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School closures extended to May 15
Cooper orders more business closures, K-12 school closures extended to May 15

RALEIGH — N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper announced March 23 that he would sign an executive order extending the closure of K-12 schools for in-person instruction until May 15.

He also said the order will close gyms, movie theaters, health clubs, hair salons, massage parlors, barbers, nail salons, tattoo parlors, spas, skating rinks, bowling alleys, bingo parlors, gaming establishments and all commercial indoor and outdoor pools, effective 5 p.m. on Wednesday, March 25.

In addition, Cooper said the executive order would lower the threshold of allowable mass gatherings to less than 50 people. Previously, mass gatherings of 100 people or more were banned.

“We know these cause hardship and heartache, but they’re necessary to save lives,” Cooper said.

The order is in effect for at least 30 days, according to its text.

Grocery stores and restaurants with takeout and delivery options would remain open, Cooper said. Last week, dine-in options at restaurants were banned.

The order also mandated further visitor restrictions for long-term care and nursing home facilities, according to N.C. Department of Health and Human Services’ Secretary Mandy Cohen. All visitors are banned from long-term-care facilities, which includes skilled nursing facilities, adult care homes, family care homes and mental health care homes.

Responding to a reporter’s question, Cooper said he is not at this time issuing a “shelter in place” order in which state residents who are considered non-essential personnel are ordered to stay at home under potential penalty.

“We encourage those in the high-risk category to stay at home,” Cooper said.

Cohen issued new guidance passed down by the Centers for Disease Control on who is at high risk for contracting COVID-19.

Cohen said the list includes people 65 years and older, people who live in a nursing home or long-term care facility, people with high-risk conditions including chronic lung disease or moderate to severe asthma, or heart disease with complications, people who are immunocompromised, people of any age with severe obesity or certain underlying medical conditions, particularly if not well controlled, such as those with diabetes.

“This expanded definition for high risk further emphasizes the need for each of us to commit to social distancing,” Cohen said. “We are working on additional interventions we can do here in North Carolina to protect our higher risk community members.”

“The CDC also advises that women who are pregnant should be monitored since they are known to be at risk with severe viral illness; however, to date data on COVID-19 has not shown increased risk,” Cohen said. “While children are generally at lower risk for severe infection, some studies indicate a higher risk among infants.”

Regarding K-12 education, N.C. State Board of Education Vice Chairman Alan Duncan said that right now, the current benchmark is to resume in-person K-12 instruction May 18.

“We will reopen schools if, and only if, our public health experts say so,” Duncan said.

As for instruction from home, Cooper said he had a conference call with internet service providers to get internet service to students who need it “as soon as possible.”

“We must maximize the time left in the year as much as possible,” Cooper said.

Cooper said he’s working on a plan to make sure school employees are kept safe and will “make sure they get paid.”

Remote school is in session: Watauga teachers, families transition to remote instruction

With only one week to prepare, educators in Watauga County Schools hit the ground running to provide “remote learning” to students beginning March 23.

“I feel like I’m sprinting a marathon,” said Cynthia Townsend, a teacher at Cove Creek School. “Watauga County rose to the occasion. We have done the best that we can for students and we will continue to do that going forward.”

Gov. Roy Cooper announced an executive order closing public schools for students for at least two weeks beginning March 16 in an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19. Nine days after the first order, Cooper announced that schools were to be closed for in-person instruction until May 15.

“Everyone stopped everything in their tracks,” said Heather Ward — a third-grade teacher at Green Valley. “The things that were super important and on our to-do list on Friday, we pushed that away because we realized that our children and their wellbeing was the most important thing. Every professional in my building has the same goal in mind — we have to take care of our kids.”

Teachers prepared for remote learning the week of March 16-20 by gathering resources and materials for students and communicating with families. Originally teachers planned materials for the initial two weeks that the schools would be closed, but Ward said many teachers’ intuitions told them the closure would be longer.

“It was really hard emotionally to think about being away from my students that long,” Ward said. “It’s a really heavy feeling knowing that you’re not going to see your children until May.”

Parents had the opportunity during the same week to visit schools to pick up their students’ belongings and to check out a laptop computer. Laptops were available for checkout for any students in grades 3-7 as students in grades 8-12 should already have school-issued laptops, according to WCS.

The county’s nine schools began their first day of remote learning on March 23. On that day, WCS Chief Academic Officer Tamara Stamey said school officials were still working to calculate how many of their students were without internet access at home.

Townsend teaches math to 31 sixth-graders and language arts to 33 seventh-graders. All of her students are able to have access to internet, she said.

Of her 14 students, Ward said only one does not have internet access. She added that the day after the first closure announcement, the school system’s technology department staff set up wifi hot spots in the windows of the classrooms closest to the parking lot at Green Valley. Families without internet access at home are able to come to the school's parking lot and access internet while there, she said.

Stamey said teachers are expected to provide the equivalent of about three hours' worth of instruction — with assignments and activities — each day for students to access.

WCS encouraged students to also make time for exercise, keep a regular sleep schedule and take time for breaks during the school day at home. Townsend said just as students have regularly scheduled breaks throughout the day at school, students should take time to do other activities — like go outside or play with a pet — to avoid feeling burnt out. Stamey advised that families should try to keep students on a regular, consistent routine to the extent that is possible.

For students without internet access at home, teachers were able to provide paper packets and materials to families when they arrived at the schools to pick up belongings.

Families can access a student’s assignment for each school by teacher by visiting www.wataugaschools.org/remotelearning. After selecting the “for parents and students” option on the webpage, families can access these assignments by selecting the menu at the top left corner of the screen.

Students can also access NCedCloud to connect to learning platforms such as Canvas, iReady and Letterland for their assignments. Townsend said she’ll be able to use Canvas to upload videos, assignments and quizzes for her students to use.

Ward said when a student finds her assignments through the remote learning webpage, the assignment can stay on the computer screen without internet access. Parents can choose to stay in the Green Valley parking lot to access the internet if the student needs to watch a teacher’s video in real time or perform any digital communication, Ward added.

“A lot of them are working at home and doing all of the assignments that they can, and then uploading and sharing that document when they have wifi or accessing those digital resources (when they have internet),” Ward said.

Instruction for each teacher will look different. For example, Stamey said a physical education teacher may post games, activities, yoga or exercises that students can do at home. Art teachers may help lead activities with minimal preparation that students and parents can do together.

Ward started her first day of remote learning by incorporating a practice she conducts in the classroom — just digitally. Her class typically starts the day with a “morning meeting” by sitting together on the classroom carpet to discuss their feelings, questions they have and the agenda for the day.

On March 23, Ward used a tool called Google Hangout to video chat with her students to allow them time to express if they were feeling nervous or anxious about the recent changes. She said it promoted the feeling of “family” even though the class couldn’t be physically together. The class then talked about a book they are reading together and other assignments they would be doing.

Teachers are available from 8 a.m. to noon each day for students or parents to ask questions via email or other channels. Some teachers are able to offer one-on-one tutoring to students with the help of Zoom or other video chat methods.

Townsend said she has one student she will be tutoring one-on-one each school day at a designated time. As a 30-year veteran teacher, she said she’s thankful to be able to have the technology to conduct remote teaching more efficiently.

Townsend recalled a time in 1978 when she was a fifth-grader at Valle Crucis, and school had to be closed for 35 days due to snow. Her mom was a teacher at the time. Townsend said homework assignments had to be given via the radio, or parents could pick up work packets from teachers at the schools.

Now, Townsend has a school work station at home in her living room. She said she’ll spend the school day by planning her class meetings, reviewing materials students will be doing for the week and ensuring she’s set clear instructions for students to follow.

All three women expressed that they don’t want parents to feel overwhelmed by having their children learning from home. As a mom of school-age children as well as being a teacher, Ward said a parent can feel pressured to take on educational responsibilities to help their children.

“Sometimes I need to encourage parents that I am still the teacher. I am still responsible for that,” Ward said. “They shouldn’t feel that it’s their sole responsibility and their sole job. They need to provide for their children and it’s my job to provide the education.”

While teachers and staff are continuing to support families, Ward wanted to remind teachers that they still have the support of their colleagues even though they are now working in separate spaces. She said it may be easy for an educator to feel like an “island” during this time, and a person may feel like they are alone in this situation.

“It’s hard when you’re physically by yourself in your house to remember that you have those colleagues still, even though they’re not physically beside of you,” Ward said. “You have to remind yourself that we’re not expected to do this alone; you have support from your administration and other teachers.”

According to the U.S. Department of Education, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced on March 20 that students impacted by school closures due to COVID-19 can bypass standardized testing for the 2019-2020 school year. The department stated that states can apply for a waiver that would provide relief from federally mandated testing requirements for the school year.

Stamey said that WCS Director of Accountability and School Improvement Wayne Eberle would soon be having discussions with people at the state level about the situation, and school officials may have answers about 2019-20 standardized testing by the end of the week.

For more information on how Watauga County Schools is responding to COVID-19, visit www.wataugaschools.org/coronavirus.

Steve Behr / Photo by Steve Behr 

Watauga’s Jaiden Bond announced he will walk on to play football at Western Carolina.

State unemployment claims reach 122K in a week; businesses could be eligible for loans, other assistance

WATAUGA — A total of 122,242 unemployment claims were processed in North Carolina from March 16 through 2 p.m. on March 23, according to N.C. Division of Employment Security’s spokesperson Larry Parker.

The average number of claims for a similar time period is 3,000, Parker said.

“Staff is also working overtime and on the weekends,” Parker said. “We currently are recruiting for 50 positions.”

Parker said that approximately 87 percent of the claims were noted as being COVID-19 related.

“There could be more related to COVID-19 where the person filing did not indicate the virus as the reason for separation from employment,” Parker said.

Unemployment claims can only be filed for “covered” employment, Parker said.

“A person’s employment is ‘covered’ if it is through an employer that is liable under state and federal law to pay unemployment insurance tax on that person’s wages,” Parker said. “Some examples of non-covered employment are employment by a religious organization, commission-based insurance and independent contractors.

“If you are a business owner and are required to pay unemployment insurance taxes on your own wages, you may be eligible to receive unemployment benefits.”

Embracing for the potential of the pandemic closures continuing indefinitely, local businesses are having to make staffing decisions.

On March 22, Chetola Resort, which is home to more than 40 lodge and bed and breakfast rooms plus more than 100 condominiums and timeshare units, announced it was temporarily closing.

According to spokesperson P.J. Wirchansky, approximately half of the 200 part- and full-time staff at Chetola pre-COVID-19 have filed for unemployment benefits.

“Those who are still on board, including management, have been tasked with tackling projects throughout the resort so we are able to offer an even higher level of quality and experience when we reopen for guests,” Wirchansky said. “This has been a challenging time for all of us, and we are working hard to keep as many staff employed as possible.”

Chetola also said that the Tarbutton family, which owns the resort, has set up a special fund to help staff who have been affected financially by the crisis.

“We look forward to opening again as soon as it’s safe to do so,” Wirchansky said. “Ideally, we plan to hire back as many staff as possible. Wouldn’t it be great if the demand is so strong that we need even more people on our team? We’re trying to be realistic and hopeful at the same time.”

Many local restaurants have had to lay off most of their staffs. At The Local in Boone, front of house manager and bartender Laura McGarr said that out of a staff of 50 pre-pandemic, they are now down to fewer than 10.

“I want to be behind the bar making drinks again,” McGarr said. “I want to be talking to people more than the brief interactions from six feet away while I go out to their car for curbside ... it’s a hollowing difference to say the least.”

McGarr, who said she has washed and sanitized her hands to the point of making her skin raw, noted that it has been uplifting to see restaurant employees support each other by ordering food from each other and to see regulars picking up their orders.

Photo by Thomas Sherrill 

Capone’s Pizza co-owner Pete Shurba takes a phone order at the front of house on March 24.

Pete Shurba, co-owner at Capone’s Pizza in Boone, said that the restaurant laid off more than 30 workers the previous week. However, the future is in a “critical place,” Shurba said, due to a slow winter season combined with the ongoing pandemic restrictions.

“We’re hanging on, just hanging on by the skin of our teeth,” Shurba said. “Will we make it another week? We don’t know. Are we going to make it another month? We don’t know.”

Lost Province Brewing Company said in a March 19 Facebook post that it had to temporarily lay off 90 percent of its staff. Basil’s restaurant of Boone stated on March 22 that it had laid off “most” of its staff.

“We laid off 45 employees and we have lost 66 percent of total sales since the governor’s order,” Foggy Rock of Blowing Rock said in a message.

Other local restaurants such as MyPho of Boone, Eleven80, Chef and Somme, Storie Street Grille and Best Cellar have temporarily closed.

“We feel that we can help the community by closing our location and donating food to the local charities that are feeding the hungry,” Eleven80 owners Bob and Sandy Lovejoy posted on Instagram.

All 19 stores in Tanger Outlets of Blowing Rock were temporarily closed as of March 19, which included 250 people, according to Tanger Blowing Rock’s General Manager Ronnie Mark.

Business resources

Low-interest loans and federal reimbursement programs could be an option for local businesses who need help meeting payroll or making payments during the pandemic.

H.R. 6074, the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act (known as Package 1), was signed into law on March 6. According to the N.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association, up to $7 billion in funding is directed to enable the Small Business Administration for its loan packages.

Other low-interest lending options in North Carolina include Carolina Community Impact, the Carolina Small Business Development Fund (formerly known as The Support Center), the N.C. Community Development Initiative, the Self-Help Credit Union and Thread Capital. For more information, visit www.boonechamber.com/localresponse.

To deal with potential supply chain disruptions, the Boone Area Chamber of Commerce says that www.manufacturednc.com contains every kind of thing produced in N.C., and businesses can register to connect.

Special shopping times for at-risk customers

Local grocery stores across the country are designating the first hour of business on certain days for seniors and others vulnerable to COVID-19.

“Lowes Foods is dedicating 7-8 a.m. every Tuesday and Wednesday as shopping hours for seniors and others who are vulnerable to the virus,” Lowes Foods said in a statement. “Those who are not at risk are being asked to shop at Lowes Foods after 8 a.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays or other days of the week. The special shopping hours are in place until further notice.”

Dollar General locations nationwide are doing the same every day from 8-9 a.m. Big Lots, Walgreens and Walmart are doing the same every Tuesday for the first hour of the workday. Harris Teeter locations are opening from 6-7 a.m. every Monday and Thursday for seniors and Publix locations are implementing it from 7-8 a.m. every Tuesday and Wednesday.

Third COVID-19 case confirmed in Watauga, statewide case count reaches at least 475

BOONE — A third Watauga County resident has tested positive for COVID-19, according to a March 24 AppHealthCare announcement, as the number of tests administered rose in the last week.

According to AppHealthCare, the district health department for Watauga, Ashe and Alleghany counties, the case had travel history, has been in isolation since being tested and is improving.

“The local public health staff have identified the close contacts, who have been quarantine for several days,” AppHealthCare stated on March 24.

The announcement comes six days after the last positive case announcement in Watauga County on March 18. The second Watauga County case was exposed to a known positive case and the first case. The first Watauga County case, reported on March 15, is a Samaritan’s Purse employee with a travel history.

AppHealthCare stated that it wanted to remind the public to share credible, reliable information and practice prevention measures like hand washing, covering the mouth when coughing and sneezing, and cleaning frequently touched surfaces.

COVID-19 positive cases reported for the state have continued a rising trend in recent days, as the number increased to at least 475 cases as of 4 p.m. on Tuesday, March 24, according to reports from the Raleigh News & Observer.

This number varies from reports provided by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, as the agency reported 398 positive cases as of March 24, with its reporting process occurring as a single daily update. The News & Observer is compiling the numbers of cases announced by counties throughout the day, noting that cases reported by county health departments can take up to 48 hours before they are included in the state’s numbers.

On a statewide level, NCDHHS reported a total number of 8,502 tests had been conducted for the coronavirus as of March 24, which were conducted at the N.C. State Laboratory of Public Health and did not include tests at university and commercial laboratories.

According to Melissa Bracey of AppHealthCare, depending on the volume at the labs, turnaround time can vary from 24 hours to seven days.

“We have noticed the fastest turnaround has been from the N.C. State Lab for Public Health, but we know all labs are quickly adapting to the increased testing volume,” Bracey said.

Both Ashe and Avery counties have yet to report a positive case of the virus within their borders.

Johns Hopkins University and Medicine reports a total of 51,542 confirmed cases in the United States as of 4 p.m. on Tuesday, March 24, a jump of more than 4,000 cases since noon and 20,000 in the previous 72 hours.

The total represents the third-largest total of cases worldwide, trailing only China and Italy. The university reported that there had been a total of 674 deaths across the country to date related to COVID-19 as of Tuesday, March 24.

To date, no deaths within the state of North Carolina have been reported, according to NCDHHS.

On March 24, Bracey said that recommendations on testing have shifted from broad-based testing to testing those who have urgent medical needs and demands for care.

“Individuals who are sick or ill can remain at home and call their provider to receive additional guidance as needed,” Bracey stated. “People with mild symptoms consistent with COVID-19 do not need testing and should be instructed to stay at home to recover. Mild symptoms include: fever and cough without shortness of breath or difficulty breathing. If you experience shortness of breath, chest pain or pressure, blue lips, difficulty breathing or confusion, call 911 or your doctor right away.”

“Testing is most important for people who are seriously ill, in the hospital, people in high-risk settings like nursing homes or long-term care facilities and health care workers and other first responders who are caring for those with COVID-19.”

AppHealthCare reported that it has collected a total of two tests in Ashe County, while outside agencies have collected a total of 22 tests to date for the county. In Watauga County, AppHealthCare reports that it has collected a total of 62 tests to date, while outside agencies have reported a total of 95 tests for the county.

H.R. 6201 – The Families First Coronavirus Response Act – states that group health plans and health insurance issuers “shall provide coverage, and shall not impose any cost sharing (including deductibles, copayments, and coinsurance) requirements or prior authorization or other medical management requirements” for COVID-19 testing during the current emergency period. The act also seeks to waive cost sharing under certain Medicare and Medicaid programs for certain visits relating to testing for COVID–19.

According to the hospital representative and advocacy group American Hospital Association, H.R. 6201 has a new option for states to expand limited Medicaid eligibility to the uninsured for the purpose of COVID-19 testing and related services.

According to AppHealthCare’s website, it accepts all patients regardless of ability to pay, saying that most private health insurance plans require the patient to pay a copayment to the provider and meet an annual deductible.

“AppHealthCare will work with any patient, regardless of their ability to pay for testing. As is our usual day-to-day practice, a patient will not be turned away due to inability to pay,” Bracey said on March 21. “Thankfully, many insurers are also providing support for their members to remove any barrier to care.”

Effective March 24, visitors will not be allowed at any of Appalachian Regional Healthcare System’s hospitals in order to help protect its patients, family members and health care workers from the spread of COVID-19, including inpatient and outpatient facilities at Watauga Medical Center and Cannon Memorial Hospital.

Exceptions will be made on a case-by-case basis for hospitalized minors (maximum of two family members per day); patients at the end of life (maximum of two family members per day); patients needing help with communication, decision making or mobility; and patients giving birth (maximum of two family members or support people per day).

For more information, visit apprhs.org/covid19.