If COVID-19 is the teacher, there’s many lessons that the disease has taught in a class that no one really wanted to take.
Topping the blackboard list of these lessons, said North Kingstown psychiatrist Anthony Gallo, is the time-worn reminder that we are not invincible and control outside ourselves is often an illusion taken for granted.
“You have control over yourself, your actions, your attitude,” he said about a point of view many other people mentioned in interviews with The Independent. They also coupled it with a lesson about discovering resilience.
In addition, he and others said the pandemic taught lessons about accepting what cannot be controlled.
The long list from fear of unconstrained disease includes everything from ending routine schooling for children and deaths of friends or family members to community businesses closing and social activities coming to a halt.
Author Scott Galloway argues in his book, “Post Corona,” that the pandemic has not been a change agent so much as an accelerator of trends already well underway. Those interviewed agreed and added they learned through the pandemic new thinking about old problems.
Looking through these lenses in South County, The Independent asked community members as well as leaders in education, government, business, law enforcement, religion and medicine about their thoughts on lessons learned from a year of living with COVID-19.
Here’s what they had to say.
Despite so many people experiencing tragedy through job losses, deaths of family members and everyday lives turned upside down, some like Gina Giramma of Narragansett learned the lesson that silver linings can happen, too.
The single mother and teacher has four children ages, 10, 14, 15 and 16. It’s not been an easy life for any of them. The pandemic just made some parts of it harder, she said, such as changing schools twice to get the required special education the children needed.
“I was forced to find help, full time help when the kids were all home all day every day,” she said about turning to Care.com where she posted a message about it. Within an hour a message came back.
“Hi Gina, this is Kim. I know you. Call me” and it turned out to be the state case worker who supervised her oldest son’s visits 14 years ago with his biological mother, Giramma said.
They reconnected, started helping Giramma and eventually became a live-in assistant for the children. Giramma calls her a COVID silver lining and a reminder about a lesson in life that good can come amid all the bad.
“I have always lived with the philosophy that everything happens for a reason, and sometimes we are not sure what that reason is at first,” she said, and that a silver lining may show up when least expected.
Some of the biggest challenges COVID-19 immediately posed also confronted those in medicine. Doctors, physician assistants, nurses, administrators say the lessons learned have been many and with more to follow.
“I don’t think we can even begin to understand. I just think this is going to have such profound implications in our lives,” said Gallo. “There is a toll that we don’t know yet. I’m not even talking about a future toll, I’m talking about what has happened already,” he added.
Dr. Christopher Klaus, medical director of Thundermist Health Center of South County, offered another about medical professionals having to adapt to different routines.
“Before last March, no one expected these dramatic changes to occur overnight,” he said. The pandemic showed that change can come quickly with commitment. “This gives me hope. We will face more adversity in the future and together we can succeed,” he said.
Prathibha Varkey, professor at the Yale School of Medicine and senior vice president of the Yale-New Haven Health System, accented that point.
“The usual story in the physician realm is that it takes 17 to 20 years for things to translate to practice. That was very different in the pandemic era because we were essentially transferring information almost on a daily basis,” Varkey explained.
Toni Silveira, a North Kingstown High School music teacher, said that one lesson educators overall have learned is about the importance of social connections and learning in school rather than online.
“The loss of teams, music groups, clubs, theater productions, field trips and assemblies created an emptiness in our school culture,” said Silveira, whose school superintendent, Philip Auger, agreed.
He said it “helps with everyone’s mental health and learning. Many kids need that. Otherwise, they feel isolated, they too easily to drop off and do not engage.”
Teacher Mary Kutcher from South Kingstown High School, added, “I think we all appreciate coming to school more than before.”
Principals, such as Chip McGair at South Kingstown High School and David Estes at the nearby private Catholic Prout High School, said other lessons also came from the imposing pandemic. These included learning about air flow, contact tracing and COVID testing.
“Faculty learned how to engage and assess students who were in person and at home simultaneously five days a week,” Estes noted.
The challenges themselves delivered a lesson, said McGair. “The big lesson is that we are capable of so much more than we thought.”
In ways unforeseen in 2019, local government had to meet daily tidal effects of an ever-worsening pandemic.
“We’ve reaffirmed our ability to care, (to) be flexible and find innovative ways to be efficient,” said Ralph Mollis, North Kingstown town manager and former Rhode Island Secretary of the State.
Narragansett town manager, James Tierney, said echoed that point, noting the past lessons of planning were reinforced.
“I have learned throughout my diverse career path, and again during the pandemic, the importance of having good operational plans that will work for any event, even a pandemic,” he said.
Robert Zarnetske, South Kingstown town manager, said in a recent interview with The Independent, “We learned that working together can keep us from dying and we learned that cooperation may be the only thing that can save humanity from extinction.”
Elected town officials also pointed to lessons from a “big picture” look.
North Kingstown Town Council President Greg Mancini said that Interconnectedness among many decisions are linked. “So, when we make decisions we have to think of the consequences through that prism. That has changed how I think about the consequences of what I do. I hope it does to others also,” he said.
For others, like Jesse Pugh, Narragansett Town Council president, the pandemic’s lesson to him as a leader revealed the true value of time with friends, family and constituents.
Restrictions hit businesses hard in many ways. This opened the door for both innovation and re-invention that might have met more resistance without the force of COVID-19.
Kristin Urbach, executive director of the North Kingstown Chamber of Commerce, and Joe Viele of the Southern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce, both said that businesses learned the lesson to be resilient and strong.
“(They) can adapt to new models when faced with challenges forcing them to change their ways of doing business,” Urbach said. “Many businesses learned that they were more effective and efficient with their new models than they were with their old ones,” she said.
One example, restaurant owners and those representing them offered, was the quick move from inside service to primarily take-out and curbside. Both done just to keep businesses afloat.
Pivoting verses panicking became the mantra for businesses, added Peg Fradette, operations manager at the Narragansett Chamber of Commerce.
For those on the frontlines of law enforcement, the pandemic left them reviewing lessons for a public crisis outside of their typical circumstances.
“An example is stockpiling of PPE (personal protection equipment) and training staff about PPE usage. We (also) learned to be better equipped to have administrative and civilian staff work remotely,” said South Kingstown Police Joel Ewing-Chow.
He and other chiefs said that responding to the mental health concerns of citizens and staff is another lesson stemming from the pandemic’s confining nature of restrictions on travel and separation from others.
In another lesson, they learned that established protocol for general communication, such as websites, press releases and public announcements, with citizens worked well to show a united municipal front for reliable information.
Both he and Chief Sean Corrigan noted that they learned from the long-term pandemic that these prepared ways to respond also help to garner citizen support for law enforcement and other town leaders during a time of crisis.
“Locally, my experience has been primarily inspiring. The community has shown the police department a great deal of support. My department has risen to the challenge and the whole of government response in Narragansett has been very unified,” said Corrigan.
For nearly all religious organizations that hold indoor services, faith and community transcended the buildings in which hands joined in prayer to celebrate that faith.
Most congregants and their pastors, imams, rabbis or other leaders never imagined a very long stretch of being barred from worshipping together. The pandemic forced learning for many about livestreaming or recording services for online viewing.
“We learned that the need to get together, to socialize, to celebrate a special occasion with each other overcame the challenge of not being able to get together physically,” said Rabbi Ethan Adler of Narragansett’s Congregation Beth David, Narragansett.
The Rev. Jan Gregory-Charpentier, pastor of Kingston Congregational Church, said this learning to embrace technology cut across age boundaries.
“We learned that 90-year-olds can learn new technologies and that friendships can be sustained on a screen, something we used to grouse about when it was our teens and children who spent so much time online,” she said .
Rev. Marcel Taillon, pastor, St. Thomas More R.C. Church, Narragansett, said, “We have learned that popular culture is not a necessity. But, faith, family and friendship are essential. I think it has been a blessed time of humbling and tremendous heroic service by so many in our society.”