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Pipeline operator says "normal operations" have resumed

ATLANTA • The operator of the nation’s largest gasoline pipeline – hit on May 7th by a ransomware attack – announced Saturday that it has resumed “normal operations,” delivering fuel to its markets, including a large swath of the East Coast.

Georgia-based Colonial Pipeline had begun the process of restarting the pipeline’s operations on Wednesday evening, warning it could take several days for the supply chain to return to normal.

“Since that time, we have returned the system to normal operations, delivering millions of gallons per hour to the markets we serve,” Colonial Pipeline said in a tweet Saturday. Those markets include Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, South and North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Washington D.C., Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

“All of these markets are now receiving product from our pipeline,” the company said, noting how its employees across the pipeline “worked safely and tirelessly around the clock to get our lines up and running.”

Gas shortages, which spread from the South, all but emptying stations in Washington, D.C., have been improving since a peak on Thursday night. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm told The Associated Press on Friday that the nation is “over the hump” on gas shortages, with about 200 stations returning to service every hour.

“It’s still going to work its way through the system over the next few days, but we should be back to normal fairly soon,” she said.

Some stations were still out of gas in Raleigh, North Carolina, on Saturday. Driver Jermaine Barnes told CBS17 the shortage has made him more conservative with his trips.

“I’m not going places I don’t need to go,” he said. “I’m not visiting people. I’m watching where I’m driving. I’m doing everything different right now.”

Some drivers responded angrily on Facebook Saturday to a post by ABC-13 in Asheville, North Carolina, about the pipeline resuming normal operations. Several said the majority of gas stations still did not have fuel and those that did receive deliveries were quickly selling out.

Martha Meade, manager for public and government relations at AAA Mid-Atlantic, said many gas stations in the Virginia area still did not have gas on Saturday. But she said “lines have diminished from the height of the crisis” and “panic buying has subsided.”

Multiple sources confirmed to The Associated Press that Colonial Pipeline had paid the criminals who committed the cyberattack a ransom of nearly $5 million in cryptocurrency for the software decryption key required to unscramble their data network.

The ransom – 75 Bitcoin – was paid last Saturday, a day after the criminals locked up Colonial’s corporate network, according to Tom Robinson, co-founder of the cryptocurrency-tracking firm Elliptic. Prior to Robinson’s blog post, two people briefed on the case had confirmed the payment amount to AP.

The pipeline system delivers about 45% of the gasoline consumed on the East Coast.


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US schools fight to keep students amid fear of dropout surge

KANSAS CITY, Kan. • U.S. educators are doing everything they can to track down high school students who stopped showing up to classes and to help them get the credits needed to graduate, amid an anticipated surge in the country’s dropout rate during the coronavirus pandemic.

There isn’t data available yet on how the pandemic has affected the nation’s overall dropout rate – 2019 is the last year for which it is available – and many school officials say it’s too early to know how many students who stopped logging on for distance learning don’t plan to return. But soaring numbers of students who are failing classes or are chronically absent have experts fearing the worst, and schools have been busy tracking down wayward seniors through social media, knocking on their doors, assigning staff to help them make up for lost time and, in some cases, even relaxing graduation requirements.

“When students drop out, they typically look for an out, an opportunity to leave. And this has provided that, unfortunately,” Sandy Addis, chairman of the National Dropout Prevention Center, said recently, referring to the pandemic. His group believes the dropout rate has spiked this year and will remain high for years.

At one high school in Kansas City, Kansas, staff members have made thousands of calls to the families of at-risk students, said Troy Pitsch, who supervises high school principals in the city.

“If we lose a student, it is going to be after kicking and screaming and fighting tooth and nail for them,” Pitsch said.

Many districts were forgiving last spring when schools shut down abruptly, freezing grades unless students wanted to improve them. That made this year the first for which schools would feel the full effects of the pandemic on student performance and engagement.

The early signs aren’t encouraging. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization warned that the pandemic had put 24 million children worldwide at risk of dropping out of school. And the pandemic’s effects could erase gains the U.S. made in reducing its dropout rate, which fell from 9.3% in 2007 to 5.1% in 2019, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Not finishing high school significantly hurts a person’s earning potential, with dropouts bringing home an average of $150 less per week than graduates, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

To keep students on track, some local governments and school systems have waived certain testing requirements for graduation or changed grading policies so that missed assignments aren’t as damaging. But such leniency carries the risk of watering down academic standards, said Russell Rumberger, a professor emeritus of education at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who has written about dropouts.

“If they let you pass with a D and you don’t have to do very much to do it, maybe technically you are getting a diploma, but you are not getting the same type of diploma you may have gotten prior to the pandemic, when the standards were higher,” he said.

A National Dropout Prevention Center report predicted a doubling or tripling of the number of students who were at risk of falling behind academically and not graduating.

Among them for much of this school year was Jose Solano-Hernandez, a 17-year-old senior at Wyandotte High School in Kansas City, Kansas. In January, when he was at his lowest point following the deaths of one grandparent from COVID-19 and another from cancer in the same week, he estimated that he had missed eight assignments in each of his classes.

“I wouldn’t make my parents proud,” he recalled thinking as he struggled to learn virtually at night while working by day at a mechanic’s shop.

Solano-Hernandez has been slowly chipping away at his backlog of work since his school brought back him and other struggling seniors for extra in-person help more than a month before the rest of the student body returned at the end of March. He said the change brought “relief” and he’s now hopeful he’ll graduate.

Mary Stewart, the school’s principal, said there was “radio silence” from hundreds of students in the fall. But the number who weren’t accounted for shrank to about 40 by the spring after staff hunted down siblings and scrolled through Facebook searching for clues to their whereabouts.

“I went to a house of a young man the day before Thanksgiving and found that he had self-isolated in his room because of a mental health issue,” she said. “That is very common. Whatever happens in the community and in the world, we are a micro-system of that.”

The pandemic also has taken a toll on students at North Grand High School in Chicago.

Principal Emily Feltes said some of her students took on jobs to support their families and others fell ill. Her students returned for part-time in-person instruction in April, but she’s worried that dropout numbers will rise.

“We have done everything that we think that we can to try to re-engage kids – to try to help them. And I know that my colleagues are all working really hard too,” she said. “But the reality is that this has been a worldwide and a national trauma.”

Persuading reluctant students to return isn’t easy. At Orange County Public Schools in the Orlando, Florida, area, substitute teacher Patrice Pullen was assigned in December to oversee a group of 13 seniors who fell behind during virtual learning. She said it became clear on her first day that her most important job would be “rebranding” the students, who had come to see themselves as failures.

“You have kids – and I’m not exaggerating – they had zeros. They had not turned in anything since August, since school started,” she said. Now, eleven are on track to graduate and the other two are close to being on track.

At Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, the 185,000-student district saw the percentage of middle school and high school students earning F’s in at least two classes jump by 83% in the fall.

The spring numbers returned to more normal levels as the district made several changes, including dropping the minimum number of assignments per quarter from nine to six and allowing teachers to accept late work on major assignments with minimal penalties, said district spokeswoman Lucy Caldwell. Still, she said, it is hard to say how many students disappeared or what will happen with dropouts.

“The pandemic was extraordinarily difficult on families – emotionally, economically, and physically,” Caldwell said.


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'Sins of our past': Apologies for 1970 Jackson St. shootings

JACKSON • The mayor of Mississippi’s capital city and a state senator both apologized Saturday for shootings 51 years ago by city and state police officers that killed two people and injured 12 others on the campus of a historically Black college.

Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba and state Sen. Hillman Frazier of Jackson spoke during a graduation ceremony for the Class of 1970 of what was then Jackson State College, now Jackson State University.

Lumumba apologized on behalf of the city to the families of the two men whose lives were cut short by the violent police response to the protest against racial injustice. Killed were 21-year-old Jackson State student Phillip Lafayette Gibbs and 17-year-old James Earl Green, a high school student who was on campus while walking home from work.

Jackson State’s 1970 commencement was canceled because of the bloodshed, and graduates that year received their diplomas in the mail, if at all. On Saturday, 74 of the 400-plus 1970 grads donned caps and gowns and stood in the sunshine to receive the recognition denied to them a lifetime ago.

“As James Baldwin once wrote: ‘When we cannot tell the truth about our past, we become trapped in it,’” Lumumba said. “I believe, as a city, we must publicly atone for the sins of our past and proclaim a new identity of dignity, equity and justice.”

The May 15, 1970, shootings at Jackson State had largely been overshadowed by violence from days earlier, when Ohio National Guardsmen shot and killed four Kent State University students amid a Vietnam War protest.

Lumumba and Frazier are both Black, and both represent a city now more than 80% Black. Jackson was majority-white in 1970, and the Jackson Police Department and Mississippi Highway Patrol officers who went on campus were white.

Lumumba said the Jackson Police Department officers “unjustly gunned down two innocent young Black men, terrorized and traumatized a community of Black students and committed one of the gravest sins in our city’s history.”

Frazier was a Jackson State student in 1970. He said he had gone to dinner that night and was delayed in returning to campus. But he believes he might have been standing near his friend Gibbs during the gunfire, if not for that delay.

“The state of Mississippi never apologized for the tragedy that occurred on this campus that night – never apologized,” Frazier said. “So, since I’m here representing the state of Mississippi in my role as state senator, I’d like to issue an apology to the families, the Jackson State family, for the tragedy that occurred that night because they took very valuable lives.”

Officers marched onto Jackson State the night of May 14, 1970, to quell protests against racial injustice. According to a report by President Richard Nixon’s Commission on Campus Unrest, Jackson State students had been throwing rocks at white motorists. James “Lap” Baker, a member of the Class of 1970, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that students were fed up with white people driving through campus shouting racial slurs, throwing bottles and endangering Black pedestrians.

Students had gathered outside the Alexander Hall women’s dormitory and B.F. Roberts dining hall across the street – some protesting, others simply enjoying each other’s company as women returned to the dorm before curfew.

After midnight that May 15, a Highway Patrol officer used a bullhorn to address students, Baker said. Someone in the crowd threw a bottle, and officers started shooting indiscriminately, later falsely claiming they had seen a sniper in a dorm window.

A Jackson TV reporter recorded 28 seconds of gunfire. When it had ended, Gibbs and Green were dead and 12 other people were bleeding. Windows of Alexander Hall shattered and its walls were left with pockmarks still visible today.

John A. Peoples Jr., who was Jackson State president from 1967 to 1984, said during Saturday’s ceremony that he remembers “the sickening smell of blood” streaming down the stairway of Alexander Hall after the shootings.

“We sat on that lawn the rest of the night singing freedom songs,” Peoples said.

Baker crawled through grass after the shootings to return unharmed to his off-campus apartment after what he calls a planned “massacre.” No officer ever faced criminal charges, and an all-white jury awarded no money to the Black victims’ families in a civil lawsuit.

Jackson State on Saturday awarded posthumous honorary doctorate degrees to Gibbs and Green, and their sisters accepted those. The graduation took place on the site of the once-busy street that was closed years ago and turned into a pedestrian zone named the Gibbs-Green Memorial Plaza.


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COVID-19 pet boom has veterinarians backlogged, burned out

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. • During the gloomiest stretches of the pandemic, Dr. Diona Krahn’s veterinary clinic has been a puppy fest, overrun with new four-legged patients.

Typically, she’d get three or four new puppies a week, but between shelter adoptions and private purchases, the 2020 COVID-19 pet boom brought five to seven new clients a day to her practice in Raleigh, North Carolina. Many are first-time pet owners.

Like many veterinarians across the country, she’s also been seeing more sick animals. To meet the demand, vets interviewed by The Associated Press have extended hours, hired additional staff and refused to take new patients, and they still can’t keep up. Burnout and fatigue are such a concern that some practices are hiring counselors to support their weary staffs.

“Everyone is working beyond capacity at this point,” said Krahn, who added evening hours last year.

Approximately 12.6 million U.S. households got a new pet last year after the pandemic was declared in March 2020, according to a COVID-19 Pulse Study by the American Pet Products Association.

Meanwhile, fewer people relinquished their pets in 2020, so they needed ongoing care, experts said. And as people worked from home and spent more time with their pets, they’ve had more opportunities to notice bumps, limps and other ailments that could typically go untreated.

Vets were already struggling to meet the pre-pandemic demand, with veterinary schools unable to churn out enough doctors and techs to fill the void.

Krahn left her North Carolina practice three months ago and now oversees nine veterinary and animal hospital clinics across Utah and Idaho under Pathway Vet Alliance.

“All of my practices are booking out several weeks in advance. Clients are actually calling around and scheduling appointments at multiple locations,” and even resorting to emergency care facilities, she said.

Banfield Pet Hospital, one of the largest national providers of preventive veterinary medicine, had approximately half a million more pet visits in 2020 than in 2019. And its telehealth service more than doubled in volume from March through the end of last year.

Thrive, another veterinary hospital primary care group, with 110 facilities across the U.S., reported a 20% increase in demand during the pandemic. Both repeated a common refrain – as humans spent more time with their pets, they were more in tune with their ailments – big and small.

“With COVID, a lot of people became powerless to the ones closest to them,” said Claire Pickens, a senior director at Thrive, “but the one thing they still had the ability to control was caring for their pet.”

Clinics have been forced to streamline, having patients fill out forms online or by phone pre-appointment because hiring additional staff often isn’t an option.

“The industry is growing at a rate that it can’t fill all the roles needed to keep up with the increased demand for services,” said Pickens.

Veterinary positions are projected to grow 16% by 2029, nearly four times the average of most other occupations, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics. Vet tech jobs are expected to increase nearly 20% in the next five years.

“We are still short staffed despite active seeking of additional staff,” said Dr. Katarzyna Ferry, Veterinary Specialty Hospital of Palm Beach Gardens.

Verg, a 24-hour emergency and specialty hospital in Brooklyn, reported a 40% jump in emergency care since the pandemic began. That’s also meant more pet hospitalizations, straining various specialties like surgery and cardiology.

“The demand continues to grow,” causing extreme weariness in a profession known for its big-hearted workers, said Verg’s chief medical officer, Dr. Brett Levitzke.

“Fear of the unknown with the pandemic leads to more intense emotions from our clients,” said Levitzke. He’s seen expletive-laced outbursts and threats from pet owners, and also outpourings of love, with cards and baked goods. After the toll on the staff became noticeable, they hired a compassion fatigue specialist for support.

“Unfortunately, compassion fatigue, anxiety, and depression already plagued our profession, and the pandemic has certainly taken it to another level,” Levitzke said.

Krahn said she sold her North Carolina practice to Pathway and later took an administrative role with the company in part to provide practical and emotional support to veterinarians, knowing the toll first-hand.

“As veterinarians, its our job to care, but we also take care of people through their animals,” said Krahn. “Doctors and support teams struggle with caring for themselves in a way that preserves them to be able to keep doing this.”


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