This spring marks a year since the coronavirus pandemic shut down schools across the U.S., forcing many students, parents and teachers into virtual classrooms. As scientists learned more about the virus and states eased restrictions on gathering, some students returned to school while others kept learning at home – but they all had to be taught. Many classrooms became a simultaneous combination of virtual and in-person instruction, like Romero’s class in the Austin suburb of Manor.

There was a learning curve for teachers, and inequalities in Wi-Fi and technology access added to the stresses, as did social and political unrest that gripped the nation over that period. Now districts everywhere are grappling with exhausted educators wondering if this academic year will be their last.

Educators have coped with their own personal and family impacts of the pandemic, while trying to support students dealing with academic struggles, food insecurity, trauma and social isolation, said Antoinette Miranda, an Ohio State University professor of school psychology who is also on her state’s school board and married to a high school teacher.

“We talk a lot about the stress on students,” Miranda said, “but I think there’s a tremendous amount of stress on teachers.”

As they raised health and safety concerns about resuming in-person classes, some people blamed them for holding up reopenings that could ease pressure on parents.

“I think there’s kind of a backlash against teachers,” Miranda said. “But I think there’s also a renewed respect for teachers – you know, especially parents that had to start teaching their kids at home.”

Andre Spencer, superintendent of Manor Independent School District where Romero works, said the district’s pandemic response has focused on students and teachers. It spent millions to ensure every student and teacher has the technology necessary for virtual learning, including distributing mobile Wi-Fi hotspots for those without internet access. He also gathered a team to examine the resources and compensation his district provides teachers to ensure it stays competitive with others in the growing Austin area.

“I would say to teachers: ‘Don’t beat yourselves up too bad because this was a shift for everyone and it was a shift in a direction that none of us were expecting,’” Spencer said.

First-year teacher Cindy Hipps, Romero’s mentee and teaching partner, said she was told she “was introduced to the ring of fire of teaching.”

“I feel like a superwoman now, like I can take on anything,” she added.

Even before this school year began, district leaders worried about shortages of instructors, support staff and substitutes. More than a quarter of respondents to one poll by the nation’s largest teachers union, the National Education Association, felt the pandemic increased the likelihood they would retire early or leave the profession. And some already did.

With only piecemeal data from districts and states, it’s tough to tell how the pandemic impacted turnover nationwide. Some places report more educators retiring, quitting or taking extended absences, but others say the exodus they worried about didn’t happen.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten anticipates a big uptick in retirements in the coming months, after a year of perpetual uncertainty and change and more strain for educators than she’s ever seen.

“They love teaching. They know how important it is to engage kids. But this year has been unsustainable,” especially for educators simultaneously teaching students in person and online, Weingarten said.

The union started providing a free trauma counseling program for members, including for those who had COVID-19 or were traumatized by it.

National conversations around racial injustice, the presidential election and the Capitol riot impacted the job too, especially for teachers of color.

Travis Bristol, a University of California, Berkeley professor who researches teacher workplace experiences and focuses on educators of color, recommends that schools intentionally set up opportunities for employees to talk about what they have been through and grieve if needed. Teachers who are supported in addressing their own challenges, stresses and mental health concerns from the past year will be better positioned to help students do the same, he said.

To boost retention and address challenges weighing on educators, some districts are considering spending some of their federal COVID-19 relief funding on professional development, equipping and training teachers for virtual instruction, and increasing mental and emotional health support for teachers and students. They can also use the money for expenses such as providing extra compensation for pandemic-related duties or recruiting to address staffing shortages.

Romero, the teacher in Texas, was considering retiring. But even after such a challenging year, at her core, teaching is who she is.

“Let’s just hope that in September, if it is not gone, at least we will be able to do a better job,” Romero said. “We will have the experience of an entire year of trying to be above the water, but we will make it – that’s what educators do. We try and we fail and we get up and we shake it off and we do it again.”