In Hardwick, Life Beyond Year Two of COVID

by Doug McClure

HARDWICK – The year began with hope: Vermont was earning high marks for its success in dealing with the virus COVID-19 and led the nation by several public health measures. Chief Medical Advisor to the President Dr. Anthony Fauci joined Governor Phil Scott in a press conference and described Vermont’s COVID response as “a model.”

The Alpha variant proved a worrying harbinger in the spring as cases soared. And then came Delta. The far more contagious variant hit Vermont hard. Hardwick felt relatively safe at the beginning of 2021, with just 33 cases at the start of January. As of December 16, that number had increased almost tenfold, to 298. Twenty-one people have reportedly lost their lives to COVID in Caledonia County, almost all of those in 2021.

But in January, things almost felt normal in Hardwick. Hope for wide availability of vaccines buoyed people’s spirits and calmed nerves. The Yellow Barn received an expected grant of $1 million from the Northern Borders Regional Commission. An austerity budget for Hazen Union received major pushback from parents concerned that their kids were being shortchanged. The school had proposed cuts to the arts program’s staffing, which especially angered students and parents. In the end, the school kept its arts staffing. The Orleans Southwest Union (OSUED) board approved its own budget. The select board began tackling the pressing problem of resurrecting the pedestrian bridge with a survey of residents asking how its closure had affected them. Residents stood outside the Gohl Block rallying for empathy and social justice. 

In February, Hardwick found out that Town Meeting would see some new faces running for its select board. Two members, then-vice-chair Elizabeth Dow and Lucian Avery, decided not to seek re-election. Gary Bellavance ran on the platform of “a little more common sense and someone that’s not afraid to speak their piece,” with concerns over tax increases he felt were not explained enough and what he said were too many instances of the board going into executive session. Michael Deering ran on a platform of being a “proponent of local control” and described himself as a fiscal conversative who maintained ties with socially progressive movements. Larry Hamel ran as a write-in candidate with questions about the town owning real estate, amongst other issues..

The NEK Collaborative held its third annual NEK Day over Zoom on January 29 to celebrate the successes and advance the region’s priorities. Among those priorities were broadband, equity, racial justice, and education. Hazen Union, which had been operating in a hybrid approach combining remote and some in-person learning, refined its own collaborative effort with the Center for an Agricultural Economy (CAE) to chip away at broadband disparity’s impact on its students with funding from the Greensboro United Church of Christ (GUCC). The school first focused on situations where financial assistance would get students connected. At the same time, the school acknowledged that remote learning had been less than successful at meeting some students’ needs or ensuring accountability, noting what then-principal David Perrigo described as “kids who have literally fallen through the cracks in terms of their just being around.”

In February, the promise of vaccines started to become reality. Northern Counties Health Care (NCHC) partnered with St. Johnsbury’s Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital (NVRH) and started offering vaccines at the Hardwick Fire Station. Over the ensuing months, those clinics would continue and scale up. The first clinic opened up on February 16 for those 70 and older. 

Communities banding together had been a theme since COVID first arrived in 2020, and in January with the Hardwick Area Food Pantry joined forces with food pantries in Craftsbury and Albany, as well as the CAE and WonderArts, to reach people in need better. Dubbed “Nourish Hardwick,” the program aimed to combine multiple resources into one easier-to-access front end that also included Grow Your Own Workshops and promoting the community garden at Atkins Field. 

On February 8, residents learned that Tops would be merged with Price Chopper/Market 32. The stores would retain their own identities and branding. Also in early February, a potentially promising option for broadband began beta testing in the area. Known as Starlink and run by SpaceX, the low-earth-orbit satellite service offered the possibility of true broadband speeds for areas too remote or disconnected to receive high-quality internet service.

Town Meeting saw little drama, though for the first time it was entirely Australian ballot voting due to COVID concerns. Both Bellavance and Deering were elected, and the board re-organized much the same as before, though with Dow’s stepping down, Ceilidh Galloway Kane assumed the role of vice chair. 

In mid-March, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) sat down virtually with Hazen Union high-schoolers, including former Hazen student Lucas Whitaker, to discuss mental health and the impact of the pandemic on kids. Sanders said he wanted to hear directly from the students about what they had been forced to cope with during “the worst year for our country in a long time.” Kids described extreme stress, mental health issues, issues with broadband, and isolation. 

Hardwick got a shock to its budget planning when Greensboro decided to cancel its police contract with the Hardwick Police Department at the end of the fiscal year. The nearly quarter-a-million-dollar revenue that the contract provided would prove a challenge that HPD wrestled with for the rest of the year. Greensboro had been joined up with HPD since it began in 1979. Hardwick learned of the signing of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) on March 11, which would bring an unknown but significant influx of funds to offset the impacts of COVID on Hardwick’s economy. The price tag for replacing the pedestrian bridge also got clearer at an anticipated half-million dollars.

Town Manager Shaun Fielder told the select board on March 18 that he would not be renewing his employment contract, which ended May 31, for “personal reasons.” He said at the time that he felt he had accomplished a lot in his just-over two years as Town Manager, including town infrastructure improvements, but a good chunk of his last year had been “keeping various town services functioning for the good of community members” during COVID. 

At the end of March, the Jeudevine Library released its bid documents. 

On March 18, Hazen Union students marked one year since the school closed in 2020 due to COVID, not to return for six months. Eleven days later, in a sign of things to come, eight COVID cases sent Hazen, Hardwick Elementary, and Craftsbury into varying degrees of remote learning, and Sterling reported its first case of the semester. COVID cases ended the girls’ basketball season abruptly before playoffs could finish.

Other COVID impacts became clearer as the available residential real estate inventory was leased at ever-increasing prices. But the story was beginning to be about alarming increases in the number of COVID cases in town. In the single week from March 24 to March 31, Hardwick went from 71 cases — already more than double what it was in January — to 94, a 32% increase.

In April, the select board got two unexpected shocks. Member Gary Bellavance took his own life, a week after member Michael Deering was arrested by HPD for DUI after being found passed out in the Tops parking lot. The board memorialized Bellavance as a “longtime and active community member” and sent its condolences to his family. With his death, the long-running lumber yard at the base of Buffalo Mountain went silent. A month later, the board reinstated Dow to her role as a board member.

The board also revisited the topic of getting a Downtown Designation from the state in April. If successful, the program would upgrade its current Village Designation and provide additional state assistance, tax credits, and priority consideration for state grants. The board resumed study of pedestrian safety from the previous year, and discussed the viability of an EV charging station in Hardwick.

The Jeudevine Library received an unwelcome surprise when it opened the bids for its expansion project in May. Due to supply chain issues and increases in construction costs, the bids all came in around 50% over what was expected. The board hired the lowest bidder, Breadloaf Construction of Middlebury, who set about trying to reduce the project’s budget by delaying as much as possible without compromising the quality of the building. For its part, the library doubled down on fundraising. The trustees asked the select board to sign off on a $200,000 agreement to fill the immediate shortfall, and the board agreed.

photo by Vanessa Fournier | New wording on the sign (right) made by Rob Alcusky and Harry Besett appeared recently stating the expansion is happening at the Jeudevine Library in Hardwick. A utility pole (left) was temporarily installed July 7 and construction is scheduled to begin by Breadloaf Construction LLC of Middlebury this month.

In May, the OSSU received news that it will have received as much as $5 million in federal COVID funding by 2024. Superintendent Adam Rosenberg and the principals said they saw new opportunities for “this idea of giving students ownership over their learning.” 

Some hopeful news in the battle against COVID came in May, when federal regulators approved vaccines for those aged twelve and up. The school response was swift: Hazen had its first vaccine clinics for 12-15-year-olds on May 27.

In even more encouraging news, the school began laying out a plan for an outdoor, in-person graduation that would be far more normal than the 2020 graduation. A part of that would be the Hazen Bell that late student Finn Rooney set out to bring to the school. People at the school and in the community championed the effort. Greensboro Town Clerk Kim Greaves discovered the old Greensboro High School bell in storage and the Greensboro Select Board voted unanimously to donate it to Hazen. The bell was transported from the lawn of the Greensboro Town Offices to Hazen in an emotional ceremony on a rainy Sunday at the end of June, with people turning out from all over the area to celebrate Rooney’s life. Bread and Puppet played music during the ceremony. Village Restaurant owner Lynn DeLaricheliere served up Finn’s favorite sandwiches and root beer at the end of the ceremony at Hazen. 

East Hardwick’s disused “Little Library” had been a subject of interest for the East Hardwick Neighborhood Organization (EHNO) and many residents had given their opinions in 2020 on what to do with the structure. The EHNO conducted a second survey in May and, based on the responses, began pondering moving the structure to a better location. Its current site would be nearly impossible to make ADA-compliant and there was no septic system, nor a way to add one. Parking was another problem.

Yet another sign of the community’s strong fabric was evident in June, with the Caja Madera “taco truck” partnered with the CAE to offer free meals to kids under 18. The community also watched as the Hazen Wildcats baseball team made it to the semifinals for the first time in fourteen years. Unfortunately, the Wildcats fell to Thetford by a single run.

Hazen’s graduation was on June 12. This graduating class was Hazen’s fiftieth. The bell was deployed and many commented that while the ceremony was outdoors for safety reasons, it was an improvement over the typical indoor graduations. Then-principal Perrigo implored students to think of COVID differently. He said “I have become increasingly uncomfortable with this popular narrative that somehow the last 15 months have been a disaster for our civilization. For those of us who have been lucky enough to survive this, we have grown in ways that we can’t even begin to realize. Surely, we have become more resilient.”

The Hardwick Trails Committee received a $10,000 grant from the Northern Forest Center. The committee would use those funds as part of a larger project to improve existing trails. 

Vermont celebrated 80% vaccination in mid-June. The state moved to end COVID restrictions, a move that would prove premature and potentially disastrous later in the year. 

The St. John de Crevecoeur Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) Chapter worked on cleaning up old stones at Center Cemetery on Shephard Farm Lane on Saturday, June 12. The DAR worked on that cemetery as part of a larger project cleaning up Revolutionary War graves. Hardwick had sixteen known Revolutionary War soldiers, and ten were interred at Center Cemetery.

Resident Mike Lance began a project to update the official name of Buffalo Mountain. Somehow, while the mountain is universally known in Hardwick, its name used by businesses, and its image on the town logo, the mountain was never formally named by the state or federal government.

The village gained a new store full of cool, adult beverages with Birdsong Beer and Wine opening in late June. In other business news, the Kwik Stop changed ownership on July 1 and was renamed Hardwick Convenience and Deli. 

Hazen Principal Perrigo retired and Associate Principal Jason Di Giulio officially became principal. Di Giulio said his goal was “ensuring that [students’] learning experiences have a path through high school to beyond, rather than treating high school like it’s the great culminating cherry on top of an educational sundae.”

The town hosted a community forum to get opinions from residents about the role and appearance of the pedestrian bridge. The outdoor forum drew over forty residents and gave the town further direction for its replacement plans.

photo by Vanessa Fournier | Among the approximately 50 people who attended the community workshop to plan for the replacement of the historic downtown pedestrian bridge broke into smaller groups to gather different ideas for the project. Pictured (from left) are Diana Peduzzi, Norma Wiesen, Tobin Porter-Brown, and Hardwick select board chair Eric Remick.

The Jeudevine went before the select board to ask for another $249,388. The board balked at the request, and the library acknowledged that it had no option but to postpone construction until 2022 and re-bid the project. The select board also began a months-long discussion about the future of HPD without the Greensboro contract, wondering if the department should seek a similar arrangement with a neighboring town. Chief Cochran also told the board the department would soon be unable to keep twenty-four-hour coverage with two officers deployed and one leaving. In a move that would later see backlash, the board attempted to make water and sewer rates fairer by reducing the usage threshold before overages to 8,000 from 10,000.

By the end of July, the Vermont Department of Health said the worrying Delta variant had arrived in Caledonia County. Vermont’s daily case count crept over the century mark for the first time since April and early May. With many older residents vaccinated, most of the cases being reported were in teenagers, with a first-dose or more vaccination rate in Caledonia County of 62.9% for 16-17-year-olds and 55% for 12-15-year-olds. The OSSU began preparing for school re-opening, but received little guidance from the state apart from a half-page memo of recommendations. The 2020 guidance was forty-two pages long. Hazen Union Principal Jason Di Giulio said, “As always, Hazen depends on our close partnership with our communities to help our youth. We want the school to be as open as it can be, for as long as it can be. Only our communities can help us do that.”

The select board secured some initial grants for the pedestrian bridge. In other developments, the town continued working on the process of applying for a Downtown Designation. AWARE announced it had taken over the upcoming Hardwick Craft Fair from the Chamber of Commerce. Even as the town moved forward on projects aimed at making downtown better, people began seeing a good reason to stay home. Delta spread quickly and shuttered two shows at the Highland Center. Nonetheless, Hazen re-opened. The select board did not make a decision on the subject of mandating vaccines for its employees. 

Hazen’s opening came and went, but controversy started right away. Some parents misconstrued principal Di Giulio’s comments about freedom of speech and his own military service, with a trend surfacing that many of those parents also were displeased that Di Giulio identified as LGBTQ.

The Buffalo Mountain Co-op went public in September about its plans for purchasing the Hardwick Village Market. Despite some members’ displeasure with the plans for selling normal food and some residents’ concern that the co-op would make the store unaffordable for many residents, a members’ vote approved the plan and the co-op began the process.

At its September 16 meeting, the board formally hired a new town manager, David Upson. Jon Jewett had been serving as interim town manager since Shaun Fielder’s departure. 

Hazen teacher Anja Pfeffer received a prestigious award. She became the school’s first teacher to be awarded a Rowland Fellowship. The award citation noted Pfeffer’s innovative “Dare to be Me” program, which sought to reach students in ways different from standard classroom instruction.

AWARE’s craft fair proved a success. Around 350 turned out and, despite less time to prepare than usual, the event went smoothly. There had not been a 2020 event due to COVID. Another event returning was the annual Pumpkin Walk, though this year’s was scaled back drastically, and its participants limited to Hardwick Elementary students and their parents. At Hazen, the entire middle school did a “Long Walk to Water” fundraiser to raise money for clean water in the South Sudan.

Buffalo Mountain was officially recognized by the Vermont Department of Libraries’ Geographic Naming Committee. Lance stated that the federal recognition might come as soon as December.

In October, resident Jessica Gasper was on the receiving end of anti-Semitic slurs and her door was defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti. The Equity Committee, in conjunction with Community Allies, crafted a statement specific to anti-Semitism which was read into the record at the December 16 select board meeting.

photo courtesy Hardwick Town Manager | New resident Jessica Gasper told both the town manager and Hardwick Police Department that neighboring tenants have been harassing her with anti-Semitic slurs and defaced her apartment door

Hardwick’s select board began the process of making changes to the town charter. Some of the changes involved removing obsolescent language and job titles that were no longer extant, but the proposal to change the town clerk and assistant town clerk to select board-appointed positions raised the ire of some residents, spearheaded by Orise Ainsworth. An early December vote would see the controversial changes narrowly defeated and the changes to the charter’s text pass.

The number of COVID cases exploded. Hardwick’s schools took hits weekly from COVID, with multiple students in quarantine most weeks. Both students and staff were enduring a stressful slog of a year due to COVID and its mental health impacts. Vaccination rates did not keep pace with earlier results. For the youngest age group the state reported on, 18-29, just thirteen percent were fully vaccinated in Caledonia County. No age group except those over 65 had a fully vaccinated rate over fifty percent. The select board declined to pass a town mask mandate, citing the difficulty of enforcing it. 

At the likely last meeting of the year, the Hazen school board received an update on the Community Bell. Just as Finn Rooney intended, the project has drawn in the entire Hazen Union community, and more. Residents have donated time to restore it, P&R Lumber donated wood, and Sherwin Williams donated paint. The plan is to have the bell ready and a temporary structure in time for 2022’s graduation, then move it atop the gym. 

In December, the Gazette announced it would be closing its South Main Street offices. It subsequently announced a community journalism initiative, encouraging residents to submit articles and photos.