Diploma (copy)

Culpeper County High School graduate Raymond Lopez (right) arrives with his family Tuesday morning at Broman Field to receive his diploma.

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

That’s the question often asked, in black comedy fashion, whenever we’re looking to find good thing in an otherwise pretty dreadful situation.

It’s not a bad question to ask, though, about our present circumstances. What good things have come out of the pandemic of 2020 that we ought to embrace and make part of a “new normal” in the future? Here are some ideas.

1. More public high school graduation ceremonies. Schools have had to invent new ways to properly honor graduates in the absence of a single big graduation ceremony. Some of those ideas seem worth turning into traditions. For instance, Radford is among the localities that has produced banners featuring each graduate’s photo and hung them on lampposts along Main Street. In Botetourt County, both high schools—Lord Botetourt and James River—held parades where graduates could ride through Daleville and Buchanan, respectively, to the applause of socially-distanced onlookers. Highland County did both. Why should these honors be limited to 2020?

Now, here’s a variation to consider: What if localities held parades or other events to honor their college graduates? This seems a warm-hearted thing to do but there’s actually a cold, bottom-line calculation to this. Every locality in this part of Virginia wants more of its college graduates to come home after graduation. Their current populations are growing older and their labor pools short on college-educated workers—they are in need of college graduates, who help solve two demographic problems. Many of those college graduates won’t be coming back—they already have plans. For them, a parade—or some other community event—would still be a nice send-off. For those whose plans are uncertain, this could be a way to remind them that their hometown supports them.

2. Working from home. Not everyone can, but we’ve learned pretty quickly just who can and who can’t, and what the upsides and downsides are for those who can. The downside: Sometime pets like to Zoom, too. And a lot of rural areas still struggle with internet service. The upside: Some workers are a lot more efficient at home, and there’s no commute time, so less carbon spewed into the air.

We don’t know yet how many companies and workers will make this a permanent change, but for any who do, this is a huge opportunity for communities outside the major metros to make their pitch to a new generation of telecommuters.

Facebook says it expects 50% of its workforce to start working remotely and Mark Zuckerberg says 75% of them might move to another city. That makes sense: Silicon Valley is super-expensive. Facebook also says it likely will reduce their pay if they do. That’s not as draconian as it sounds. Virginia pays state troopers more if they’re based in Northern Virginia because the cost-of-living is so much higher there. Facebook and other tech companies are doing the same thing – they have to price in the ridiculous cost of living in Silicon Valley when they hire someone there. Nobody wants to take a pay cut but a Silicon Valley tech worker might still be better off financially if they’re working someplace else, even at reduced pay. This might be a fine time for lots of rural communities to figure out how to get their message before those homebound tech workers—assuming those localities have the broadband to back it up.

3. A new appreciation for the arts. What did people do when they were confined at home? They turned to the arts. They may not have thought about it that way. For some the phrase “the arts” sounds very hoity-toity. But all those shows you’re watching on Netflix—those are part of “the arts.” Every time you tell your kid to entertain themselves by watching a movie or playing a video game so you can do you’re Zoom meeting, you’re making use of “the arts.” Think about that before you say “the arts” aren’t essential—unless you like sitting on the sofa, staring at a blank screen.

Ironically, at the same time that consumers have turned to the arts like never before, the artists responsible for them have had the toughest time staying in business. We see this most clearly through the music industry. Musicians today generally make most of their money touring, not selling “records” because streaming doesn’t produce the same kind of revenue. But tours are shut down. So are all manner of local arts organizations—concert venues, museums, symphonies, theatres, you name it.

What happens when all this is over? Will there be a new hunger for live entertainment that’s not virtually live but actually live on a stage? Will we see people donate at new levels to make sure their local arts organizations stay afloat? Will we see new interest in making sure that schools put as much emphasis on the arts as athletics (something else we’ve been forced to go without)? Ideally the answer to all those questions will be yes, because we should remember that when the crisis hit, we didn’t turn to politicians for comfort, we turned to artists to keep us entertained.

So when we ask, “Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?’ we really do mean the play, even if it was only virtual.

Excerpted from The Roanoke Times

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