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Watauga schools welcome back all grades on hybrid schedule

BOONE — Months of planning have led up to Watauga County Schools allowing students in all grade levels to return to in-person learning starting Oct. 19.

The school system welcomed K-3 students starting Oct. 5 to allow for a gradual approach of beginning screening procedures for those entering school buildings and reacclimating students and employees into school. All grade levels are operating under a 2x3 flex plan — a hybrid in-person and remote learning schedule.

Approximately 1,823 students in K-12 will be in the schools in cohort A attending school on Mondays and Tuesdays. Cohort B will have approximately 1,845 students who will be in school on Thursdays and Fridays. This is in addition to the approximate 140 pre-K and exceptional children students attending in-person classes four days a week.

While not all WCS students returned to school on Oct. 19, it was the first time that all grade levels were being served in person since March 13, when the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic rendered schools unable to operate in buildings.

As students returned on Oct. 19, there was a sense of anxiety and concern about all the safety procedures and how well students would adapt to different circumstances, according to WCS Superintendent Scott Elliott. But he said so far students have been great and seem relieved to be back in school. Concerns— such as students wearing their masks and keeping distance from each other — so far had not been major issues, according to Elliott.

Elliott said Oct. 19 was one of the most positive days of school that he could recall.

“There was a positivity and energy in our schools unlike anything I can ever remember,” Elliott said. “Seeing so many students coming through the doors and getting back to in-person instruction with the teachers, at least two days a week, is a great accomplishment for all of our staff.”

Elliott said he received emails last week from several parents who were concerned about a recent increase in community case numbers. The school system reported three new positive cases among students and two among employees during its COVID-19 update on Oct. 16.

“Even though the numbers were starting to come back down last week, some still felt uncomfortable with their children coming back to school,” Elliott said. “Some of the parents just wanted an update on the safety precautions being put into place, and other parents expressed a desire for their students to not return in person.”

Elliott also heard from quite a few parents who encouraged school officials to continue moving forward with reopening plans. He said some parents expressed a desire for K-5 students learning in person five days a week. Additionally, several parents have voiced that they feel comfortable with the precautions being taken at school, but are concerned that other community members are not taking safety precautions outside of school. Elliott said he’s growing concerned about this as well as school leaders are seeing more instances of gatherings outside of school where precautions are not being taken.

“The students in one social event then go on to join multiple other social events or organized activities, and then it just becomes a large chain reaction of positive cases and close contacts,” Elliott said. “As a dad of two kids myself, I know our children want to get back to life as normal, but we cannot pretend that everything is normal. It’s not, and it’s not going to be for a long time. We all take risks in everything we do, but I simply ask that parents and leaders of youth organizations please take appropriate precautions to minimize large gatherings outside the home and to encourage our children to wear their masks.”

“There is quite a range of concerns and needs,” Elliott said. “This is not a popularity contest by any means, but we are focused on doing everything we can to support our students under these circumstances.”

On Oct. 12, Elliott mentioned that bringing back K-3 first allowed school officials to learn ways to streamline the logistics of the car rider lines, as students are asked a list of questions and have their temperature taken before entering schools. Staff also worked through some bus assignments in order to comply with the minimum distancing requirements.

The most prominent issue WCS employees faced on Monday was continuing to work through the screening procedures in the car rider lines, Elliott said. As it’s a new process for everyone involved, the operation went a little slowly at first. But by the following day the process ran more smoothly, he said.

Elliott conducted screenings and took temperatures of Watauga High School students in the car line on Oct. 19. With temperatures in the 30s that morning, he said school officials learned that the handheld thermometers have to be kept warm so it does not malfunction. At the same time, students who were riding in cars where the heat was on or where several students were together were showing temperatures much warmer than was accurate, he said. The following day, more cars had their heat turned off and the windows were rolled down to ensure that student temperatures were accurate, according to Elliott.

“I think parents and students will quickly become accustomed to the screening procedures and things will move more quickly,” Elliott said. “I encourage everyone to give themselves plenty of time to arrive at school. Parents should always screen their children at home prior to sending them to school so that no sick children are entering the school.”

The Watauga Board of Education has previously stated that the board and administrators will be evaluating school operations every two weeks. Elliott said school officials continue to monitor local health metrics, which seem to have improved over the last week. He added that while the largest number of cases in the area continues to be among the 18- to 24-year-old age group, officials continue to see cases of infections spreading among families and in small social gatherings.

Elliott said the biggest challenge facing WCS in its efforts to keep schools open is the ability to keep staff healthy and minimizing the number of employees who have to be out of work due to contact tracing. WCS has hired additional long-term substitutes in order to have staff on hand to fill in for teachers who are absent. Central office staff are also filling wherever needed.

“For example, this week I am helping prepare and serve food in one of our school cafeterias due to the absence of staff,” Elliott said. “Our director of child nutrition and her assistant are also in one of our kitchens every day for the next two weeks to cover for people who are absent. Keeping our staff and students healthy is our top priority, and we are doing everything we can to keep our schools open.”

Breakfast and lunch are free for all students each day of school. Students who are in remote learning can pick up meals curbside, and students who are in school can receive meals as they typically would during school.

Elliott said most K-8 students are eating their meals back in their classrooms, so only the students who are eating school meals walk to the cafeteria to pick up meals and then return back to the classroom to eat. At the high school, the large tables that did not allow for six feet of separation were replaced with smaller tables that allow students to spread out, according to Elliott.

He added that high school students have been issued bar coded lunch cards allowing them to scan their cards at the cash register without having to touch a keypad. Additionally, the school now has four lunch shifts to allow for smaller numbers in the cafeteria at one time while keeping students distanced.

School buses are running full routes at all the schools, Elliott said, but bus transportation for students is also operating a little differently. The most notable difference is that WCS is required to reduce the number of students on each bus so that there is only one student per seat except for allowing family members to sit together.

Elliott said the school system had one bus that was too small for the number of riders, so a larger bus was placed on that route. Students on the buses are required to wear their masks at all times; Elliott said so far that seems to be going well.

Active cases, hospitalizations decline in Watauga

BOONE — In the past week, a decline in COVID-19-related hospitalizations at Watauga Medical Center has mirrored a continued decline in active cases in Watauga County and at Appalachian State University.

AppHealthCare, the regional health department, reported 114 active cases among Watauga County residents on Oct. 20, compared with 218 active cases on Oct. 13. Watauga’s total case count was 1,673 as of Oct. 20, an increase of 82 cases over the total reported as of Oct. 13. That’s down from increases of 207 cases and 308 cases for the week prior and two weeks prior, respectively.

Appalachian State reported 63 active cases on Oct. 20, down from 98 active cases as of Oct. 13. App State’s cumulative case count was 1,058 as of Oct. 20, which is 93 more than the total reported on Oct. 13. The week prior and two weeks prior, the university’s total case count increased by 113 and by 224, respectively.

Any App State student or employee living on campus or in Watauga County is counted in AppHealthCare’s numbers for Watauga. Appalachian State also includes students and staff who are residing in other counties in its reported numbers.

Four people were hospitalized with COVID-19 at Watauga Medical Center as of Oct. 20, and the highest number of people hospitalized at one time in the past week was seven, on Oct. 14, according to Rob Hudspeth, senior vice president for system advancement at the Appalachian Regional Healthcare System. That’s down from peaks of 13 and 11 the past two weeks.

Sixteen Watauga residents have died due to COVID-19-related complications, AppHealthCare reported as of Oct. 20.

In its weekly COVID-19 situation update, AppHealthCare, the regional health department, noted declines that began the week of Oct. 4-10.

“These decreases mean we must not let up on the actions we can take to slow the spread in our community,” the health department stated. “We urge all of our community partners and the broader public to commit to prevention measures like wearing face coverings, keeping social distance and frequent hand-washing so we can slow the spread of COVID-19 in our community.”

Jennifer Greene, AppHealthCare director, added, “We realize that people are tired and growing weary in this journey, but we cannot stop our efforts aimed at preventing the spread of this virus. We have seen more complacency in lack of mask wearing and small group gatherings that is leading to exposure and severe illness that can be prevented with everyone’s help.”

As of Oct. 16, AppHealthCare reported 33 active clusters (five or more cases that are linked) and outbreaks (two or more cases that are linked) in Watauga County, with most associated with organizations or residence halls at Appalachian State or student apartment complexes. Thirteen of the county’s 16 reported COVID-19-related deaths have occurred at Glenbridge Health & Rehabilitation, a nursing facility, according to the Oct. 16 update.

Statewide, the total cases to date numbered 248,750 as of Oct. 20, with 3,992 COVID-19-related deaths to date, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. On Oct. 20, the number of people hospitalized with the virus was 1,203, according to NCDHHS.

Town to study options limiting food trucks in downtown Boone

BOONE — Following a presentation of Downtown Boone Development Association recommendations on Oct. 15, the Boone Town Council directed staff to develop options for regulating food trucks in Boone. In reaction, more than 2,400 people have signed an online petition supporting food trucks downtown.

The DBDA is a group that represents downtown businesses and property owners who are in the town’s downtown tax district (municipal service district or MSD).

After a survey about food trucks was sent to downtown businesses and a number of food truck operators, the DBDA board discussed the survey responses in March and unanimously voted to recommend to the town council that the DBDA is not supportive of food trucks in downtown on a regular basis; that the DBDA is supportive of food trucks being invited to downtown for special events; that the DBDA is supportive of keeping opportunities open for downtown restaurants during events; and that the DBDA would like to limit the spaces where food trucks are allowed.

Survey respondents opposed to food trucks in downtown Boone pointed to the costs of operating a brick-and-mortar business, including the town’s MSD tax, and characterized food trucks as unfair competition.

“There are all kinds of expenses for businesses downtown that food trucks are not required to fund. This means that businesses in downtown Boone are actually funding them indirectly,” one respondent said.

“Restaurants downtown make a significant investment to be downtown and pay both property and MSD taxes, so as much as we like food trucks, they need to be limited to special events and not be direct competition to restaurants who have high overhead costs,” another respondent said.

Survey respondents in favor of food trucks downtown said that they provide more affordable food options and add to the vibrancy of downtown: “Food trucks add interest to the street life of a town and food options that are often faster and less expensive than sit-down restaurant meals,” one respondent said.

In February 2019, the council passed code language banning food trucks from operating on town-owned property, including town parking spaces and lots. (Exemptions can be provided for special events, such as street festivals.)

However, in meeting materials presented to the council, Boone Downtown Development Coordinator Lane Moody noted that there has been an increase in food trucks on private property in the MSD, which led the DBDA to take up the matter in February. Town staff had also asked for DBDA input due to requests for building modifications to accommodate food trucks.

Moody said she never felt like the DBDA discussion was anti-food truck and that DBDA members generally would like to provide occasional opportunities for them in the downtown area.

Although the DBDA board’s recommendations were set to go before the council in March, the cancellation of the March meeting due to COVID-19 resulted in the matter being placed on hold for several months. The town revived the issue when Chelsea Jackson of the downtown restaurant Howard Station asked about regulations on food trucks on Oct. 13, the first night of the council’s October monthly meeting. The matter was then placed on the agenda for the Oct. 15 meeting.

Craig Jennings of Smokin J’s BBQ spoke during the public comment period of the meeting, asking the council to table the matter until a discussion could be held with all parties. Jennings noted that Smokin J’s rents the property on King Street where the food truck operates.

“My goal when I started a business here in town was to be an active member of the community, a positive influence and bring a form of service that I didn’t see being offered in downtown Boone,” Jennings said.

A petition on the website Change.org started by Marlo Jennings called “Save Local Business!” stated that the DBDA was proposing banning food trucks from downtown Boone and requested that the Boone Town Council identify areas of the downtown district as appropriate for food trucks, as well as allow business owners within the district to offer privately owned parking spaces to food trucks at their discretion. As of Oct. 20, 2,437 people had signed the petition.

Following an outcry on social media, Howard Station posted on its Facebook page on Oct. 15, stating, “To be clear, our stance is this: the town of Boone should have consistent ordinances regarding food trucks, they should set clear parameters for what they allow, and communicate this with all downtown business owners. Our stance is NOT, and never has been, that Smokin J’s should go out of business.”

Moody emphasized that if the town council does choose to move forward with any of the options that are presented to them, there will be a drafting of an ordinance, a public hearing and recommendations from the Boone Planning Commission.

Kayla Lasure contributed reporting to this article.

Boone council endorses community-led police committee

BOONE — A community-led committee was endorsed by the Boone Town Council on Oct. 15 with goals of building transparency and relationship between local law enforcement and minority communities while building their own understanding of the policing process.

Cornerstone Summit Church Pastor Reggie Hunt spoke with Boone Town Council members during the board’s Oct. 15 meeting about the committee proposal. He explained that the committee would be a community board made up of at least seven community people, three Appalachian State University students and two Boone Town Council members. Boone Police Chief Andy Le Beau said he wasn’t sure what role the department would take with the committee, as it still in the process of forming, but he thinks the department will be involved in discussions and in educating the group on current policies and procedures.

The committee plans to operate on a six-month timeframe to identify goals and objectives. The group plans to learn about police education and training to understand law enforcement agency policies and how decisions are made. Hunt said the community committee plans to provide feedback to the Boone Police Department and to Boone Town Council members on how the department operates.

Hunt said he received advice from community members not to “jump into a police reform board.” Instead, the group would plan to evaluate the current state of local policing and what may lie ahead. The Boone Town Council voted unanimously to endorse the committee, and to appoint council members Connie Ulmer and Dustin Hicks to serve as committee liaisons.

The committee has been discussed among community members, the Boone Town Council and the Boone Police Department since June.

The idea of a community oversight board for local police was first suggested during a June 4 meeting of Black in Boone — a local Black-led advocacy group. Black in Boone stated that an oversight board would be for accountability of local police with the power to hire and fire officers, determine disciplinary actions and dictate police policies, priorities and budgets. Black in Boone had stated that the proposed oversight board was to not have police representation. Around the same time, Boone Police started meeting with representatives from the Appalachian State University Black Student Association, according to Le Beau. In a June 18 statement, Le Beau credited Hunt and others for facilitating conversations with community groups.

In June, Boone Town Council unanimously approved Councilperson Sam Furgiuele’s proposal to create a Police Committee consisting of the mayor, the five council members and six other members recruited by the council to discuss police issues and make recommendations if needed.

But Hunt voiced concerns about the makeup of the proposed group during the Boone Town Council’s July 16 meeting, stating that committee selections by council members may not be best for the group. The council postponed deliberation on the Police Committee at that time.

During the Oct. 15 meeting, Hunt said he’s been in conversation with various members and groups that represent local Black and brown citizens including representatives from the Hispanic community, Black Student Association, Black university faculty and staff, the Junaluska community, faith community and Small and Mighty Acts — a community-based social justice organization. Furgiuele said he and Le Beau were invited to listen in on the conversations.

“Boone has a unique opportunity to bridge some gaps and learn from law enforcement as well as law enforcement hearing some things that are of concern to Black and brown citizens,” Hunt said.

The hope would be that other law enforcement agencies would be interested in participating in discussion with the committee, but Hunt noted that town council doesn’t provide oversight for other agencies and that was why Boone Police was involved in conversations.

Hunt said the community committee had recommendations for the committee to make to council; those willing to serve on the committee were unsure about sharing their names publicly due to safety concerns surrounding the “hostile political environment,” he said. Hunt added that if council members had recommendations of people to serve on the committee who would represent groups not already represented, he was sure the committee would consider their nominations.

“What we did not want to have was to tokenize the situation by picking people of color because they’re people of color that you and I may be friends with but may not have a foundation in this work,” Hunt said. “If we did that, we would hurt our community board more than we would really help it.”

Furgiuele made the motion to endorse the community committee while giving the group flexibility with the number of people who could serve on the committee. Town council then approved its endorsement for the committee and their liaison appointments.

“This is an important step in the history of our community,” said Boone Mayor Rennie Brantz.