The pandemic hit these Pa. students hard. They’re looking to a better tomorrow | Thursday Morning Coffee

June 17, 2021 7:15 am

Shivani Kumar, a rising senior at Council Rock High School South in Bucks County (screen capture).

Good Thursday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

In March, Shivani Kumar started to exhale. Then a junior Council Rock High School South in Bucks County, Kumar, who has immunocompromised family members, was taking classes online while her classmates went to school on a hybrid schedule. Often, she’d heard about COVID-19 outbreaks disrupting classes.

Then, in March, with the coming of spring, things started to change. She heard about people getting vaccinated. And with the vaccinations came a sense of security and relief that she hadn’t felt earlier. And with the vaccinations, other changes came: Her school held outdoor choir and band performances.

“People my age became eligible [for the vaccine] in April, and people were saying they were getting their first dose. There was such a sigh of relief,” Kumar said Wednesday in an online news conference organized by the Pennsylvania Democratic Party. “That, to me, was when things started returning to normal.”

Now, Kumar is looking ahead to her senior year, and based on her experiences over the past two months or so, there’s a sense of a return to real normal  — or a new normal — and “not playing things off as normal,” she said.

Image via WikiMedia Commons)

There’s no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic exacted a massive toll on Pennsylvania’s school students, who saw their schedules and lives upended, and who will deal with the fallout from what’s widely been described as a “lost year with long-reaching implications for both academic performance and students’ mental health for some time to come.

Wednesday’s press call was intended as a victory lap for President Joe Biden and Democrats, who have been touting the impact of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan on the commonwealth’s public school students.

As I wrote in this space on Tuesday morning, Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts have received more than $6 billion in federal assistance since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. Overwhelmingly, district officials say they plan to use the bulk of that windfall to address gaps in learning created by the pandemic.

But the utterly undisguised grab for some free media was far overshadowed by the stories the students told about the disruption brought on by the pandemic. It also was one I witnessed first-hand as my high school-aged daughter dealt with the transition to entirely online learning, and then the return to classes later in the year.

“I have family members who are at risk, my sister has autoimmune issues,” Samantha Bucci, a recent graduate at Unionville High School in Kennett Square, Chester County, said during Wednesday’s call. “It felt like, during the [former] Trump administration, the people around me didn’t take COVID seriously. I felt unsafe around my friends and peers. There was no real sense of urgency.”

Like KumarBucci said she’s noticed a transition over the last few months — that the messaging at the top has changed is surely no coincidence.

“Over the last couple of months, I’ve felt safer than ever,” she said. “We had a graduation. I didn’t think that was going to happen a year ago. I thought I would walk across an empty stage with my family watching on a Zoom call. But I walked, and I heard cheering, which was amazing.”

Matt Davis, a 12th grade teacher at Governor Mifflin High School, in Shillington, Pa., reflected on the lessons his students learned during the pandemic, and the resilience they exhibited.

“One year ago I was seeing my seniors in person for the first time after months of Zoom lessons and online assignments, but it was not seeing them in a classroom, or even on a stage filled with diplomas. I was seeing them through the windows of their family cars as they completed their drive through graduation ceremony. No handshakes. No hugs, even smiles can only be seen through face masks and minivan windows.” he said.

And “now fast-forward to earlier this month, high school graduation is the greatest night of the year. Seniors who this year learned valuable lessons on teamwork while sharing winning and losing sports seasons together. Seniors finally got to perform music live in our halls and learned about perseverance and practice along the way,” he said.

Pennsylvania State Capitol Building. (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller.)

Our Stuff.
Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, 75, was hospitalized Wednesday after suffering a strokeStephen Caruso reports.

The state Senate passed a bill Wednesday making take-out cocktails permanent in Pennsylvania. But the legislation faces the threat of a gubernatorial veto because an amendment allowing beer distributors to sell canned alcoholic beverages. There’s a worry that will cut into the bottom line of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, which currently has a monopoly on those sales. Marley Parish has the details.

Democratic lawmakers in the House and Senate rallied Wednesday to call for spending $600 million in federal stimulus cash on lead and asbestos abatement in Pennsylvania’s public schools, our summer intern, Shaniece Holmes-Brown, reports.

A year after the death of George FloydPhiladelphia Mayor Jim Kenney has detailed the efforts Pennsylvania’s biggest city is making to address race relations and police reform, our partners at the Philadelphia Tribune report.

Officials in Allegheny County are studying the feasibility of building a multi-use trail along the Turtle Creek Valley, our partners at Pittsburgh City Paper report.

Urban mayors appealed to a U.S. Senate Committee for help addressing a crisis in affordable housing. The response from U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., was very … ahh … Pat ToomeyCapital-Star Washington Reporter Ariana Figueroa brings you the story.

On our Commentary Page this morning, a University of New Hampshire expert explains why the Second Amendment protects a ‘well-regulated’ militia but not a private citizen militia. And Scott Bohn of the Pa. Chiefs of Police Association makes the public safety and public infrastructure case against a bill that would allow bigger and heavier trucks on Pennsylvania highways.

(Image via

The Inquirer
 talks to restaurant owners over the end — for now — of to-go cocktails, and its impact on the industry.
There have been 420 so-called ‘breakthrough’ cases of COVID-19 in Allegheny County, which occur among people who are fully vaccinated, the Tribune-Review reports.
PennLive’s John Baer offers his ideal rewrite of Pennsylvania’s voting laws.
Concerns about COVID-19 have declined sharply in Pennsylvania, the Citizens’ Voice reports, citing a new poll (paywall).
A new report from the Lancaster Farmland Trust calls for a ‘massive acceleration’ of money and effort to preserve farmland, LancasterOnline reports.
Parents in the East Penn schools are suing the district, alleging that classroom conversations about race and racism amounted to anti-Christian discrimination, the Morning Call reports.

Here’s your #Pennsylvania Instagram of the Day:

Five years in, advocates are praising Philadelphia’s soda-tax funded pre-K programs, WHYY-FM reports.
Officials at the state Department of Labor and Industry say more people are filing for unemployment payments using the new system it rolled out last week, WITF-FM reports, but issues remain.
A new billboard campaign is pressing the state Senate to pass lawsuit reforms for survivors of childhood sexual abuse, USA Today’s Pennsylvania Capital Bureau reports (via GoErie).
In the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection, state capitols are balancing security against reports.
Juneteenth will become a federal holiday as the U.S. House sends a bill to President Joe Biden’s desk, Roll Call reports.

What Goes On.
9:30 a.m., 515 Irvis: 
Senate and House Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness committees
10 a.m, 333 Market St., Harrisburg: Independent Regulatory Review Commission

Gov. Tom Wolf
 holds an 11:30 a.m. newser in Delaware County to “denounce attacks on voting rights disguised as election reform.”

What Goes On (Nakedly Political Edition)
5:30 p.m.: 
Reception for Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre
5:30 p.m.: 
Reception for Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York
Hit both events, and give at the max, and you’re out a logic-assaulting $51,000 today. The maximum ask at the Corman event is $50,000.

You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept.
Have a birthday you’d like observed in this space? Email me at [email protected].

Heavy Rotation.
A few years ago, to retake control of their publishing rights, veteran English pop-rockers Squeeze re-recorded some of their best known and best loved songs. The result was a record called ‘Spot the Difference,’ that challenged listeners to, well, spot the difference from the originals. From that LP, here’s the re-recorded version of the classic ‘Black Coffee in Bed.’

Thursday’s Gratuitous Hockey Link.
Montreal hung on for a 3-2 win over Vegas on Wednesday
, evening up their Stanley Cup semifinal series. The Habs and the Golden Knights are tied at a game apiece.

And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.