Friday, June 05, 2020

Bipartisan bill aims to help farmers profit from carbon credits

A bipartisan group of four senators introduced a bill Thursday, June 4, that would make it easier for farmers to make money from reducing greenhouse-gas emissions on their land and selling carbon credits. The bill is sponsored by Mike Braun, R-Ind.; Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.; Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.; and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.

"In what might be considered a stunning trifecta for a climate bill in Congress, the Growing Climate Solutions Act lists significant support among a cross-section of agricultural groups, major corporations and environmental organizations," Chris Clayton reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer. "The bill does not address broad fundamental challenges to lowering greenhouse-gas emissions nationally. But for farmers and owners of major forestry operations nationally, the legislation does create a certification program at USDA that would help address technical barriers for farmers and landowners who want to participate in carbon-credit markets."

Who's buying the credits? "California and 10 Northeastern states have set up markets for buying and selling credits for the right to emit carbon into the atmosphere, effectively putting a cap on those states’ contributions to climate change," Dino Grandoni and Paulina Firozi report for The Washington Post. "Other voluntary markets let eco-conscious consumers pay money to offset emissions from airline travel and other activities."

Braun said the program could help farmers who are struggling right now because of low prices and other factors during the coronavirus pandemic, the Post reports.

"The bill also promotes access to technical assistance, comparable to what USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service provides now for conservation practices," Clayton reports.

Quick hits: Evangelicals vary in response to Trump's Bible photo op; Tyson reinstates policy penalizing absent workers

Here's a roundup of stories with rural resonance; if you do or see similar work that should be shared on The Rural Blog, email us at

Op-ed advocates making investing in resilient, localized food system part of next stimulus. Read more here.

Critics say small rural businesses left out of Paycheck Protection Plan funds; Reuters analysis shows how much PPP money went to big businesses that ducked paying taxes. Read more here.

Evangelicals vary in response to Trump's Bible photo op. Read more here.

Op-ed touts solar power as economic engine in rural eastern Kentucky. Read more here.

Webinar discusses news media perspectives on mental health during the pandemic. Read more here.

Tyson reinstates policy penalizing absentee workers, but says workers with covid-19 symptoms won't be penalized. Read more here.

Execs at Pilgrim's Pride and Claxton Poultry Farms indicted in alleged price-fixing scheme; others could be charged

"The chief executive of one of the country’s largest chicken producers was indicted on a price-fixing charge on Wednesday along with three other current and former executives at companies that supply chicken to groceries and restaurants across the United States," Cade Metz reports for The New York Times. "The indictment, by a federal grand jury in United States District Court in Denver, alleges that senior executives at Pilgrim’s Pride, based in Colorado, and Claxton Poultry Farms in Georgia fixed prices and rigged bids from 2012 to 2017. The charges are the first in a still-open Justice Department investigation involving several other major chicken producers."

The DOJ began investigating U.S. meat processors in recent weeks after farmers and ranchers complained that processors have been paying them extremely low prices for their livestock, even though meat prices (especially beef) surged for buyers, Leah Nylen and Liz Crampton report for Politico.

Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere hit a record high, though total greenhouse gases decline due to pandemic

Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, as recorded at the
Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. (Washington Post chart)
Greenhouse-gas emissions have dropped because of the coronavirus pandemic, but the amount of carbon dioxide in the air just hit a record high.

"According to readings from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the amount of CO2 in the air in May 2020 hit an average of slightly greater than 417 parts per million. This is the highest monthly average value ever recorded, and is up from 414.7 ppm in May of last year," Andrew Freedman and Chris Mooney report for The Washington Post. "Carbon dioxide levels are the highest they’ve been in human history, and likely the highest in 3 million years. The last time there was this much CO2 in the atmosphere, global average surface temperatures were significantly warmer than they are today, and sea levels were 50 to 80 feet higher."

This sustained, and accelerating, increase in greenhouse gases is hastening global warming, the Post reports, which has serious implications for agriculture and more.

Appeals court bans dicamba-based herbicide sales in U.S. for 6 months; EPA is likely to reauthorize it for next year

A federal appeals court has essentially halted the sale of dicamba-based herbicides in the U.S. for the next six months after ruling that the Environmental Protection Agency did not do its due diligence when reauthorizing the chemical in 2018. That reauthorization expires Dec. 20.

Environmental groups sued EPA in 2018 in an attempt to force the agency to cancel its approval of XtendiMax, a dicamba-based herbicide then produced by Monsanto, which has since been acquired by Bayer AG, Joel Rosenblatt reports for Bloomberg. The ruling applies to dicamba-based herbicides by other companies such as BASF and Corteva Agriscience.

The three-judge panel ruled that the EPA had "failed entirely" to acknowledge the risks of dicamba and therefore violated federal regulations by reauthorizing XtendiMax for two years in October 2018," Rosenblatt reports. The judges wrote in the opinion that the EPA's decision also failed to consider the "enormous social cost to farming communities" where disagreements over dicamba damage have "turned farmer against farmer, and neighbor against neighbor," and cited the 2016 murder of an Arkansas farmer during an argument over dicamba damage.

Dicamba is well-known for vaporizing after application and drifting to nearby fields, where it can damage crops not genetically engineered to resist it. That can unfairly influence farmers to buy dicamba-resistant seeds and pesticides, the judges ruled. "The decision is the latest blow to Bayer in the wake of its $63 billion takeover of Monsanto — a deal that made the German company a leader in agriculture products but also saddled it with a mountain of legal liabilities related to weed killers," Rosenblatt reports. In February, a Missouri peach farmer was awarded $265 million in a lawsuit against Bayer and BASF over dicamba-damaged crops.

State inspection agencies have been inundated with similar complaints for the past three years. Bayer's XtendiMax herbicide is "widely blamed for damaging 3.6 million acres of untreated soybeans in 2017, and more than 1 million acres in 2018," Rosenblatt reports.

"Still, the EPA will probably re-authorize dicamba in a revised form in time for next year -- and the agency could even move up that reauthorization before Dec. 20, when the current clearance was set to expire."

U.S.-China farm trade deal is in doubt after dispute over Hong Kong, Chinese cuts in soybean and pork purchases

The future of the "Phase 1" trade deal between the United States and China is in question after recent actions by the two governments, Karl Plume, Hallie Gu, and Keith Zhai report for Reuters.

In January, the countries signed a partial deal in which China promised to increase purchases of U.S. farm products by $32 billion over two years, if that didn't disrupt China's other trade relationships. China was once the U.S.'s top customer for soybeans, but lately China has been buying big from Brazil, Keith Johnson reports for Foreign Policy.

China recently passed a national-security bill that effectively overrode Hong Kong's legislature, giving Beijing more control over the city. In response, President Trump said Friday that the administration will begin eliminating policy exemptions for Hong Kong on extradition, technology exports and more, Jonathan Garber reports for Fox Business.

China volleyed back by canceling some U.S. agriculture purchases, weakening U.S. corn, wheat and lean hog futures; soybean futures remained flat. Sources with insider knowledge said the Chinese government told state-owned companies to stop making large-scale soybean and pork purchases from the U.S.; one of the sources said corn and cotton purchases were also on the chopping block, Reuters reports. But after that order, state-owned Chinese firms bought at least 180,000 tons of U.S. soybeans on Monday, scheduled to ship in the fall when U.S. soybeans are usually the cheapest on the global market, said three U.S. traders familiar with the deal.

"It was not immediately clear why buying continued after Beijing’s message to state-owned firms, but U.S. traders said Chinese importers still have not covered a large share of October and November soybean needs, Reuters reports. "The soybean sales on Monday were small compared to recent purchases by state-owned firms totaling 1 million tonnes or more at a time."

"Any sustained halt in buying would further threaten progress in meeting goals set in the Phase 1 trade deal signed in January," Reuters reports.

'To mask or not to mask?' reminds columnist of questions some had about seat belts, DUI laws and smoking bans

By Mary Jane McKinney

     To mask or not to mask? That is the question a lot of people are wrestling with as the coronavirus pandemic in Texas worsens. We as a culture have been here before. Americans have resisted seat belts, helmets, infant car seats, and other safety measures. They have also resented laws prohibiting driving while drunk, buzzed, or high. And for 60 years, Americans have been warned not to use tobacco. Laws now prohibit smoking in public places, but tobacco use persists in spite of overwhelming evidence that it is harmful. Most Americans go along with changes, but there is always a percentage of the population who are slow to comply. Now it’s wearing a protective face mask in a pandemic.
     Our village post office is the size of a large walk-in closet. The mail is put up Monday through Saturday by 11 am. After that time, more than 300 residents enter the closet-sized space to get their mail. The daily trip has become dangerous as residents try to social distance. I thought I had the answer to safe mail pickup when I started getting my mail after 7 pm. My plan worked for four weeks until others had the same idea. Now there is a line of cars parked on Main Street between 7 pm and 8 pm. Almost everyone I’ve seen at the late mail pickup is over 60 years old. Nobody wears a mask except me. I’ve got gloves on, too.
     The whole idea of the late pickup is to go to the post office when no one else is there, thus eliminating the need for a mask. Why the resistance to masks? We can blame human nature for the reluctance to change. I also think the mask seems so low-tech; primitive; and to some, silly, that a lot of people dismiss its power to make a difference in the pandemic. But masks work to slow the spread of the virus. I heard a reporter in Hong Kong say that not wearing a mask in public is like not wearing clothes. In China, Singapore, South Korea, and other Asian countries, wearing a mask is accepted as a public health requirement and a cultural norm. The root of resistance to masking up in rural Texas may be the fear that the custom will become a cultural norm in the United States.
     As the number of coronavirus cases in Texas rises, we will also see an increase in mask-wearing. We’re just putting off the inevitable as long as possible. One of the best things about living in a small town is the feeling of safety. The illusion that the virus won’t come here is just that—an illusion. As more businesses open, we will see more cashiers, clerks, and store managers in masks. We will see more stores requiring customers to wear masks.
     As the covid-19 cases increase in my county, I already see more West Texans wearing masks. At first, we had three cases, then 17, then 29, and now 106 cases. The virus is here, and more people will be infected in the next few weeks, especially after the abandonment of social distancing on Memorial Day weekend.
     Epidemiologists are calling the spike in cases “the second wave of the first wave.” Texas cases may reach 100,000 at the rate they are going. Eventually, Gov. Abbott will have to follow in the footsteps of Gov. Murphy of New Jersey, who told his citizens to wear masks and stay six feet apart. Exasperated, he finally tweeted, "ATTENTION KNUCKLEHEADS: KEEP A SAFE DISTANCE."

Mary Jane McKinney of Christoval, Texas, writes her "Plain English" column for Texas newspapers.

Wednesday, June 03, 2020

EPA quick hits: Agency weakens states' power over pipeline projects; refused to use current data to revise air toxics rule

"The Environmental Protection Agency on Monday announced that it had limited states’ ability to block the construction of energy infrastructure projects, part of the Trump administration’s goal of promoting gas pipelines, coal terminals and other fossil fuel development," Lisa Friedman reports for The New York Times. "The completed rule curtails sections of the U.S. Clean Water Act that New York has used to block an interstate gas pipeline, and Washington employed to oppose a coal export terminal. The move is expected to set up a legal clash with Democratic governors who have sought to block fossil fuel projects."

Also in EPA news: Emails show that the agency recently refused a White House Office of Management and Budget request to use current data when revising its rule on mercury air pollution.

The regulation involved a second look at the Obama administration’s legal rationale to see whether it was “appropriate or necessary” for the Environmental Protection Agency to limit mercury and other toxic air pollution from power plants," Amena Saiyid reports for Bloomberg Law. "The Trump administration’s EPA concluded May 22 the mercury and air toxics standards, known as MATS, which were set in 2012 and met subsequently by the power sector, weren’t justified. It reached this decision by using the same health benefits and compliance estimates used in 2012 to set the standards."

Only 301 oil and gas rigs were drilling in the U.S. last week, the fewest since national records have been kept

Fewer rigs are drilling for oil and gas in the United States than at any time since national records started being kept in 1940, energy-service firm Baker Hughes Co. reports.

The count fell by 17 to 301 in the week ended Friday, May 29. "That was 683 rigs, or 69 percent, below this time last year and was the fourth week in a row the U.S. count fell to a fresh record low," reports Scott DiSavino of Reuters. "For the month, the U.S. rigs dropped by 164, its third monthly decline in a row."

DiSavino notes that energy companies cut back on new drilling "after global coronavirus lockdowns caused energy prices and demand to collapse." Some active rigs have been idled, the Houston Chronicle reports. The price plunge has made some production uneconomical, and oil companies are running short of lack of storage space for crude oil and petroleum products.

Rural counties at both extremes of infection rates in May

New covid-19 cases in May (Daily Yonder map; click on the image to enlarge it; click here for the interactive version.)
Non-metropolitan counties had some of the highest and lowest covid-19 infection rates in the nation in May, according to a new Daily Yonder analysis of USA Facts data.

"On one hand, 352 rural counties reported no cases of covid-19 infections in May. That number includes 171 rural counties that have never had a case of covid-19, plus another 181 counties that reported no new cases in May but had cases previously," Tim Marema and Bill Bishop report for The Daily Yonder. "Another 500 rural counties reported five or fewer new cases of covid-19 in May."

Read more here for a regional analysis and an interactive map with county-level data.

Tuesday, June 02, 2020

Pandemic stress could prompt spike in rural mental health problems and suicides; see county-level estimates

Estimated additional deaths of despair between 2020-2029 (Click the image to enlarge it)
Mental health issues and deaths of despair, or those caused by depression-related suicide or substance abuse, have been increasing over the past decade, but stress from the pandemic could cause a spike in such deaths, according to a recent paper by the Well Being Trust, a mental health and substance abuse research nonprofit, and the Robert Graham Center, a primary care research organization affiliated with the American Academy of Family Physicians.

An increase in deaths of despair could disproportionately affect rural residents, who are at a higher risk of such deaths. Racial and ethnic minorities and people with lower incomes are also at higher risk, especially those with more than one risk factor.

The paper considers nine possible future scenarios, including ones with quick economic recovery, slow economic recovery, and somewhere in between, along with other factors. The fastest recovery could result in an additional 27,644 deaths of despair, and the slowest recovery could lead to an additional 154,037 deaths of despair, according to the paper.

The authors suggest ways to mitigate the increase in deaths of despair, including finding ways to decrease social isolation. Read more here.

Agricultural economists to discuss pandemic's impact on the agricultural economy in webinar at 2:30 ET Thursday

As part of the University of Kentucky's Cafe Conversations series, three agricultural economists will discuss how the covid-19 pandemic is affecting the agricultural economy in a free webinar on Thursday, June 4. The webinar will begin at 2:30 p.m. ET and will likely be less than an hour long. Click here to register.

The featured panelists will be Will Snell, Kenny Burdine, and Tim Woods. Snell's expertise lies in tobacco economics, ag policy, and trade. Burdine's focus is on livestock economics and price risk management. Woods' speciality is horticulture, food business development, farm entrepreneurship, and wholesale food supply chains.

The webinar will take place on Zoom, and preregistration is required. A free recording will be available afterward on the university's College of Agriculture, Food and Environment website.

76 journalists attacked covering riots, mostly by police, according to database that tracks threats to journalists

"At least 19 journalists have been arrested, 36 journalists shot at by police with projectiles, and 76 journalists have been assaulted during the period of May 28 through 31 while covering protests throughout the US," Justin Boggs reports for Scripps. "Of the 76 reported assaults on journalists, 80% were by police, either through physical encounters or being shot at" with non-lethal rounds.

The figures have been compiled by U.S. Freedom Tracker, which maintains a database of threats to the news media's right to report. That includes physical attacks, damage to equipment, denials of access, subpoenas or legal orders, arrests, and "chilling statements". Though most of the threats and violence against journalists covering the riots has been urban, the database is one to watch, and often lists rural journalists.

"The group said on Monday that it generally documents 100 to 150 'press freedom violations' per year in the US. In just four days, that number is well over 100," Boggs reports. That figure could increase in coming days as the group investigates other incidents.

Rural counties with covid-19 outbreaks and meatpacking plants have some of the highest infection rates in the US

Infection rate per 100,000; white dots are meatpacking plants
(Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version)
Most of the rural counties with the highest covid-19 infection rates are home to meatpacking plants where workers have been sickened by the disease. Such rural counties, which have some of the highest infection rates nationwide, have an average infection rate an average of five times higher than other rural counties, according to a data analysis by The Daily Yonder and the Food & Environment Reporting Network.

"Rural counties with covid-19 cases linked to meatpacking plants have an average infection rate of nearly 1,100 per 100,000, according to the analysis of data on covid-19 cases and deaths, Leah Douglas and Tim Marema report for the Yonder. "The data used in the analysis was from USA Facts. In rural counties without meatpacking plant-linked outbreaks, the average infection rate is only 209 cases per 100,000."

Click here for more data from the analysis, including an interactive county-level map, county rankings, and more.

Meatpacking production is almost back at normal capacity, but some lawmakers and labor advocates say protections for workers are still lacking, Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's Morning Agriculture.

Study: covid-19 significantly worse among smokers

People who smoke are more likely to contract covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and more likely to have a severe case than non-smokers, according to a newly published analysis by University of California San Francisco scientists. That includes people who use e-cigarettes.

That has ominous implications for rural areas, where smoking rates are higher.

In a meta-analysis of recent studies about 11,590 covid-19 patients, the researchers found that current and former smokers were nearly twice as likely to see advanced progression of the disease, and more likely to die from it. "Smoking and e-cigarette use increase risk and severity of pulmonary infections because of damage to upper airways and a decrease in pulmonary immune function," according to the paper.

The authors recommend that physicians and public health officials collect more data on smoking and create smoking cessation initiatives to help blunt the impact of the pandemic.

Monday, June 01, 2020

Supreme Court lets states regulate church gatherings in pandemic; White House waters down CDC guidelines

Churches continue to serve as a legal and regulatory battleground during the pandemic as concerns over free speech and public health collide.

The Supreme Court ruledFriday that states still retain some power to regulate how many people are allowed to gather in churches during a pandemic, with Chief Justice John Roberts joining the court's liberal minority in a 5-4 vote, Adam Liptak reports for The New York Times.

South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista, Calif., sued to block the state from enforcing restrictions on attendance at religious services, alleging that their freedom of speech was being violated. However, Roberts wrote in the majority opinion that churches were not being unfairly singled out since non-essential secular gatherings have also been restricted, Liptak reports.

"The court’s ruling was its first attempt to balance the public health crisis against the Constitution’s protection of religious freedom," Liptak reports. "And it expanded the Supreme Court’s engagement with the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, after rulings on voting in Wisconsin and prisons in Texas and Ohio."

Meanwhile, last week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention removed language from its pandemic guidelines for faith communities that had encouraged them to limit or eschew singing since it can spread the coronavirus, Lena Sun and Josh Dawsey report for The Washington Post.

The guide was initially released on Friday, May 22, but it was altered over the weekend to exclude language about choirs, apparently because the White House had not approved it, Bill Chappell reports for NPR. An anonymous federal official told NPR that the CDC "posted the wrong version of the guidance" and that the one "currently up on the website is the version cleared by the White House."

"The altered guidance also deleted a reference to 'shared cups' among items, including hymnals and worship rugs, that should not be shared," Sun and Josh Dawsey report. "The updated guidelines also added language that said the guidance 'is not intended to infringe on rights protected by the First Amendment'."

Churches have been the source for multiple local outbreaks in rural areas. "There is probably no better way to aerosolize the virus than singing," Kevin Kavanagh told The Rural Blog. "Close contact, indoor closed quarters plus singing is a set-up for a disaster." Kavanagh is a retired physician in Somerset, Ky., and chair of Health Watch USA.

Critics say small businesses, some small rural lenders, left out of Paycheck Protection Plan aid

Though Congress has provided more than $600 billion in forgivable loans for small businesses who retain their employees during the pandemic, critics say rural entrepreneurs are being left out.

"A May 8 report by the Small Business Administration’s inspector general found that the SBA failed to follow congressional direction to prioritize small businesses in underserved and rural markets in the original" Paycheck Protection Program, April Simpson reports for Stateline. "And because the SBA did not collect demographic data on those borrowers, the agency doesn’t know how much money went to rural, minority and women-owned businesses."

An online survey by the National Main Street Center found that fewer small rural businesses applied for or received PPP aid than their urban counterparts. "Of 631 respondents in 43 states, the vast majority employ fewer than 20 people," Simpson reports. "The survey found that in communities of fewer than 50,000 people, 76 percent of businesses applied, compared with 89% in places with larger populations. And 45% of small business applications in smaller areas were approved, compared with 59% in larger ones."

Critics say many rural business owners don't have the banking relationships necessary to take advantage of the PPP, Simpson reports. In May, Ines Polonius, CEO of Arkansas-based small-business lender Communities Unlimited told members of a House small business subcommittee that the PPP failed to help rural businesses as the "direct result of decades of bank disinvestment from rural communities across the country."

Responding to the criticism, the SBA and the Treasury Department announced last week "they would set aside $10 billion in funding for the Paycheck Protection Program to be lent exclusively to Community Development Financial Institutions, which lend to rural, minority and under-served groups," Simpson reports.

However, Vandell Hampton Jr., CEO of True Access Capital, said many small CDFIs like his can't participate in the PPP, Simpson reports: "Smaller lenders don’t have the capital to lend and wait to be reimbursed, nor do they have the capacity to quickly process loan applications, Hampton said. Instead, grant money to support smaller institutions, urban or rural, would have been more effective, he said."

Rural Kentucky writer blames Trump, toxic masculinity, for many red state residents' dislike of wearing masks

Teri Carter
When Kentucky slowly began to reopen businesses a few weeks ago, Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, asked all Kentuckians to wear masks in public spaces. But many refused, seeming to view the notion as weak or foolish.

The decision to wear a mask or not has become a cultural and political flash point in Kentucky and many other red states, rural Kentuckian Teri Carter writes in an op-ed for The Washington Post.

President Trump has been a poor role model by not wearing a mask or following social distancing protocols at multiple public appearances, Carter writes, behavior she believes is driven by toxic masculinity.

Carter correlates Trump's refusal to wear a mask with rising pandemic rates in red states: "Infection counts are rising in Alabama, and Mississippi, Utah, Wisconsin, South Carolina and Arizona all set records for daily case totals Friday. Not coincidentally, those are all states where, like Kentucky, Trump remains popular."

"In red states such as Kentucky, where allegiance to Trump so often trumps all else, I pray we don’t see a spike in sickness and death simply because wearing a mask in Trump country has been deemed 'weak' and 'unmanly' by the example of the president himself," Carter writes.

Current unrest underlines necessity of allowing journalists to do their jobs, retired editor-publisher in S.D. writes

Timothy Waltner
President Trump bears indirect responsibility in attacks on the press in recent days during protests over the death of of African-American George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police (and, to a lesser extent, over the death of Breonna Taylor during a botched police raid in Louisville), writes retired rural publisher and editor Timothy Waltner, the First Amendment Committee chair at the South Dakota Newspaper Association.

Law enforcement officials have arrested, tear-gassed or shot at journalists with non-lethal rounds, sometimes even after the journalists had identified themselves as the press. 

"You can’t directly link the president’s verbal attacks on the press with the physical attacks we’ve seen in recent days; he did not tell people to do that. But the words President Trump uses and the attitude he promotes have impact," Waltner writes. "Those sentiments and the constant barrage of those verbal attacks encourage, empower and enable the mistrust of journalists. Journalists have thick skin and will continue to do their jobs. But I fear for our culture, our social fabric and our democracy." Read more here.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Our nominee for best 2020 high-school graduation editorial

By Laurie Ezzell Brown
The Canadian (Tex.) Record

In my own version of social isolation, I’ve spent as many free hours as possible studying the birds and squirrels and hummingbirds that inhabit my backyard, thinking perhaps I could learn something of solitude.

Lured by a plentiful supply of seeds and a frequently-refilled bird bath, they have all neatly assembled a life there, complete with its own pecking order and its own social justice system.

These backyard denizens take little note of any human, unless one is foolish enough to invade their space. I made that mistake recently, climbing a ladder to the roof in order to replace a wind-blown vent cap. Truly, hell hath no fury like a grackle defending its nest. I made my repairs, as quickly as the steeply-pitched, hot metal rooftop allowed, and ceded the territory back to black fury.

One weekend, John and I decided to remove a couple of dead tree branches. Hours later, and too many trips to the city tree pile to count, we were still sawing and loading and hauling. That evening, having cleared a small forest and expended every drop of energy we possessed between us, we idled on the back patio, tracking the well-traveled path of the squirrel family in residence.

The hunter/gatherer of the bunch made frequent trips down one tree trunk, sprinting the length of the picket fence, and scrambling up the third mock pear tree and into the branches, where he leapt from one to another with great assurance and ease, and with no small measure of panache. Up to the rooftop, then quickly back down, he retreated along the same route he had just navigated. He sent the songbirds at the feeder scattering and briefly confronted the fat doves perched atop the pickets as they scanned the ground, waiting for seeds to fall.

Wings flapped, feathers flew, the squirrel chattered as the birds pecked. A cease-fire treaty was reached, if not an accord. On went the bushy-tailed rodent, scrambling up the trunk of the old elm tree and launching into the branches, darting and dancing from one to another, until he skidded—claws scraping—to a sudden stop.

Where is that branch I’ve climbed, lo these many years? The one that led heavenward, back to my nest, my sanctuary? He retraced his steps, searching for an alternate route, a detour. There was none to be found. Down to the sun-scorched carport roof, where he skittered and scratched, not daring to stop. Alas, there was no escape. He ascended again, returning to his familiar path, hoping it had all been some terrible mistake.

Finally, the decision was unavoidable. He eyed the supple, still-green branch several feet away, accelerated and leapt, flying through the now-empty air and reaching—grasping—for that thin lifeline. His sudden weight bowed the branch. As it bent, he lost his purchase and slid, still clutching, until the branch suddenly sprang back. Propelled through the air, he reached—with all his small might—for the rung above, and lifted himself to safety.

I’ve not seen the squirrel take that same path since, but he did survive and seems unscarred by the grave danger he momentarily faced.

It made me think of how we, too, have been dislodged lately. Confronted by what Canadian High School Salutatorian Melody Hood referred to as “an evil protein capsid with destructive genetic material,” we have been forced to abandon our well-worn routes and are finding new patterns and approaches to old tasks, facing unknown perils and feeling that fleeting exhilaration when we succeed at something we once feared. Testing ourselves. Realizing we can and will survive—or at least, many of us will.

Our students and parents and teachers and school staff and administrators—removed from the familiar and safe and known—have leapt and risked falling, rebounded and soared higher, and found new ways to cross the cavernous void of time and space that seems always to loom ahead. They have relied on each other in ways they had not known they could. They have discovered strength and knowledge within themselves, and risked going it alone. They have worked harder, learned more, exceeded their grasp, and prevailed. Talk about class.

Yes, you are all the Class of 2020. And however much we hope to resume some semblance of normal next year, we no longer doubt our ability to meet and surmount the challenges ahead.