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With in-person classes canceled, Bergman teachers take to parade to see students

One by one, the teachers arrived in front of Bergman Elementary School in cars decked out in paint, posters and other positive messages for their students.

Most of them hadn’t seen each other since the Friday before spring break, and as they gathered with some of their own children and pets in a big circle in the front lawn Wednesday afternoon, they had to keep themselves from hugging each other. “Six feet apart!” shouted the teachers from across the lawn as they clapped, whooped and hollered when good friends and coworkers arrived.

They were going on a parade.

In the third week of this never-ending spring break, the teachers took a cue from other districts across the country that have started doing teacher parades. In the parades, convoys of teachers and other school staff drive down their schools’ neighborhoods, waving hello to their students. The parades allow students and teachers to at least see each other while being able to socially distance themselves in the cars and along the parade routes.

Bergman’s parade was the second of the actually-warm-for-once day, with Amanda Arnold Elementary holding their own Wednesday morning. Other area school have parades planned for the coming days as well.

Amber Scott, a third-grade teacher at Bergman, said she was upset that she likely won’t get to see her students again, as she’s moving to Texas at the end of the school year. But when she saw news reports of other teacher parades across the country, she was inspired to organize one for her school.

Scott said the parade came together as a team effort, with some teachers organizing parade routes and other volunteering to lead the convoy. Dozens of teachers and staff ultimately joined the parade.

As the parade made its way down the first street, David Upchurch and his daughter Ember, a kindergartener at the school, and son Anthony waited by the fire hydrant for the procession to pass by. Ember said she missed school, but she was glad she got to see her teacher Mrs. E (Jensine Ernacio).

On the other corner, Mindy Weixelman parked her car diagonally across her driveway. With her daughter Sutton, the pair turned the car into a makeshift billboard showing the family’s love and support for the teachers, while older brother Peyton, who just wrapped up his senior season on the Manhattan High basketball team, shot hoops in the family’s driveway.

The teachers snaked around various neighborhoods in northwest Manhattan, honking up a storm like they were in downtown Manhattan, New York. At the intersection of Colbert Hills Drive and Grand Mere Parkway, the Lohmeier and Gaskill families heard the teachers before they saw them, even as the teachers climbed into the hills toward them about a mile away.

“It brought us together,” Scott said. “It’s a scary time, and everyone is unsure of the unknown. We were able to lean on each other, support one another, and boost morale. It makes our school and our community feel more protected. It lets our kids know that even though they don’t see us, we still love them and support them.”


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Now back at home, Manhattan’s first coronavirus patient thankful for community support

Andrew Smith was as isolated as one can be during a pandemic.

Not even the nurses and doctors who took care of him at Ascension Via Christi Hospital, during their sparse trips into his room, could stay in his intensive care unit room for long, as they came in to check on him covered in biohazard gear. It was for their own protection, so they wouldn’t catch the coronavirus that has shut down entire countries over the past few weeks, even while they kept watch on him from outside the room.

But the K-State journalism professor never felt alone.

Smith, who on Friday was announced as the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the area, had checked into the emergency room after his symptoms got worse.

“I thought, ‘Was I too late? Did I wait too long?’” Smith said. He was having trouble breathing and concentrating at the time, and the hospital staff raced to stabilize him, even as he got worse his first two days.

In the hospital, the virus began to attack his liver, Smith said.

“It’s not a smart virus, it keeps trying to kill its host,” Smith joked.

A usually positive person, even Smith said he began to worry during his stay in the hospital. But after Riley County health officials announced they had identified him (anonymously) as the first case of the virus in the area, he saw how friends of his began to worry — scared about their own families. Smith had contracted the virus while on a trip to London with his family, leaving for the United Kingdom — then identified as a low-risk country — before the situation had escalated in severity.

When he returned, he and his family took steps to avoid infecting anyone in the community, and Smith knew he had to speak up and assure others that the risk locally remained low.

“I thought, ‘I can’t be the one that makes them scared,’” he said. “I can’t be that person, so (my wife) Jen and I decided we needed to let people know about this.”

On Saturday, Smith recorded a video, sharing his experience with the virus from the hospital, and Jen shared the video online.

In his video, Smith said he wanted to make two points: outlining the steps he and his family took to keep local community members safe, and to assure others that it’s okay to feel scared, but to come together as a community to face that commonly held fear.

The video quickly spread across the community and the couple’s extensive networks of friends, and they received an “outpouring of support” from people across the country.

“It was like a huge hand just scooping me up and lifting up my spirits so I could really focus on, alright, we’re going to move forward, and I’m going to beat this,” Smith said. “We’re all in this together, and we’re going to move ahead. That was such an uplift as I was in isolation.”

Now, Smith said he’s concerned with continuing the healing process. He checked out of the hospital Wednesday night, as doctors determined he didn’t need a medical professional on standby anymore, although he uses oxygen when he sleeps at night.

He said he felt relief to be out of the hospital, but also a bit of anxiety in leaving the medical professionals who took care of him. A former sports anchor, Smith borrowed a phrase and said he was “out of the shadows of his own goalpost,” but he still has a long journey to recovery. The bilateral pneumonia in his lungs isn’t gone yet, and doctors told him to think of pneumonia recovery in weeks and months, saying it might be mid-summer before he stops noticing any lingering effects on his lungs.

As far as the virus itself, much is still unknown about the virus’ long-term effects, Smith said, and he’s being careful to take care of himself. His doctors gave him one piece of advice: don’t get comfortable.

Back at home, Smith is still in quarantine for an additional two weeks with his wife and two daughters in Pottawatomie County. The rest of the family is presumed to have the virus as well, showing mild symptoms of COVID-19 but none significant enough to use some of the state’s limited testing supplies. Luckily, none of them have the respiratory symptoms that Smith does, he said. Those are the ones that turn a mild case into a critical one that might require hospitalization.

Still, Smith isn’t sure what caused him to have a more severe case of the sickness, at least when compared to his family. Smith said he’s never smoked or drank a day in his life. Every morning, Smith exercises for about an hour with his wife, describing himself in “excellent health” for a 51-year-old.

And he’s already back at work, preparing coursework for the four K-State classes he teaches, since he didn’t have the past week to adjust the classes for an online focus.

Smith said that as a journalist, he hopes his story helps put a face to the complicated story of the virus.

“That helps people understand, because people like stories about people,” he said. By sharing his experience, he hopes others can begin to understand catchphrases like “flatten the curve” and “social distancing” as actual steps people can take to protect those around them.

“This isolation is hard, because we’re communal animals — we’re tribal animals,” he said. “People need to be with people, but luckily, electronically we can do that. Moving forward, I think that’s going to be greatest thing to come out of this — people connecting with people.”


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Health department: Manhattan woman has coronavirus, in isolation in Topeka

A 57-year-old Manhattan woman has tested positive for the coronavirus.

Riley County Health Department Director Julie Gibbs reported the new case Thursday to the Riley County Commission.

Gibbs said officials contacted the person this morning and are also making contact with any people that she may have come into contact with.

The Riley County resident who tested positive is currently in isolation at a Topeka residence. Officials said she stayed in the Kansas City area last Wednesday through Sunday.

She then returned to a private residence in Topeka, where she was tested on Monday. Officials said she has been in Topeka ever since, but they don't know when she was last in Manhattan.

This is the second case in the area. K-State professor Andrew Smith, who lives on the Pottawatomie County side of Manhattan, tested positive for COVID-19 last week.

Riley County has had about 40 negative COVID-19 tests, Gibbs said during her Wednesday public update.

Following the announcement of the positive case Thursday morning, health department officials are waiting on results from seven coronavirus tests from Riley County.

Gibbs also said there are 20 to 30 individuals in the county under quarantine right now.

“We monitor those individuals daily,” Gibbs said.

That is not including the students from K-State who visited Italy and had a mandatory 14-day quarantine.

Their quarantine just ended, Gibbs said, and none of those students are showing symptoms.

Although it hasn’t happened yet, officials said evidence of community spread would trigger a stay-at-home order.


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Rodriguez defends comments about Chinese people

Rodriguez

Riley County Commission chairman Marvin Rodriguez on Thursday defended comments he had made earlier about Chinese people, saying he eats Chinese food and has Chinese friends.

Rodriguez also didn’t acknowledge demands from people attending Thursday’s meeting who wanted him to resign, adding that his comment were not meant to be disparaging to Chinese people and they were taken out of context. He also on Thursday reiterated the notion that China had deliberately spread the virus.

A handful of county residents and representatives from the Manhattan Alliance for Peace and Justice (MAPJ) condemned the comments by Rodriguez, when he said that Manhattan is not likely to have many cases of the coronavirus because “we don’t necessarily have any (Chinese people).”

Fanny Fang, a partner at Asian Market in Manhattan, and MAPJ asked for Rodriguez to resign Thursday during the Riley County Commission meeting.

“It’s not just a matter of the Asian community, but the Manhattan community at large,” Fang said. “For me, (the comment) felt like it was a distraction from what really matters.”

Rodriguez responded to Fang’s comments via phone, as he was not present at the meeting, stating he got his information from a news report.

“My comments were not to discourage anybody, okay,” Rodriguez said. “They were comments that I received from the national news about the work of China. Chinese people in Italy, and how they worked, how China deliberately did what they did.”

Rodriguez said that people from China may have their nationality there, but ultimately, people are Americans after taking their “oath of citizenship” and have an American nationality too.

“You may have Chinese background, but you’re not no longer, as far as I am concerned, because of my name, I don’t look at me as Spanish or Mexican, or anything like that,” he said. “I’m American. It’s not meant to be disparaging on anybody, and it was taken out of context.”

Rodriguez apologized for his comments.

“I don’t know what else I can say, but, you know, I’ve apologized for the remarks and how they may have hurt people,” he said. “But that’s not what I do and that’s not how I think. I have everybody on my mind ... and I’ve got a lot of Chinese food here and I’ve got some Chinese friends and stuff.”

Fang responded to his comments, stating that she is proud to be an American and Chinese.

“I am proud to own a storefront that clearly says Asian Market, and represents not only myself, but over 50 countries in which we have products of,” Fang said.

Other residents called on the county to hold their meetings online and allow for public comment through digital means to stop potential exposure of COVID-19. Brandon Irwin of Renters Together MHK also video taped and posted part of the meeting on the MAPJ’s Facebook page.

“Now, more than ever, we need an option for citizens to submit comments without having to attend in-person,” said Jessica Preston Kerr, who spoke on behalf of MAPJ. “This becomes particularly critical during a pandemic, where as your own health department tells you, ‘You are not supposed to congregate in groups.’ We can’t even all be present today this morning.”

Commissioner Ron Wells said the county is looking into broadcasting meetings through digital means.

“We have our hands full with COVID-19, and trying to conduct business,” Wells said.

Kerr encouraged the county to broadcast meetings on Facebook for people to be able to see.

Commission John Ford said the commission is going to continue to try to have discussions on moving the meetings to digital means, but it isn’t the commission’s “number one priority.”

“I will tell you that we’ve had some dialogue here in recent weeks about this several times,” Ford said.

Ford promised Kerr that they will continue to have more conversations about this.

Manhattan resident Luke Townsend said that the commission’s reaction to Fang’s comments was “a poor attempt at deflection.”

“Your silence is condoning this, and it’s concerning for me,” Townsend said.

Wells said he has built many homes for Chinese people and has eaten Chinese food in the area. Townsend asked Wells if he would condemn Rodriguez’s comments.

“It’s not up to me to be making comments,” Wells said. “He has to stand on his own two feet on what his comments were.”

Wells said, in the end, that he “doesn’t condone it,” after Townsend asked again if Wells would condemn the comments.

Townsend asked Rodriguez why he “decided to conveniently be absent from this meeting today in-person.”

Rodriguez did not respond to that comment, but he said at last week’s meeting that he was sick, but not with the coronavirus.