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LSSD welcomes students back in segments

The first day back at school can bring a whirlwind of emotion between all the anticipation of seeing friends, dusting off thinking caps, and the occasional jitters that come from starting a new year.

Each was palpable in the air at Castle Heights Elementary and Walter J. Baird Middle School on Monday, where one-third of the students returned for a transition day to reacclimate into the normal school setting.

Parents were also invited to attend and accompany their children through the halls of all the Lebanon Special School District schools.

As the students entered the campus, parents and guardians, like Raquel Nall, snapped photos of their bright-eyed pupils, donning backpacks and big smiles, happy to be back among their friends after such an unusual previous school year. Nall was dropping off her kids Rhyan Nall and Eli Taylor.

Lorie Whitefield, an educational assistant at Castle Heights Elementary, commended the students at her campus for their resilience last year in the face of such uncertainty.

“They did awesome and rolled with the punches,” she said.

Parent Jeremy Hirt walked his daughter Nora Long through the doors of Castle Heights for a truly unique experience for the first-grader.

“She’s never had a day of school without having to wear a mask,” said Hirt.

“When I was her age, I was more concerned with what was going on with the green ranger,” Hirt reminisced. He said he was proud of his daughter for being excited about school, and felt confident about what the year held for her.

Catching up with fourth-grade teacher Sara Ann Davis in her classroom opened the door to a world of unconventional methods.

“I believe in flexible seating, meaning that students are able to flexibly learn in this environment,” said Davis. “Students don’t have to sit at a desk. They can sit on the floor, they can sit in a chair, they can stand. Research has shown that the more their bodies move, the better their brain works. I believe that it works. I have been doing it for eight years now.”

One fifth-grader at Castle Heights, A.J. Clark was getting ready to go to his homeroom with his mom, Angela Clark, who is the school’s computer teacher. A.J. said that he was very excited about getting back to his extend class, a course designed for students ahead of grade-level curriculum, but he said he was equally eager to see his friends again.

Angela Clark said that A.J. attended summer camp with her, “so he got to see some of his friends, but not all of them,” and that he was happy to reconnect and make up for lost time.

Walter J. Baird

Over at the middle school, classes were already in full swing. Several teachers were going over rules and instructions, like protection techniques for the Chromebooks students would be using throughout the year.

School Principal Traci Speakman said, “The first day back is going very smoothly. We are super excited to have some normalcy back in school and so glad to see all the students and parents and teachers return.”

Some of those students, such as Cash and Sidnie Cornish, admitted they were a little bit nervous. The seventh-graders just moved here last October from California, but say they are adjusting to the new environment just fine. It was tough, they said about moving at such an unusual time in the world but they’ve managed to make plenty of friends.

“It’s a little bit slower here than in California, but the people are a lot nicer,” said Cash.

The twin siblings were both in Kim Allison’s class Monday before they offered their comments.

Ever the optimist, Cash said, “I feel like this year is going to be better. A few of my friends I made last year are in my classes this year. I just got a good feeling about this year.”

Both siblings play soccer, but Cash is hoping to try out for the wrestling team this year. His favorite subjects to study are world history and science. Meanwhile, Sidnie said she really likes math.

For all those students that didn’t go back Monday, there is still Tuesday and Wednesday. Parents who wish to come out for these transition days, only need to check those schedules and see what day their student or students are assigned to attend.

All the Lebanon Special School Districts schools will remain on the staggered student schedule until Thursday when the doors swing wide for everyone to come back in full force. Wilson County Schools students return to class Thursday, too.

Mt. Juliet hosts youth sports day

Mt. Juliet celebrated Youth Sports Appreciation Day with hundreds of attendees at Charlie Daniels Park on Saturday.

As part of the event, the Wilson United Soccer Club, Mt. Juliet Youth Football & Cheering Association, and Mt. Juliet Little League Inc., each received a donation of $100,000, presented by the Mt. Juliet Board of Commissioners.

Bob Zenker, president of Wilson United, said the club will use the money for improvements to their practice fields on Lorenzo Drive. They plan to add restrooms, enlarge parking and add two fields to their complex near Mt. Juliet High School.

Accepting for their organizations were Robin Speight, administrator for Mt. Juliet Little League Inc., and Britt Linville of the Mt. Juliet Youth Football & Cheerleading Association.

Livi West, Cheri Hefner, and the Cedar Creek Band all provided live music for the day, which included a splash day at the park’s Ava’s Splash Pad for the kids.

Eleven businesses, churches, and organizations such as New Tribe Church and Zone Conditioning, a local gym, provided additional support to Youth Sports Appreciation Day.

“Supporting youth sports programs is the future of Mt. Juliet,” said District 3 Commissioner Scott Hefner. “Anytime we have an opportunity to invest in our youth with sports or otherwise, we are going to be behind it 100%.”

Senate debate opens on $1T infrastructure bill

WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer sought to speed up consideration of a nearly $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package Monday, promising that Democrats would work with Republicans to put together amendments. GOP senators cautioned that they needed time to digest the massive bill.

Formally the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the proposal clocked in at some 2,700 pages late Sunday after a hurry-up-and-wait rare weekend session. The final product was not intended to stray from the broad outline a bipartisan group of senators had negotiated for weeks with the White House. Schumer has said a final vote could be held “in a matter of days.”

“Let’s start voting on amendments,” Schumer said as the Senate opened for business on Monday. “The longer it takes to finish the bill, the longer we will be here.”

A key part of President Joe Biden’s agenda, the bipartisan bill is the first phase of the president’s infrastructure plan. It calls for $550 billion in new spending over five years above projected federal levels — one of the most substantial expenditures on the nation’s roads, bridges, waterworks, broadband and the electric grid in years.

The Republican leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, will play a key role in the bill’s final outcome. So far, he has sided with those voting to allow debate to proceed, but he has not signaled how he will ultimately vote. He described the bill Monday as a “good and important jumping off point” for a robust, bipartisan amendment process. He also warned Democrats against setting “any artificial timetable.”

“Infrastructure is exactly the kind of subject that Congress should be able to address across the aisle,” McConnell said.

Senators and staff labored behind the scenes for days to write the massive bill. It was supposed to be ready Friday, but by Sunday, even more glitches were caught and changes made.

Late Sunday, most of the 10 senators involved in the bipartisan effort rose on the Senate floor to mark the unveiling of the text.

“We know that this has been a long and sometimes difficult process, but we are proud this evening to announce this legislation,” said Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., a lead negotiator. The bill showed “we can put aside our own political differences for the good of the country,” she said.

Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, a Republican negotiator, framed the legislation as something that would help the U.S. better compete with China and would make the “economy more efficient, more productive” after years of struggle getting a public works bill off the ground.

“People have talked about infrastructure in this city forever,” Portman said.

Over the long weekend of starts and stops, Schumer repeatedly warned that he was prepared to keep lawmakers in Washington for as long as it took to complete votes on both the bipartisan infrastructure plan and a budget blueprint that would allow the Senate to begin work later this year on a massive, $3.5 trillion social, health and environmental bill.

Republicans counter that they just had a chance to begin fully reviewing the bill late Sunday.

“We shouldn’t sacrifice adequate time on this bill merely because the Democratic leader would like to spend next week jamming a 100% partisan piece of legislation through the United States Senate,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota.

Among the major new investments, the bipartisan package is expected to provide $110 billion for roads and bridges, $39 billion for public transit and $66 billion for rail. There’s also to be $55 billion for water and wastewater infrastructure as well as billions for airports, ports, broadband internet and electric vehicle charging stations.

The spending is broadly popular among lawmakers, bringing long-delayed capital for big-ticket items that cities and states can rarely afford on their own.

Paying for the package has been a challenge after senators rejected ideas to raise revenue from a new gas tax or other streams. Instead, it is being financed from funding sources that might not pass muster with deficit hawks, including repurposing some $205 billion in untapped COVID-19 relief aid, as well as unemployment assistance that was turned back by some states and relying on projected future economic growth.

Some Republicans are wary of another large spending bill after a series of COVID relief measures have boosted the national debt.

“I’ve got real concerns with this bill,” said Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah.

Bipartisan support from Republican and Democratic senators pushed the process along, and Schumer wanted the voting to be wrapped up before senators left for their August recess.

Last week, 17 GOP senators joined all Democrats in voting to start work on the bill. That support largely held, with McConnell voting yes in another procedural vote to nudge the process along in the 50-50 Senate, where 60 votes are needed to overcome a filibuster and advance legislation.

Whether the number of Republican senators willing to pass the bill grows or shrinks in the days ahead will determine if the president’s signature issue can make it across the finish line.

The bipartisan bill still faces a rough road in the House, where progressive lawmakers want a more robust package but may have to settle for this one to keep Biden’s infrastructure plans on track.

The outcome with the bipartisan effort will set the stage for the next debate over Biden’s much more ambitious $3.5 trillion package, a strictly partisan pursuit of far-reaching programs and services including child care, tax breaks and health care that touch almost every corner of American life. Republicans strongly oppose that bill, which would require a simple majority for passage. Final votes on that measure are not expected until fall.

US employers ratchet up the pressure on the unvaccinated

NEW YORK — Employers are losing patience with unvaccinated workers.

For months, most employers relied on information campaigns, bonuses and other incentives to encourage their workforces to get the COVID-19 shot. Now, a growing number are imposing rules to make it more onerous for employees to refuse, from outright mandates to requiring the unvaccinated to undergo regular testing.

Among employers getting tougher are the federal government, the state governments of California and New York, tech giants Google and Facebook, the Walt Disney Co. and the NFL. Some hospitals, universities, restaurants, bars and other entertainment venues have also started requiring vaccines. In Tennessee, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, which includes Vanderbilt Wilson County Hospital, and St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital are among the major employers requiring employees get vaccinated.

But the new measures are unlikely to affect many of the millions of unvaccinated Americans.

Many of the companies that are requiring shots have mostly office workers who are already largely vaccinated and are reluctant to work alongside those who aren’t.

In contrast, major companies that rely on low-income blue-collar workers — food manufacturers, warehouses, supermarkets and other store chains — are shying away from mandates for fear of driving away employees and worsening the labor shortages such businesses are facing.

Tyson Foods, for instance, said about half of its U.S. workforce — 56,000 employees — has received shots after the meat and poultry processor hosted more than 100 vaccination events since February. But the company said it has no plans to impose a mandate to reach the other half.

Walmart and Amazon, the country’s two largest private employers, have also declined to require its hourly workers to get vaccinated, continuing to rely on strategies such as bonuses and onsite access to shots. But in a potentially powerful signal, Walmart said employees at its headquarters will be required to get vaccinated by Oct. 4.

The biggest precedent so far has come from the federal government, the nation’s largest employer. President Joe Biden announced last week that all federal employees and contractors must get vaccinated or put up with weekly testing and lose privileges such as official travel.

The federal government has said it will cover the costs of the weekly tests. As for other employers, insurance may pay for such testing at some workplaces but not others.

Biden’s decision could embolden other employers by signaling they would be on solid legal ground to impose similar rules, said Brian Kropp, chief of research at consulting firm Gartner’s human resources practice.

But Kropp said some companies face complicated considerations that go beyond legalities, including deep resistance to vaccines in many states where they operate.

Retailers like Walmart might have a hard time justifying vaccine requirements for their workers while allowing shoppers to remain unvaccinated, Kropp added. Stores have mostly avoided vaccine requirements for customers for fear of alienating them and because of the difficulty in trying to verify their status.

In surveys by Gartner, fewer than 10% of employers have said they intend to require all employees to be vaccinated.

But a shift is building amid frustration over plateauing vaccination rates and alarm over the spread of the more contagious delta variant.

On Monday, the U.S. finally reached Biden’s goal of dispensing at least one shot to 70% of American adults — but a month late and amid a fierce surge that is driving hospital caseloads in some places to their highest levels since the outbreak began. The president had hoped to reach his target by the Fourth of July.

The Union Square Hospitality Group, a group of New York City restaurants and bars founded by Danny Meyer, is now requiring employees and customers to be vaccinated by Sept. 7.

The San Francisco Bar Owner Alliance, a group of about 300 bars, made a similar decision following a meeting where “the thing that stood out was anger and frustration” toward vaccine holdouts, said founder Ben Bleiman.

While some companies fear vaccine mandates will drive workers away, the pandemic itself is also causing absenteeism. Bleiman said he recently had to close his bar for a night after his bartender, who was fully vaccinated, tested positive and a replacement couldn’t be found.

Some employers are concluding that requiring vaccines is simpler than trying to come up with different rules on masks and social distancing for the small number of unvaccinated employees.

BlackRock, the global investment manager, is allowing only vaccinated workers into its U.S. offices for now and said people will be free to go maskless, as local health guidelines allow, and sit next to each other and congregate without restrictions. The firm said 85% of its U.S. employees are vaccinated or in the process of getting shots.

Matthew Putman, CEO of New York-based high-tech manufacturing hub Nanotronics, said he agonized over his decision to impose a vaccine mandate on his more than 100 employees. As it turned out, nearly all of them were already vaccinated, though he dreads the prospect of having to fire any holdouts.

“I hate the thought. But if it has to happen it has to happen,” Putman said. “I lost a ton of sleep over this but not as much sleep as I’ve lost over the fear of infection.”

Other mandates could provide a clearer test of the potential for employee backlash.

Hospitals and nursing home chains, for instance, are increasingly requiring the vaccine. So far, such mandates have survived legal challenges. More than 150 employees at a Houston hospital system who refused to get the COVID-19 shot were fired or resigned after a judge dismissed an employee lawsuit over the requirement.

Atria Senior Living, which operates more than 200 senior living communities across the country, was among the first to mandate vaccines for its staff in January.

It worked. Nearly 99% of Atria’s 10,000 employees are vaccinated, and only a tiny fraction quit over the requirement, said CEO and Chairman John Moore.

“Our residents deserve to live in a vaccinated environment. Our staff deserves to work in a vaccinated environment,” Moore said.

Lebanon Democrat staff contributed to this report.