BOONE — The Watauga Board of Education is considering bringing K-3 students back into schools for in-person learning starting Oct. 5 and then allowing grades 4-12 to re-enter on Oct. 19 as planned.
The board voted on July 28 to delay in-person instruction for nine weeks while students learned remotely starting Aug. 17. Board members planned to monitor COVID-19 trends, and then make a decision if it was feasible for students to return in person starting Oct. 19.
“I feel very confident in our ability to safely return students to school on Oct. 19,” said Superintendent Scott Elliott during the board’s Sept. 14 meeting. “I also feel confident that we can phase students in gradually.”
Elliott shared three options with the board of how students could return to in-person instruction in a 2x3 flex plan — a hybrid in-person and remote learning schedule. Option 1 allowed all students to return to school on Oct. 19 as planned. Option 2 would bring K-3 students back starting Oct. 5, grades 4-5 starting Oct. 12 and grades 6-12 on Oct. 19. The last option would bring K-3 students back on Oct. 5 and 4-12 grades on Oct. 19. The approximate 763 Watauga Virtual Academy students would still be learning virtually with any of the three options.
Board member Gary Childers asked Elliott what he recommended; Elliott said that after having conversations with principals that he would recommend option 3.
Elliott said that allowing the younger grades to enter the school first would allow school officials to continue screening procedures that are in place while beginning to reacclimate students and employees into school and assess protocols for tasks such as cleaning and sanitizing. He didn’t recommend bringing the older students back before the younger ones, as the older students can manage remote instruction easier.
Board member Jay Fenwick suggested voting on an option at a special called meeting the following Monday (Sept. 21) to allow another week of COVID-19 metric observation, and also to allow board Chairman Ron Henries a chance to vote — as Henries was not in attendance on Sept. 14. He did want to communicate to families that the board was “heavily learning toward” option 3.
According to Elliott, around 875 students have visited school campuses for different activities — with about 406 of those students being at the schools for athletic practices. The students are being screened, have their temperatures taken and wear masks when appropriate, he said. While most students have not been able to enter school buildings, the school system has allowed exceptional children (70 students) and pre-K students (91 children) to participate in in-person learning.
Approximately 155 children of employees have attended the day camp program provided by after-school staff to allow teachers to continue to work. Others arriving to school campuses included about 20 students for driver education, 85 for one-time services (such as speech assistance) and 48 students who accessed Career and Technical Education labs.
“We’ve slowly been reintroducing students into campus and school,” Elliott said. “It’s been good for all of us to see.”
Elliott mentioned that the school system has had positive cases among employees and students, but that none at that point had been contracted at school but were transmissions within families. None of the positive cases have been through the pre-K program, he said.
Elliott added that he couldn’t say that every single teacher is comfortable and ready for students to return to the schools, but that a significant number of teachers are prepared for students to come back.
“We have some teachers and staff members who would go get the kids at their houses and bring them to school tonight if they could have them back in school,” Elliott said. “We have some staff members who still have significant concerns about the reintroduction of students back into the building either because of their own health concerns or the generalized anxiety we all have about COVID-19. There’s a wide range of levels of readiness and concerns.”
AppHealthCare Health Director Jen Greene provided the board with an overview of COVID-19 metrics in Watauga County and trends her agency is experiencing. Childers asked Greene if the county was at a point where the virus is contained enough that she thinks that the board should consider having students in buildings. Greene added that the county has had an increase in COVID-19 cases, but not to the severity that they worried could happen.
“It’s not as dramatic of an increase as what I feared it might be at this point,” Greene said. “It doesn’t mean it couldn’t be, and I hope it doesn’t.”
When making the decision to postpone in-person learning through October, board members mentioned that Appalachian State University students were returning to campus. Several commented during the July 28 meeting that they wanted to observe the case numbers after university students returned to Boone.
Greene said the cases in Watauga have “leveled off,” but that health officials need to monitor metrics very closely as the cases can easily grow.
“If you look at the data, it looks like we’ve grown and stayed at a steady trickle of cases,” Greene said. “Our total cases will continue to rise; that’s important for the community to know. We’re not at a point where we’re going to expect it to drop, but if we can continue to contain it with contact tracing, testing and making sure people are doing the right thing, my concern level over pre-App State returning is not what it was. But I won’t say I’m not cautiously watching it.”
Greene said AppHealthCare staff are also monitoring case numbers after Labor Day weekend, expecting that cases could jump after holiday gatherings like Memorial Day weekend or July 4.
“I think the greatest threat to us and our numbers is our own complacency, and not continuing to be diligent about … minimizing large gatherings, wearing face masks, social distancing and all of those things,” Elliott said. “Those are the things that are within our control. There are many people who want our children back in school but who are not doing the very things that we’ll need to have done in order to bring our numbers down. Everyone is going to have to help us to get back to where we want to.”
Elliott added that it may be more clear of when it’s not safe to open schools rather than when it is safe to open schools. Greene said that public health and school officials need to also take into account other factors of public health, such as the evidence that students being in school supports their overall wellbeing.
During the meeting, Elliott mentioned discussing the considerations of moving ahead with school reopening with N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen and Gov. Roy Cooper’s office the following day. He believed that with the direction of the metrics statewide, there was probable conversation of bringing more students back to school statewide.
“This is without our crystal ball,” Elliott said. “This is being optimistic and hopeful based on our current conditions and all of the conversation we just had.”
BOONE — Appalachian State recently added data to its COVID-19 dashboard reflecting testing numbers and the percentage of tests that are positive each week.
According to the dashboard, 4,531 tests had been conducted on campus as of Sept. 15. For the week ending Sept. 13, 1,613 tests were conducted, with 58, or 3.6 percent, positive test results.
While the university’s Student Health Service is testing 60 to 70 students per day, according to Appalachian State spokesperson, Megan Hayes, the majority of on-campus tests are being conducted by Mako Medical, which has contracted with the university to hold pop-up testing events for students, faculty and staff.
Additional pop-up testing events are planned at the Rivers Street Parking Deck on Sept. 19 and 26.
Watauga County’s total COVID-19 cases among residents grew by 133 cases from Sept. 8 to Sept. 15, according to AppHealthCare, the regional health department.
Of the 743 total cases among Watauga residents, AppHealthCare reported 104 active COVID-19 cases as of Sept. 15, with 178 additional people being monitored.
Appalachian State’s total case count increased by 73 during the same time period, from 304 cases on Sept. 8 to 377 cases on Sept. 15, according to the university’s COVID-19 dashboard. As of Sept. 15, there were 68 active cases.
In its weekly Situation Update on Sept. 11, AppHealthCare reported that the ongoing cluster at Glenbridge Health & Rehab, a nursing facility in Boone, had grown to 23 cases as of Sept. 9, with four staff members, and 19 residents affected, including four who have died. The deaths were the first reported COVID-19-related deaths in Watauga County.
An outbreak is defined as two or more lab-confirmed cases, while a cluster is defined as a minimum of five cases with illness onsets or initial positive results within a 14-day period and plausible epidemiologic linkage between cases, the health department stated.
Melissa Bracey, spokesperson for AppHealthCare, previously noted that there is some overlap between the cases reported by the health department — which reports cases among county residents in Watauga, Ashe and Alleghany counties — and the numbers reported by Appalachian State — which reports confirmed cases among students, employees and subcontractors, regardless of where the cases are located.
“If there is a resident of our district counties and they are also an employee, student or subcontractor, they would be counted in both AppHealthCare and App State data dashboards,” Bracey said. “If a student lives on-campus or off-campus in Watauga County, they are counted in Watauga County’s numbers and also reported to App State. If there is a student who only attends online classes and is not currently residing in our district counties, they are not counted in AppHealthCare’s numbers but they would be counted in App State’s numbers because they are a student.”
Bracey also clarified the health department’s definition of “active” cases as “those individuals who are actively in their isolation period.”
“In general, a person is in isolation for 10 days as long as they meet the additional criteria including being fever free without fever-reducing medicine for 24 hours and report improvement in their symptoms.”
However, Bracey noted, dates vary from person to person depending on individual situations, and because of this, “the data on our dashboard will vary from day to day to reflect this. It is possible that some cases are added to the cumulative total but not reflected in the active count due to us receiving test results after an individual’s isolation period has already been completed.”
Neighboring Avery County continues to see a spike in cases due in large part to a cluster of cases at the prison, according to Toe River Health District.
Statewide, the total cases to date numbered 186,887 as of Sept. 15, with 3,111 COVID-19-related deaths to date, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. On Sept. 15, the number of people hospitalized with the virus was 916, according to NCDHHS.
BOONE — AppHealthCare on Sept. 10 reported that three residents of Glenbridge Health & Rehabilitation died between Sept. 6 and 9 — the first COVID-19-associated deaths in Watauga County.
“These individuals died Sept. 6-9, and upon review from the medical provider, the deaths have been attributed to COVID-19,” AppHealthCare stated. “The patients were in their 70s and 80s and had underlying medical conditions. To protect the family’s privacy, no further information will be released about these individuals.”
On Sept. 15, AppHealthCare reported that a fourth Watauga County resident had died with the virus. AppHealthCare confirmed that the death was related to the cluster of cases at Glenbridge.
“We extend our deepest condolences, prayers and sympathies to the families during this difficult time,” said Jennifer Greene, health director of AppHealthCare. “Each life in our community is so valuable and we share in sadness about this loss.”
Any additional COVID-19-attributed deaths for Watauga County will be reported on the health department’s website dashboard, it stated. Two people have died with the virus in Ashe County, and one virus-related death has been reported in Avery County.
AppHealthCare stated that it is continuing to closely monitor and respond to the ongoing outbreak at Glenbridge Health & Rehabilitation, which as of Sept. 9 had grown to 23 cases — four staff members and 19 residents.
“Glenbridge would like to extend our condolences to the families of our loved ones who passed away recently. Each resident here at Glenbridge is part of our family and will be deeply missed,” according to a statement posted to Facebook by Glenbridge Administrator Kristy Jones and Director of Nursing Alyssa Rainbolt. “We understand this is a scary time for families, residents and staff; however, we want to reassure you that our staff continues to work endlessly on the safety and care of our residents.
“Providing comfort and care for our residents is and will always be our number one goal here at Glenbridge. Please continue to pray and uplift our staff and residents as we get through these trying times. We appreciate all of the support from the community, family members of our residents, and our staff for their dedication here at Glenbridge,” Jones and Rainbolt said.
“We continue to partner with them to provide public health recommendations and guidance for implementing infection control practices, conducting regular testing and putting isolation protocols in place for those who are positive and quarantine for close contacts,” AppHealthCare stated. “We continue to encourage the community to take preventive measures and follow the 3Ws to slow the spread of COVID-19 in our community.”
• Wear a cloth face covering over your nose and mouth
• Wash your hands often or use hand sanitizer
• Wait at least 6 feet from others
• Stay home when you’re sick
• Keep distance from others who are sick
• Avoid touching your face
• Avoid crowded areas
• Clean and disinfect high touch surfaces in common areas like doorknobs, remotes, light switches, tables and handles.
Symptoms may appear 2-14 days after exposure. According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), people with COVID-19 have had a wide range of reported symptoms. These include:
• Fever or chills
• Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
• Muscle or body aches
• New loss of taste or smell
• Sore throat
• Congestion or runny nose
• Nausea or vomiting
For more information related to COVID-19, including local data, visit AppHealthCare’s website at apphealthcare.com. Its COVID-19 call center is available from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. each day to take COVID-19 related calls at (828) 795-1970, and you can also email questions to email@example.com.
AppHealthCare is available and on-call 24/7 to respond to public health emergencies. In Watauga, call (828) 264-4995 anytime and follow the prompts.
BOONE — Citing significant impacts to its industry due to pandemic restrictions, Hospitality Mints announced to about 75 employees last week that it will be closing its Boone plant.
Founded in 1976, Hospitality Mints has been in business for more than 40 years, manufacturing soft and hard mints for restaurants and hotels as well as candies sold at retailers across the country. It is the largest supplier of custom mints in the U.S. In 2018, the Boone-based company was acquired by Mount Franklin Foods, based in El Paso, Texas.
Mount Franklin, which manufactures a variety of candy and nut products for the retail and food service industries, operates seven manufacturing facilities and three distribution centers across North America, according to Walter Kaudelka, chief financial officer and chief operations officer for Hospitality Mints.
With sales down 80 percent as a result of COVID-19 impacts on the hospitality industry, the company began considering its options about two months ago, Kaudelka said. The Hospitality Mints company and brand will be retained, but its operations will be absorbed by other facilities, he said. The exact closing date is not certain, but is currently anticipated to be June 2021.
Hospitality Mints had already laid off staff due to the pandemic, going from a staff of 150 to about 75, he said, and remaining staff are working reduced hours. Staff have been offered incentives to remain with the plant as its activities wind down, and employees have been offered jobs at other Mount Franklin facilities. Kaudelka expects that 10 or 15 employees will relocate.
“It’s very sad,” Kaudelka said, noting that he has been with the company since 2001, and some employees have been with Hospitality Mints for 25 to 30 years or more. “We have an incredible staff of people.”
“It was an extremely rough day last week when we informed the group,” he added. “(But) when we made this announcement, our staff was completely understanding. They saw it coming. They were, I think, relieved that they at least now know what the future is.”
The company is working with local employers to find placements for Hospitality Mints workers and is planning to offer them additional assistance, such as job fairs and resume advice. Kaudelka urged local employers to consider hiring Hospitality Mints employees.
The company was founded by Mitchell Minges, who developed his skills for making soft butter mints while working a summer job with a husband-and-wife team in Rockingham, N.C. Minges started his own candy-making business using copper kettles and marble slabs, and he introduced the concept of individually wrapped pieces with an imprinted logo or special message.
Minges sold the company in 2000, and Hospitality Mints was owned by Linsalata Capital prior to its sale to Mount Franklin. As of 2015, according to previous Watauga Democrat reports, the company sold mints to about 90 national restaurant chains, hotels and grocery and specialty retailers, with 10,000 to 12,000 logos on file. It produced 1.8 billion mints per year and was nearly a $40 million business.
In 2017, Hospitality Mints was awarded the Boone Area Chamber of Commerce’s Alfred Adams Award for Economic Development.
Kaudelka said the company leases its 55,000-square-foot facility on Candy Lane in Boone and 40,000-square-foot distribution facility in Deep Gap.