COVID-19 in Appalachia: Communities coming together while staying apart

Pictured is the Pike County, Ohio Bicentennial Barn, painted by Scott Hagan. Photo by Tyler Buchanan.

Note: This is the final story in a multi-part series detailing the effects of COVID-19 on Appalachian Ohio and how local residents, businesses and health professionals are responding to best serve their region. You can read earlier parts here: on business; on health and testing; and on telemedicine

Scott Hagan makes his living on the scaffold.

With a paintbrush in hand, he works on top of a platform given to him by a fellow Appalachian artist named Harley Warrick, the man who once painted thousands of Mail Pouch barns throughout the Midwest. 

When the “Barn Artist” is not working outside, Hagan is usually lending his talents to school districts in the region. He wrapped up his latest project a few weeks ago at the appropriately-named Barnesville Middle School in his native Belmont County. 

The majestic lunchroom tableau features a space launch, a depiction of the World War II flag raising at Iwo Jima, and a stunning recreation of Mount Rushmore. It looks great, but there’s just one problem: the entire school is empty. 

All Hagan can do is hope the kids return later this year to see it.

Throughout Southern and Eastern Ohio, in the counties along the river and others embedded within the state’s hilly forests, communities are coming together as they so often do in times of struggle. 

Schools, businesses, social workers and local governments have all sought to make sure residents’ needs are met. While public services have been expanded in nearly all parts of Ohio, some remain concerned that the most vulnerable citizens in Appalachia face competition amid high demand for this help — a disparity made worse by widespread job losses and business closures

The communities of Appalachian Ohio have so far done their best to navigate this difficult COVID-19 crisis, but the challenge may stretch on for several more months.

Education

Living in a rural area can have its benefits, as students of South Elementary in the small village of Hamden could tell you. 

Forced to learn at home this spring, kids’ own backyards are serving as their classrooms. For a recent science lesson, students competed in a scavenger hunt to find as many types of birds as they could.

This digital-based distance learning even applies to gym class. The physical education teacher, Ryan Perry, has shared videos to the school’s Facebook page demonstrating fun activities students can do at home. One video combined a workout with a memory game, matching playing cards while completing a certain number of jumping jacks and crunches that corresponded to each card drawn.

In Columbiana County, teachers at Lisbon’s McKinley Elementary are hosting their own version of the “Masked Singer.” Each week, a video is posted of a masked teacher reading a children’s book and families have to guess who they think the reader is. 

Students of the East Guernsey Local School District in Guernsey County were given their own “STEM Challenge.” They were tasked with crafting a makeshift boat out of foil and filling it with as many pennies as could still float in their bathtubs. 

Some students without adequate cell/internet service do not have the luxury of learning from home. In Lawrence County, the Ironton City School District has partnered with local businesses to allow kids to use their Wi-Fi access. To download and submit school assignments, there are students with no choice but to visit their local Buffalo Wild Wings or McDonald’s restaurants. 

Food insecurity

Schools are doing more than educating during this crisis. East Guernsey hosts a “Warrior Drive-Thru” offering a week’s worth of food to students. 

Hillsboro City Schools in Highland County, home of the Indians, operates a “Tomahawk Food Truck” that normally serves meals to students during the summer to make sure they are still being fed at lunchtime. The food truck is being pressed into duty with students now at home, traveling around to a handful of stops each day in and around the city of about 6,500 residents. 

Hillsboro City Schools. Photo courtesy the district Facebook page.

Food distribution efforts from school districts and businesses are feeding Appalachian Ohioans in addition to the existing food pantries, which are ramping up efforts during this crisis. The Southeast Ohio Foodbank & Regional Kitchen, based in Logan, serves nearly a dozen counties throughout the region. Members of the Ohio National Guard have assisted volunteers in packing food boxes to be delivered to area seniors’ homes.

The Athens County Food Bank has changed its hours, but does not plan to change the amount of food they distribute or the number of clients they serve.

“The food will be there,” said food pantry board president Karin Bright in a statement. “Food insecurity is such an issue, and COVID-19 layoffs are only rubbing salt into an open wound. We have already expanded the numbers we serve, and we are ready to serve more, even though we are limiting the hours we are open for food distribution.”

Former Athens County Job and Family Services director Jack Frech said he’s encouraged by efforts the state is making to expand things like Medicaid services and funds for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Still, the problems the region and now many parts of the state are facing are all too familiar.

“I would like to think this would be an eye-opening moment for everyone to realize that all of us … we’ve always been in this together,” Frech said. “And the truth is that some of us who were financially able forgot that.”

With greater levels of unemployment and more and more people asking for assistance, Frech said the demand on food assistance is heavier than ever. 

Frech also pointed out the cash assistance approved by Congress is desperately needed in areas disproportionately affected by the pandemic, and yet the money will not be headed to everyone who needs it. The federal stimulus program is designed to require information from the latest tax return, but many residents live below the income levels that require such a return. 

“These are the least likely to have been employed recently, least likely to have filed a tax return, the poorest of the poor,” Frech said.

He said the release of cash assistance, along with the $500 million stake the state government has in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, would go a long way to helping during the already trying time. 

For many Appalachian communities, aid comes from more local sources. Religious groups and charities broke into action as soon as the stay-at-home order was enacted. 

“It doesn’t matter if we’re in flood mode and an army of people show up down at the downtown shops to keep the flood waters from getting in, or it’s getting food to kids after the schools closed, this county always goes into action on its own,” said Meigs County Commissioner Randy Smith.

Bagged lunches were compiled by local churches the week before the schools mobilized to help keep families fed, and two local fabric stores are using their wares to make medical masks.

The Meigs County Community Fund is ready to offer $25,000 worth of grants for local businesses and nonprofits as they remain closed, and county workers are doing what they can to remain safe.

“I’m proud of the fact that it appears that people are for the most part taking these (Ohio Department of Health) orders to heart,” Smith said.

The commissioner said he was reaching out to U.S. Congressman about using federal funding to help staff from the child protective services and adult protective services. 

“I think it’s time the legislature recognizes them as first responders, because in this area, 99% of the time those men and women are the first responding to those things,” he said.

Tourism

It is difficult to promote local tourism through remote and digital means, but some counties in Appalachian Ohio are giving it a shot. The Belmont County tourism office is offering some virtual puzzles online, with pictures of giant cattle and an even larger pumpkin.

“Being stuck at home doesn’t mean you can’t experience your favorite Belmont County attractions and places,” the office’s website states

As of now, most public parks remain open — Gov. Mike DeWine has encouraged Ohioans to enjoy the outdoors so long as they remain “socially distant” from other nature-goers: 

An exception is the popular Hocking Hills State Park, which was shut down in early April. Visitors had a tough time avoiding each other on the narrow, crowded hiking paths. There remain dozens of other state parks open in the region, from Shawnee State Park in Scioto County to Pymatuning State Park up in Ashtabula County. 

Pymatuning State Park. Photo courtesy the ODNR website.

Still, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources has shut down campgrounds, marinas, park cabins and public restrooms. If you want to make the trip, make sure to plan ahead of time. 

There is another noteworthy avenue for rural tourism threatened by the banning of large social gatherings: festivals and fairs. These annual events can be the primary showcase for a small community, but there is more than local pride on the line. Some of these multi-day events bring in thousands of visitors to town who spend gobs of money on local vendors, restaurants, and lodging.

The festival calendar stretches from April to the fall. The Pike County Dogwood Festival organizers have already called it quits for 2020, while those with the Wild Turkey Festival in McArthur hope to reschedule for later in the year. 

Also threatened are the 88 county fairs, which are held throughout the summer months. Even under the best case scenario, it seems unlikely the state would allow a major public event like a county fair by the middle of summer. Ohio’s 4-H programs have been suspended through at least early July, leaving clubs to host “virtual meetings” instead of their normal in-person gatherings. This is a tricky reality for an organization so used to hands-on activities. 

* * *

For the most part, Scott Hagan the Barn Artist has been able to keep busy during the pandemic. He’s only had one project canceled thus far: a mural restoration in Nelsonville. The owner had a hard time justifying the expense right now. Hagan understands completely.

In the meantime, Hagan has several other school gymnasiums to paint this spring. He should have no trouble getting them done, with schools being empty right now.

As the summer months approach, he plans to get back outside painting the barns all across Appalachian Ohio. With any luck, he may get a second chance at the Nelsonville mural.

After all, it’s easy to stay social distant high up on the scaffold.

Tyler Buchanan
Tyler Buchanan is an award-winning journalist who has covered Ohio politics and government for the past decade. A Bellevue native and graduate of Bowling Green State University, he most recently spent 6 1/2 years as a reporter and editor of The Athens Messenger and Vinton-Jackson Courier newspapers. He is a member of the BG News Alumni Society Board and was a 2019 fellow in the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism.
Susan Tebben
Susan Tebben is an award-winning journalist with a decade of experience covering Ohio news, including courts and crime, Appalachian social issues, government, education, diversity and culture. She has worked for The Newark Advocate, The Glasgow Daily Times, The Athens Messenger, and WOUB Public Media. She has also had work featured on National Public Radio.