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Flagstaff high schoolers hold ‘Reverse Ditch Day’

While senior ditch day may not top the list of high school experiences when compared to milestones like graduation, this tradition still managed to withstand the year of COVID-19 in Flagstaff, albeit with some changes.

Instead of staying at home in their pajamas or gathering elsewhere in town during a normal school day, students at Coconino High School arrived on campus by 8 a.m. on Monday, in time to log on for the first period of their online school day.

They called it “Reverse Ditch Day.”

“We want to go to school, so we’re doing school at school with masks on to show that we can follow rules and that we love school, love being here,” said Shelby Hayes. “It’s our senior year, so it’s really important to us.”

Shelby was part of a group of masked CHS seniors who gathered in the shade of the school’s north entrance Monday morning, wrapped in blankets as they sat in socially distanced lawn chairs, attending their classes using the school-issued iPads they held in their laps.

When asked how remote learning is going, members of the group said this new form of learning is both draining and challenging, one even calling it “awful,” to the nods of their classmates. Several of them referenced how difficult it is to stay focused on school when not physically in a classroom, especially with fewer hands-on activities and longer classes.

Instead of six-period days like in the past, Flagstaff Unified School District’s middle and high school students are currently enrolled in only three classes per quarter, with classes lasting 95 minutes each. This schedule is aimed to decrease transitions during the day and mixing of students if in-person instruction resumes.

Many of these seniors agreed they missed the social interaction most; their glee at being back together, even if not in a classroom, was evident as they sat outside the school Monday, their laughs dispersing into the parking lot, where more students were tuning into their classes.

Chase Sweeter kept his candy red pickup truck running as he virtually attended his morning math class, a dual enrollment class that counts for both high school and college credit, from the driver’s seat, his iPad propped against the steering wheel.

“I really hope that, by us doing this, some of the school board members will see that we are really trying to make an effort, not just to go back to classes with our friends, but to truly get the learning experience that we need,” he said, noting how beneficial it would be if even just upperclassmen were able to return to school.

Chase explained that, whereas in the past he could have stayed after class to ask a teacher for help, it has been more difficult to receive the support he needs while completing classes online. He also believes the online format is making it harder to retain the information that is presented in class.

“This is really tough,” he said, glancing down at his iPad.

Younger students also joined in Reverse Ditch Day, eager to prove that they, too, are ready for a return to campus.

“We’re just trying to make a point that we’re responsible enough to come to school and follow all the restrictions so we can get a better education,” said junior Avery Rhoton. “I think that online school at home is really hard for a lot of families.”

Avery joined her cousin Livia Rhoton and friend Cierra Derr, also juniors, in attending class from their car in the CHS parking lot Monday. They arrived at 7:50 a.m., just in time for first period, and planned to stay all day.

Since the school year began online last month, Avery has not only attended her classes virtually, but she has also helped her younger siblings with their schoolwork when their parents are not home. She said it was nice to be spending a school day at school instead of in her bedroom.

For Livia, attending school remotely has been a struggle because she said the internet can be unreliable at her family’s home off Townsend-Winona Road, sometimes causing her to miss parts of her classes. She also explained her family is in the process of selling the house, which creates some scheduling conflicts.

“We’ll have people come look at our house so then we have to go over to someone else’s house. It’s such a pain. We can’t do school at home,” Livia said.

The desire to return to school shared by these “ditchers” echoed many of the comments submitted to the FUSD Governing Board last week for its discussion of the district’s return to school plan. After more than six hours of presentations, public comments and discussion, the board did not make a final decision on when to resume in-person classes, though it agreed in-person learning would not begin until Oct. 22 at the earliest.

The board will next discuss the reopening plan in a special meeting Oct. 6, where it will focus on phased reopening options.

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Supporters turn out for Trump rally in Flagstaff

Masks were few and far between as over 100 supporters of President Donald Trump crowded into a hangar at Wiseman Aviation in Flagstaff on Saturday.

At the event, conservative figurehead and Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk joined several local candidates to speak to a crowd of mostly young people.

Organized by the group Students for Trump, the rally highlighted just how competitive the state of Arizona has become and the vast difference in how Democrats and Republicans are campaigning as COVID-19 remains a challenge in northern Arizona and the country.

At a time when many Democratic candidates are staying at home, holding virtual events and town halls, Republican candidates have not let the pandemic stop them from traveling across the country and state to hold gatherings in person.

Likewise, while Democrats have held off on door-knocking campaigns, Republicans have kept those operations going. And on Saturday, attendees were encouraged to knock on doors across Flagstaff after the rally had ended.

Trump visited Phoenix for a rally in July and his campaign has held events across the state, including several in Flagstaff.

Those events are an important part of keeping the state red, Kirk told the crowd, adding he couldn’t live with himself if Arizona went for Vice President Joe Biden.

And that difference in strategy led Kirk to accuse Biden of courting the votes of Arizonans without ever visiting the state.

“Would you rather have Joe Biden, [who] does not even visit the state that he wants you to vote for him? He has not visited Arizona and this entire site,” Kirk said.

Kirk added he believes one reason young people may be struggling today is because “we decided to foolishly lock down our country.”

The candidates who spoke included Congressman Paul Gosar; congressional candidate Tiffany Shedd, who is challenging Rep. Tom O’Halleran; and State Rep. Walt Blackman, who is running for reelection in Legislative District 6.

Former State Rep. Brenda Barton, who is also running for a seat representing LD6, was in attendance but did not speak.

At times, the speakers brought up the difference between Democrats and Republicans on the issue of COVID-19 as one reason voters should side with Trump.

Gosar said the restrictions states and localities have put in place to prevent the spread of the virus have given Americans a taste of socialism, something he said Democrats want to promote.

“We’ve actually been seeing what socialism is all about. We’ve been living it with this COVID. Do you like it? I didn’t either. I want my freedom, I want to pick and choose. And it's sad that we had to go through it, but maybe it's a good lesson because we don't want to turn back that way,” Gosar told the crowd. “John F. Kennedy said, ‘it's not what my country can do for me but what I can do for my country,’ and here we are. This is it, freedoms aren't free. They come at a cost.”

Gosar has previously suggested on social media that COVID-19 is a hoax and will disappear after the November election.

The event comes as local officials continue to track a spike in new cases of COVID-19 -- last week, the county recorded 214 new cases.

Several speakers also made reference to Flagstaff politics being farther to the left than other parts of the state. Gosar said the event was taking place in the “belly of the beast, the liberal aspect of northern Arizona.”

Trump, Biden prepare to debate amid mounting crises

CLEVELAND — In an election year like no other, the first debate between President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, could be a pivotal moment in a race that has remained stubbornly unchanged in the face of historic tumult.

The Tuesday night debate will offer a massive platform for Trump and Biden to outline their starkly different visions for a country facing multiple crises, including racial justice protests and a pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 Americans and cost millions of jobs.

The health emergency has upended the usual trappings of a presidential campaign, lending heightened importance to the debate. But amid intense political polarization, comparatively few undecided voters remain, raising questions as to how, or if, the debate might shape a race that has been defined by its bitterness and, at least so far, its stability.

Biden will step onto the Cleveland stage holding leads in the polls — significant in the national surveys, closer in the battleground states — but facing questions about his turn in the spotlight, particularly considering Trump’s withering attacks. And Trump, with only 35 days to change the course of the race, will have arguably his best chance to try to reframe the campaign as a choice election and not a referendum over his handling of a virus that has killed more people in America than any other nation.

“This will be the first moment in four years that someone will walk on stage as co-equal to Trump and be able to hold him to account for the malfeasance he has shown leading the country,” said Steve Schmidt, senior campaign aide for John McCain’s 2008 Republican presidential bid and a frequent Trump critic. “If Biden is unable to indict Trump for all that he has done, (that) would be profound failure. There is no spinning that away.”

The president's handling of the coronavirus will likely dominate much of the discussion. The pandemic's force will be tangible as the candidates' podiums will be spaced far apart and the traditional opening handshake scrapped.

And the debate could be shaped by an extraordinary confluence of other recent moments: the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, allowing Trump to nominate a conservative jurist to replace a liberal voice and reshape the high court for generations, and the blockbuster revelations about Trump’s long-hidden tax history, including that he paid only $750 a year in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017 and nothing in many other years.

But the impact of the debate — or the two that follow in the weeks ahead — remains unclear.

The tumult of 2020 is difficult to overstate: COVID-19 has rewritten the rules of everyday life; schools and businesses are shuttered; and racial justice protests have swept the nation after a series of high-profile killings of Black people by police.

Despite the upheaval, the presidential race has remained largely unchanged since Biden seized control of the Democratic field in March. The nation has soured on Trump's handling of the pandemic, and while his base of support has remained largely unchanged, he has seen defections among older and female voters, particularly in the suburbs, and his path to 270 Electoral College votes, while still viable, has shrunk.

Polls suggest fewer undecided voters remain than at this point in the 2016 campaign. And several high-profile debates in past elections that were thought to be game-changing moments at the time ultimately had little lasting effect.

Four years ago, Democrat Hillary Clinton was widely seen as besting Trump in their three debates, but she lost in November. In 2012, Mitt Romney crushed Barack Obama in their first meeting only to falter in the rematches.

But some debates have mattered: most famously, a turning point in the 1960 race was when John F. Kennedy was perceived — at least by TV viewers — as outdueling Richard Nixon. And in 1980, Ronald Reagan was able to reassure nervous voters that he possessed a presidential temperament when he delivered a winning performance against incumbent Jimmy Carter.

While both sides anticipate a vicious debate between two men who do not like each other, the Biden campaign has downplayed the night’s importance, believing that the pandemic and the battered economy will outweigh any debate stage gaffe or zinger. Conversely, the Trump campaign has played up the magnitude of the duel, believing it will be a moment for the president to damage Biden and recast the race.

Trump had told advisers that he is preparing an all-out assault on Biden, claiming that the former senator’s 47 years in Washington have left him out of touch and that his family, namely his son Hunter, has benefited from corruption. The president on Monday also repeated his demand that Biden take some sort of drug test, asserting without evidence that the Democratic nominee was somehow using a performance enhancer.

That continued a curious round of expectations setting: While Trump’s campaign has of late praised Biden’s debate skills, the president has also vividly portrayed his opponent as not being up to the job, potentially allowing Biden to come off well as long as he avoids a major stumble.

But Trump — never a polished debater, though a commanding presence on stage — has done little in the way of formal preparations, which may mean he is walking into his own trap.