WAY 0307 Solar 1

Elias Nafziger and Lizzie Hepler were co-presidents of the student body at Fort Defiance High School in 2017 when they proposed some solar panels for the school. It wound up going beyond that. Earlier this year, Augusta County installed solar panels at seven schools. By then, Nagziger and Hepler had graduated, but were invited back to speak at the ceremony. Our editorial at left looks at the project, and three ways that students can make a difference when they go back to school, which some do as early as today.

Alice Cooper, a septuagenarian who is coming to the Berglund Center on Nov. 16, had a monster hit nearly a half-century ago with the song “School’s Out.”

Oddly, there’s no competing version called “School’s In.” Instead we only have Rod Stewart lamenting in “Maggie May” that “it’s late September and I really should be back in school.” Indeed. Right now, it’s still early August, but Botetourt County students return to school today and many others around the region resume classes next week. Of course, we’re showing our age. To be more in tune with the times, maybe we should cite “School Uniforms” by the Wombats. In any case, we offer a back-to-school editorial, with three pieces of advice for students (and maybe parents, teachers and administrators, as well).

1. Student activism sometimes makes a difference. Back in the spring, Augusta County installed solar panels on seven schools. It constitutes the largest solar installation at any public school system in the Shenandoah Valley and one of the largest in the state. So why did Augusta County do this? To save money. It’s estimated that these solar panels will save Augusta County taxpayers $500,000 in energy costs over the next 20 years. At some of the schools, the solar panels are expected to provide nearly one-third of the energy required to run the school.

So what sharp-eyed accountant or budget hawk on the school board prompted Augusta schools to go solar? Umm, actually, it was two high school students. In the spring of 2017, as the end of their senior year loomed, the co-presidents of the student council at Fort Defiance were brainstorming about ways they could leave their mark on the school. Elias Nafziger and Lizzie Helper thought “a few solar panels outside of the school” would send a good message to future generations. They presented the idea to principal Larry Landes, who liked it so much he suggested they take it straight to Superintendent Eric Bond. A year later, the two students were off at college, but solar panels were going up.

“Isn’t it crazy what two kids can do with a little idea with the support of the community?” Hepler told the Waynesboro News-Virginian. “It’s absolutely phenomenal what can happen with a little bit of encouragement.” Nafziger, who is studying biology at the College of William and Mary, and Hepler, who is studying nursing at James Madison University, were onto more than they realized.

The price of renewables has dropped so much that solar panels are no longer about making a point; they’re about making a difference — giving environmentally-sensitive liberals and fiscal conservatives something they can agree on. Earlier this year, a rural Republican legislator —which is to say the most conservative type of legislators you’ll find — persuaded the General Assembly to pass a bill to make it easier for new schools to be built with solar energy from the very beginning. (That’s state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, by the way.) Meanwhile, Fairfax County has proposed an even more massive wave of solar installations, starting with 130 county-owned buildings (including schools) with another 100 in the second phase. The size of that project, though, bumps up against state regulations. Short version: Only a certain amount of solar can be installed because if there’s “too much,” that hurts the monopoly that utilities such as Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power have been granted. As more localities (and therefore taxpayers) figure out how much they can save from solar, there’s going to be a major fight in Richmond over those rules. That’s a long way away from two high school students proposing a few solar panels in front of their school, but the point remains: These students made a big difference in their county. What difference can other students make in theirs?

2. Video games are now an official sport. The Virginia High School League has added “esports,” as they are formally called, on a one-year trial basis. This will sound absolutely ridiculous to some. In fact, here’s some sharply-worded criticism: This “pernicious excitement” to make video games an official school sport (Virginia is at least the ninth to do so) involves “a mere amusement of a very inferior character, which robs the mind of valuable time that might be devoted to a nobler accomplishment, while at the same time it affords no benefit whatever to the body.” Oops, that’s not about video games. That’s what the Scientific American magazine said in 1859 about chess. Don’t let the “sports” part of “esports” distract you. There are lots of school competitions involving things that aren’t athletic in nature. Video games may sound trivial, but they actually teach the same thing that actual sports do and perhaps more — teamwork, self-discipline, problem-solving, all that. It’s unclear how many Virginia schools will actually field esports teams. That’s where we refer you back to point one: If schools don’t offer to field an esports team, students should ask them why not.

Two statistics, mostly for the benefit of the adults in the room. First: At Washington-Liberty High School in Arlington County, which had an esports team last year, more than one-third of the students weren’t involved in any other activity. This is a way to engage more students. Second: Last month, a 16-year-old from Pennsylvania won the first Fortnite World Cup (that’s a video game, if you didn’t know). The prize: A big trophy and $3 million. That’s more money than Tiger Woods won at the Masters. Yes, yes, there are lots of golf tournaments and only one Fortnite World Cup, but the point remains. The world is changing — in 2019, just as it was in 1859. “A game of chess does not add a single new fact to the mind,” Scientific American wrote then. “It does not excite a single beautiful thought; nor does it serve a single purpose for polishing and improving the nobler faculties.” Then again, does football?

3. Some schools are still “crumbling.” That’s how Gov. Ralph Northam described them in his inaugural address. Yet the General Assembly this year rejected Stanley’s proposal to issue bonds to upgrade the state’s schools, most of which are now more than 60 years old. They weren’t built for today’s technology and some are easier to retrofit than others. So what’s next? Well, if politicians aren’t going to act, students can. They’re in the schools every day. If students in some of those old schools started documenting the physical problems, well, who knows where that might lead? There’s only one way to find out.

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