One Year Later

The first weeks of March 2020 marked the last days of “normal” for Rhode islanders as most of the state shut down in mid-March of last year. Main Street restaurants and businesses lined their windows with encouraging signs, and as the pandemic continued into spring 2020, when one East Greenwich neighborhood thanked first responders and frontline workers by posting handmade signs. 

 

SOUTH COUNTY – A year ago today, we were unknowingly living one of the last “normal” days of our lives. 

We went into work and sent our children into school without masks, we ate out at restaurants and stood in line for coffee without worrying about social distancing, and we hugged friends and family members without reservation. 

“It’s hard to believe that was only a year ago,” said South Kingstown Superintendent Linda Savasatano, “but in a way, it also feels like a lifetime ago.”

News of pocket cases popping up throughout Rhode Island came with public health directives to wash our hands more frequently and avoid touching our face. And although hand sanitizer and toilet paper were quickly disappearing from the shelves of grocery stores and pharmacies, worrying about a lockdown – especially one that would last longer than a few weeks – wasn't something that crossed most people’s minds. 

But slowly, more and more events were canceled amid growing coronavirus concerns. 

Hours before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global health pandemic on March 11, the University of Rhode Island announced its decision to temporarily suspend face-to-face classes.

On March 12, the National Collegiate Athletic Association decided to not to hold March Madness, and closer to home, organizations like the Contemporary Theater Company in Wakefield decided to postpone performances for what they believed would only be a few weeks. 

And on March 13, then Gov. Gina Raimondo signed an emergency order mandating anyone entering Rhode Island from another state or country to self-quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. Offices began directing people to work from home “for the time being” and Raimondo announced the schools would be taking their April vacation early and closing for a week. That same night, Newport’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade was canceled for the first time in 64 years.

The executive order that followed three days later, on March 16, would ban indoor dining at bars and restaurants, as well as social gatherings of 25 people or more. In the days and weeks ahead, executive orders would only further constrict those social circles. 

Rhode Islanders have been living with the pandemic for a full year now, and in that time, it has impacted nearly every aspect of our lives – from how we work and learn, to how we socialize and enjoy our downtime. The changes and sacrifices that have been made in public health, however, have also widely affected mental health. 

East Greenwich Substance Abuse Coordinator Bob Houghtaling has been serving his community for nearly four decades, and over this past year, he’s seen a proliferation of mental health conditions among people of all ages, from anxiety and depression, to existential crisis. 

In March, at the onset of the pandemic and our “new normal,” Houghtaling said the trepidation was most readily apparent in adults – especially those in Alcoholics Anonymous or other support groups when meetings were disrupted. 

In addition to his concerns for mental health, he’s expressed concerns over increased dependency on drugs and alcohol during this time. On numerous occasions in recent years, Houghtaling has highlighted how the communal nature of drug and alcohol use in decades past has now taken on a more solitary, isolated nature. 

“We’ve had clients, many times kids but also adults, drinking at home in isolation to ameliorate some of the tension, to ameliorate some of the depression, ameliorate some of the anxiety and some of the loneliness,” Houghtaling said.

While none of his days are ever normal, Houghtaling remembers feeling struck on March 15 – the day students didn’t return to the classroom for the first time. That was the first time it hit him that his access to kids and families had significantly changed. In the days following, as conditions and case numbers continued to worsen, he quickly realized he’d need to create a stronger online presence – from podcast to livestreams – to help curb feelings of isolation and loneliness. 

“Those were the exclamation days,” he said, realizing events needed to be canceled and people needed to stay indoors as much as possible to flatten the curve.

Another day that particularly struck Houghtaling was watching students return to the classroom September. While he was elated to see them in school again, it was a bit of a shock to see everyone’s face covered by a mask, or students learning from home join the classroom virtually. 

“It really set in that there’s going to be a new reality,” he said. 

Houghtaling’s advice to families is to make sure their kids stay connected and engaged – even if that connection is as simple as going for a short walk together. He stressed the importance of reaching out for help if they’re struggling with their mental health. 

“The suicidal ideation, the loneliness, the despair – it’s significant,” Houghtaling said. “In many ways, for me, you’re more worried about the people you’re not reaching than the ones you do reach.”

Rhode Island’s statistics of suicide attempt rates among adolescents and young adults have doubled this past year. 

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On March 13, when Savastano received 15 minutes notice of school closures and plans to temporarily move towards distance learning for a few weeks, she had no idea students wouldn’t be coming back into the classroom that year. 

Due to Savastano’s years of experience serving in Middletown Public Schools as the technology director, South Kingstown was better positioned for the digital switch than most. And while she’s proud of all that was accomplished last spring, and the silver linings that have been found along the way, she knew students needed to physically come into the classroom as much as possible. 

The goal this fall, when students came back into the classroom, was to open the schools as much as possible. 

“It’s OK if they’re not perfect readers or they don’t count beautifully, but just get them together,” Savastano remembers telling teachers. “Let’s get them together, even if it’s just a walk outside.”

This “low bar” she set was mostly focused at building up relationships, but since, Savastano said the academics have been taking off. But challenges remain to overcome gaps in student learning. 

Staying on top of new cases and implementing district-wide testing has helped South Kingstown keep their doors open this year, and Savastano said their reasons to feel hopeful with vaccine appointments on the horizon for teachers. 

She’s faced plenty of challenges and obstacles over the past year, but hearing the concern and worry in teachers voices during a staff meeting in August, she said, was one of her hardest days as an administrator. 

“You could hear when they asked questions, you could hear it in their voice, and it was probably one of the most difficult meetings I’ve ever had,” she said. “Trying to be super confident and excited about school opening, knowing that people were just really terrified, and wanting to rally them so they could rally the children.”

Savastano said she’s thankful vaccine appointments for teachers and school staff are finally on the horizon. One less thing for teachers to worry about inside the classroom is a huge cause for celebration. 

“They’re really such heroes,” Savastano said. “I give them all the credit in the world.”

In her role, Savastano said she’s forced to make new decisions as new data and information comes to light, and in many cases, she knows not everyone will be happy with the decisions she makes. She strives to give answers about why she made the decisions she did. 

“I really enjoy a black-and-white world, but there’s really nothing black and white, or predictable, about what we’ve been in,” Savastano said. “It’s knowing today you’ll make a decision, and tomorrow you might have to pull it back.”

None of decisions will ever please everyone, she said, not making decisions for one student or a few families, but an entire learning community in the best interest of public health. Decisions were also made because of staffing, which has been a huge problem in every school district in Rhode Island, because without proper staffing, entire buildings could shut down. 

The week following Thanksgiving was a particularly challenging time for the district, after 30 cases were found in five days – requiring hours upon hours of contact tracing work with the department of health.

“You would think, ‘We’re OK,’ and then you’d hear another case, and another case, and you’re on the phone with the department of health analyzing it,” she said. “That week I thought, ‘Am I doing the right thing?’ But we definitely, together, figured it out. And I know we did the right thing.”

In addition to the stresses school districts have faced to deliver an education, in the month classrooms we’re open, many working families struggled to clock hours while also helping with homework and class assignment. 

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Although University of Rhode Island Admissions Counselor Nate Vaccaro doesn’t have children, he’s struggled with the repetition that comes with working from home during a pandemic. As a young professional living alone in Wakefield, he’s had to switch gears at work. 

Rather than traveling to high schools and college fairs in New York and New Jersey to promote the university, he’s work is now focused on online engagement. Helping students decide if the university is the best fit for them has also been a challenge, and helping students make this decision without knowing if the university would open for in-person classes this fall was also a struggle. 

“Trying to help teenagers plan their lives the world is shutting down is definitely a struggle,” Vaccaro said. 

He expressed regret for all the milestones today’s teenagers are missing out on – like proms and graduations. Vaccaro said he’s thankful he graduated in May of 2019, before words like social distancing and self-quarantine became a part of his vocabulary. 

He never anticipated that going to the grocery store would become his social outing of the week, or that he’d go a whole year without being able to sit in coffee shops or restaurants with friends, or overhear conversations and the sounds of people living their lives. 

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The restaurant industry has been particularly hard hit by the pandemic – forcing many local restaurants to close their doors for good. Among the many to close their doors includes Oatley’s Family Restaurant in North Kingstown, a popular breakfast and lunch spot that closed in June after 44 years of business. Others include Red Strip in East Greenwich, Eleven Forty Nine in Warwick and Bravo Bistro in Providence – along with many  others. 

Others have found opportunities for economic growth, though. South County couple Julie and Dean Couchey were able to launch a vegan meal delivery service after the pandemic upended the lives they’d just created for themselves in Philadelphia.

Back in Rhode Island, they realized the constraints of the pandemic created the perfect opportunity to launch a business like this – something Dean doesn’t believe people would have been open to trying if it weren’t for social distancing and limiting social interactions. 

SoCo Vedge, since its inception just this year, has been off to a strong start and received much positive feedback.

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And while industries like retail, or food and beverage, have struggled to keep their doors open, other sectors of the economy, like healthcare, have been overheated.

Miriam Hospital nurse Victoria Horsfield, of East Greenwich, had been away on vacation right before events started getting canceled and restaurants were shutting indoor dining. She remembers feeling guilty hearing new developments from her coworkers, like how masks would need to be worn at all times.

Masks she’d been used to throwing away after every use now had to be reused over and over, due to the early shortages of personal protective equipment in the hospitals. 

“I remember they said, ‘You have to wear this mask until the day it disintegrates, until there’s holes in it, or it breaks,” Horsfield. “I wore the same mask for two or three weeks, and then we  were allowed to switch them out.”

One of the first individuals with a confirmed case of COVID-19 in Rhode Island received treatment at Miriam Hospital, but Horsfield remembers being most challenged around the holidays. 

“As scary as the spring was, for me, personally, the most challenging time was actually November through the end of January,” Horsfield said. During that time, her unit went warm, meaning they’d become a COVID-only unit. “Prior to that, we would have COVID patients sprinkled throughout our unit.”

“It was mentally and physically exhausting,” she added. 

In January and February of 2020, Horsfield remembers not feeling overly concerned about coronavirus, and despites having things like a cousin’s state championship game canceled “feel like the end of the world” for the family – the first of many events in her life that were canceled – the worries didn’t set in until later. 

“I wasn’t really nervous or worried until it started to really effect my work,” she said. “Everyone was starting to panic, and it was just scary because no one really knew what to expect, or how bad it would get.”

“I didn’t think it would last nearly as long as it did,” she added. 

Thankfully, she’s had a lot of support from family and friends over this past year, but she’s partially grateful to her coworkers for helping her through this time. 

“I really do think my coworkers are what got me through,” Horsfield said. “As much as our family and friends can be supportive, nobody understands what it’s like unless you’re in there. People don’t really understand what it’s like, even without a pandemic.”

Now that more and more Rhode Islanders are getting vaccinated, Horsfield is feeling optimistic for the future. And though she would have preferred not having to live through a global pandemic, Horsfield said she feels like a part of history. 

This year has been marked with so much loss and sacrifice, but Houghtaling doesn’t believe that’s what we’ll choose to look back on in the future. 

“Obviously, this is one of the biggest challenges the country has faced in 100 years,” Houghtaling said. “It’s one of the biggest challenges of a generation, and it’s disrupted so many things.”

Rather than continuing to think about what’s been lost, Houghtaling chooses to view the world for a “glass half-full lens.” While it’s impossible to ignore all the pain and suffering this past year has brought, there is a lot of good that’s come out of this past year. 

“People have come together,” he said. “There’s been incredible generosity, incredible resilience from people to reinvent their craft, to reinvent how they stay together.”

In the end, Houghtaling believes the small acts of kindness shown to our fellow man throughout all this, will ultimately be what people remember most.

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