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Watauga submits two plans for early voting to state, one plan for Election Day sites

BOONE — Members of the Watauga County Board of Elections are at odds on whether Appalachian State University’s Plemmons Student Union or the Holmes Convocation Center can be used for early voting as the board submits two plans to the North Carolina State Board of Elections.

During the board’s July 28 meeting, the board discussed the two aforementioned sites as well as the McKinney Alumni Center as locations for one-stop early voting. The county’s elections office staff have been communicating with university representatives on polling sites since early summer as concerns were raised about the student union being used for classroom space.

The point of contention came from the question of whether or not the university will be using the student union’s Blue Ridge Ballroom — used as a past polling site — to hold classes. Board member Eric Eller said that university representatives had previously stated that classes would take place in that room; Board Chair Jane Ann Hodges said that the room wasn’t listed as a classroom space on a university class scheduling website.

App State spokesperson Megan Hayes told the Watauga Democrat that the Blue Ridge Ballroom is “fully scheduled” with classes.

“Our staff are managing a large and incredibly complex volume of scheduling details to optimize all available space,” Hayes said. “This process is not currently automated. While there is a scheduling tool that some who assist with scheduling can use to view classroom availability, it may not reflect real-time capacity because we are responding to continual schedule changes.”

Hayes stated that the university is steadfast in its commitment to collaborating with the Watauga County Board of Elections to establish a voting site on campus as App State officials “recognize the enormous responsibility the board of elections has to ensure all voters can perform their civic duty.”

Hodges continued to push for the use of the Blue Ridge Ballroom as the board already knew it could work for polling, and said the room has become the county’s most heavily used voting site. Of the 12 community members who spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting, eight were in favor of keeping the student union polling site.

Adam Zebzda, the director of external affairs for App State’s Student Government Association, said he wanted to ensure that the voices of students was heard as a voting site on campus was of “upmost importance” for the student body.

“While the ballroom remains the most ideal location, please know that if the university administration continues to deny the use of the space and creates an unnecessary hurdle in allowing students access to the ballot box, the Student Government Association and myself are fully prepared to work with BOE directly in all ways possible to right the wrong of App State’s administration and to facilitate the ability for students to vote,” Zebzda said.

Another speaker, Dalton George, mentioned a petition to protect the student union as a voting site that had 1,358 signatures as of Aug. 3. The online petition can be found at tinyurl.com/y58wwkpm. Hayes said the university is aware of a petition that raises concerns about a possible change in location for voting, and said the university is confident that the Holmes Convocation Center meets the criteria stated in the petition.

Anne-Marie Yates opposed the Blue Ridge Ballroom as a polling place as the older voters would be asked to be in a “very narrow hallway before you enter the room with young people who may be the very reason this virus is spreading.” She said if every vote matters, then the county needs to find a space where everyone can feel comfortable voting.

“We don’t want to take students’ rights away,” said another speaker, Jean Studeman. “Where will the students live when they graduate from here at ASU? I doubt many will ever stay here, and yet they’re so concerned about their rights to vote here. It seems that that’s more important than the rights of the local citizens.”

The university also suggested the use of the PSU solarium, but Hodges said the university later rescinded that recommendation as it would be used for classroom space. Hayes said the solarium was currently designated for students who are in hybrid courses to attend classes remotely so they can have access to wifi while social distancing.

Board members had also discussed the use of the convocation center as a polling site with the university — a plan that Eller and board member Nancy Owen favored. Owen said while the convocation center isn’t an ideal spot, the board should be “thankful they want to give us anything.”

“We have actively been seeking alternatives to the Blue Ridge Ballroom location so we can continue to provide a voting site without significant disruption to the university’s academic mission or affecting our responsibility to protect the health of the university community,” Hayes said. “We appreciate the opportunity to continue this valued partnership between the university and the county.”

Hodges opposed the use of the convocation center as she said there were issues related to foot traffic from students attending classes in the space, security, parking and scheduling conflicts with sports events taking place during the time of early voting. Hayes said the convocation center was suggested as it is an “easily identifiable location” with nearby parking, wheelchair accessibility and ample space for physical distancing.

Hodges said that the McKinney Alumni Center was not a viable site as there wouldn’t be sufficient parking, lines of voters would likely be waiting outside while being subjected to the weather and the center was scheduled to host classes for students in the fall.

Hodges made the motion to submit an early voting plan to the North Carolina State Board of Elections that included the student union that passed with approving votes from fellow Democrats Marvin Williamsen and Matthew Walpole. Republicans Owen and Eller were in favor of the plan putting forth the convocation center as a site. Both plans included early voting sites at Blowing Rock Town Hall, Deep Gap Fire Department, High Country Vacation Homes in Foscoe and the Western Watauga Community Center. The plans will go before the state board on Aug. 31, Hodges said.

The board also approved a plan for Election Day polling sites. Seven of the sites must be approved by N.C. State Board of Elections Director Karen Brinson Bell because they would be transferred to an adjacent precinct. This essentially means that voters from several precincts may be voting at the same location, or voters may be voting at a location that is different than their past voting site.

Snyder clarified that transferring voters has been done in the past, and is being conducted across the state this year as elections officials search for larger venues for voting. He gave the example of New River 1 voters being transferred to New River 3 so that New River 1 voters have a voting site where they can social distance.

Those seven sites include Bald Mountain, which would be transferred to Green Valley School, Blue Ridge transferring to Watauga High School, Boone 1 transferring to Hardin Park School, Laurel Creek transferring to Bethel School, New River 1 transferring to WHS, North Fork transferring to Cove Creek School and Shawneehaw transferring to Valle Crucis School.

Polling place changes that do not need approval from Bell that were made by the board include Beaver Dam voting at Bethel School, Blowing Rock voting at Blowing Rock School, Boone 2 at an undetermined site on App State’s campus, Brushy Fork at the Watuaga campus of Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute, Cove Creek at Cove Creek School, Meat Camp at Green Valley School, New River 2 at Hardin Park and Watauga at Valle Crucis School.

Elk, New River 3, Stony Fork and Beech Mountain precincts will see no change in Election Day polling sites, according to the board’s approved plan.


Reconfiguring school operations

Families have mixed reactions to the Watauga Board of Education’s July 28 decision to modify its 2x3 flex-type schedule originally chosen for the fall and to postpone in-person instruction for most students for at least nine weeks.

The plan for Watauga County Schools originally was to return to in-person instruction on Aug. 17 with students in the school buildings two days a week and learning remotely three days — students would have participated in learning all five days. The modified plan would require that most students would be remote learning through at least Oct. 19.

Superintendent Scott Elliott said that school officials have invested a great deal of time and energy into plans for reopening schools under Gov. Roy Cooper’s Plan B schedule. Plan B — the option of three possible plans that the state approved — will require safety protocols such as face coverings for all K-12 students, fewer children in the classroom and social distancing measures in buildings.

“Of all the plans available to us, Plan B is the most challenging to implement but it gives us the best opportunity to meet the many different needs of our students,” Elliott stated. “Unfortunately, right now our local public health trends continue to move in the wrong direction. After extensive conversations with our local public health partners and after hearing the concerns of many of our staff members and parents, I think this modified plan gives us our best chance to get students back into school safely as soon as possible.”

Class assignments for students will be made available at 5 p.m. on Aug. 10. Elliott said school officials were waiting to make final schedules until after families had made decisions regarding possible participation in the all-online Watauga Virtual Academy — an option to families who did not want students to return to in-person instruction this fall. Families who applied for the Watauga Virtual Academy were to be contacted by school personnel by Aug. 5 and given the option to decline WVA if they have changed their mind since applying. All students in kindergarten through 12th grade on the 2x3 flex plan will start the school year in an all-remote format on Aug. 17.

Elliott was not sure of the number of families who had since switched to the 2x3 (remote until October) option as of Aug. 4, but said he didn’t think it was a substantial number. The WVA students will also begin on Aug. 17 and will remain in the WVA through the end of the first semester.

According to WCS, roughly 929 students — about 20 percent of the school system’s enrollment — sent in applications for the WVA. Of this total, 267 applications were for the high school, 201 for Hardin Park, 102 were at Valle Crucis, 99 at Parkway, 87 for Green Valley, 79 at Blowing Rock, 53 at Cove Creek, 22 at Mabel and 19 at Bethel. Of the 929 applicants, 51.9 percent requested WVA for the whole school year while 48.1 percent requested for the first semester.

“We realize the change to remote learning for the first nine weeks will cause some families to rethink their enrollment in the virtual academy,” Elliott said. “Once those decisions are made, we ask families to stick with those plans for at least the first semester. We will not be able to reschedule students, teachers and courses once we make those decisions based on start-of-year numbers.”

Since the school’s announcement, Elliott said reactions from families have been mixed as families will be impacted in different ways. Many families Elliott had heard from were relieved after learning of the school system’s decision, while others voiced that the decision will create significant hardships for them, Elliott said.

The new school year also means the end of the drive-thru food site program the school system had been operating since March 17 to provide more than 249,000 free meals to local children. Elliott said the federal meal program that allowed WCS to be able to provide meals for free ended at the end of July, and does not extend into the new school year. WCS was awaiting information from the state on whether a new federal waiver will be granted to resume the meal program to offer free meals.

“We’re trying to figure out a way to provide meals for those who would like to order them and those who can afford it,” Elliott said. “Right now, unless something changes, we have to operate under the national school lunch program rules — which means children who are free and reduced can get free and reduced lunch meals, all of the others must pay. Our intention right now is to provide meals, but how many, to who and whether or not they will be free is still to be determined.”

Elliott said that the school system hopes to provide meals on a curbside, pick-up basis in addition to hoping that federal funding will allow the meal distribution to be available to everyone. He hoped that a decision on federal funding for meal distribution would be made in the next week.

The board heard from three in-person speakers during the July 28 meeting, all of whom voiced that they would appreciate students returning to in-person instruction in some capacity. Elliott handed out a stack of hundreds of printed public comments to the board for their viewing during the meeting.

WCS eighth-grader Clayo Kulczyk was the first to speak to the board, and told of a story he had heard of a family living in a German community during World War II who were afraid of the threat of being bombed. The story he told consisted of the family living in fear, and of a father who noticed that the fear was “destroying them from the inside out.”

“He wanted his children to be doing what they loved,” Kulczyk said, “We need to live life, or at the very least have an option to. If this virus comes for me, let it find me doing sensible human things: praying, working, learning, reading, listening to music, playing basketball with my friends, learning math and history with my fellow eighth-graders or cheering on our high school pioneers — not huddled in my home afraid. I need to go back to school. I need to be with my peers. I need in-school learning to be an option for me.”

As the father of a 12-year-old with Down syndrome, Michael Ackerman said he couldn’t ask for a more dedicated group of professionals to work with his child who attends Hardin Park. He was concerned that changes to in-person learning would negatively impact his daughter, as she needs a classroom environment to learn. He explained that he and his wife weren’t equipped to provide their daughter with the specialized education she needs.

“Please weigh the importance of our children being in school against the actual data, not fear,” Ackerman said. “Please do not apply the one-size-fits-all, because it does not.”

In roughly six to seven weeks, the board plans to meet again to discuss whether or not students will be able to return to in-person instruction after Oct. 19 under the 2x3 flex schedule. Elliott said the hope was to make a decision about the possible return to in-person learning by the beginning of October so that families have about a two-week notice.

Elliott explained that, while the school system is starting the year remotely, it is not exactly adopting the state’s all-remote Plan C protocols.

“We will continue to operate under the Plan B safety protocols but with an emphasis on serving the students most in need of school-based services while most other students are at home full time,” Elliott said. “Teachers and staff will work from the school building to ensure they have access to all their resources, time to plan together and the opportunity to see small numbers of students as needed.”

New employee orientation was to take place Aug. 5-6, with all teachers returning to school for the first teacher work day on Aug. 10. Elliott said almost all WCS staff are working from schools, with a small number of employees with chronic health conditions who have requested leave or other accommodations. Educators teaching in the WVA will also be working from the schools, he said. It is the school system’s full intention to maintain all of its staff, but that will be determined by enrollment numbers and state funding, Elliott said.

School officials will allow small numbers of students to come to the school site by appointment to receive specialized assistance and support. These likely will include support for students with disabilities, students who need counseling and therapeutic services and students who need access to high-speed internet to download assignments and upload completed work.

The school system will also allow students in each of the district’s eight pre-K programs to attend school in person. Elliott said principals and teachers at a pre-k or special needs student’s designated school would contact families directly to discuss in-person options.

Board of Education Chairman Ron Henries praised the revised plan as he said the plan strikes the right balance between protecting staff and students while also providing some needed services to students who “suffer through remote instruction.”

“I applaud Superintendent Elliott and his staff for listening to all the concerns and considering all the options,” Henries said. “There are some students who need support that can only be provided at school, and hopefully conditions will allow those students to be served in a safe way.”

Elliott commented on the monumental task ahead, and said while guidance from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services is intended to help protect students and staff, it will be difficult to implement.

“The guidance seems to be changing daily,” Elliott said. “This phased reopening will give our staff the opportunity to slowly implement those protocols while giving public health officials more time to monitor changing conditions in the community.”

Elliott explained some logistical challenges that schools face when preparing for students’ return to school in person. For example, schools would need to place one student per seat on a bus. Henries asked if WCS had enough buses in the fleet to pick up 50 percent of the school system’s children on a daily basis. Elliott responded by saying that some buses may need to run double routes to ensure they were able to pick up students while maintaining social distancing.

At the same time, Elliott said the schools didn’t currently have enough laptop devices to ensure that each student in K-12 could have one. The school was able to use Chromebooks from surrounding schools in the spring to deploy them out to every student in third through 12th grades. WCS ordered 400 Chromebooks in April, but as of Aug. 4 the order had still not shipped. Elliott said that the school system then canceled that order, and submitted another order for a different type of device with the expectation for them to arrive in three weeks primarily for use by kindergarten through second-graders.

“Teachers will work with those families either with printed materials or in using their personal devices to connect to the teachers until we get those devices in,” Elliott said.

The decision to use the modified Plan B came after a recommendation from Watauga County’s local health department — AppHealthCare — that schools consider delaying the start to in-person instruction for students while the county monitors what has been an upward trend in COVID-19 cases.

“We continue to see our numbers of positive COVID cases going up,” stated AppHealthCare Director Jennifer Greene. “While we currently have a lower impact from cases than in other areas of the state, these are the kinds of decisions which will hopefully keep our community from becoming one of those hot spots.”

Board member Steve Combs mentioned that Appalachian State University students may be returning in August, and officials aren’t sure what the influx of people in the county will do to the local case number. He equated what officials think could be a rise in cases in the next few months to a “storm that you know is coming,” and the modified plan gives school officials “an opportunity to get through the storm and see what’s on the other side.”

Greene said that she and Elliott agree that the best thing for students is for them to be in school.

“We are seeing many different health concerns emerging among children in our community because of this interruption to their lives,” Greene said. “School is a safe and healthy place where so many needs are met. We will continue to support the school system to move forward with their plan to get students back into the school buildings as soon as possible.”

Greene also acknowledged the COVID-19 cases among young adults aged 18 to 24 and concerns about the return of students to Appalachian State in the coming weeks.

“The nine-week remote start for the school system will allow us to monitor changing community spread of the virus and determine the impact on our school families,” Greene said.

Elliott said the board’s decision to begin schools with a period of remote learning was difficult, but necessary in light of the county’s COVID-19 metrics and guidance from AppHealthCare.

Elliott said that while the system preferred to have students back in school buildings, he was confident that lessons learned over the remote learning period in the spring would ensure that students would have better experience in the coming nine weeks.

“When we entered remote learning in March, our teachers had only a few days to prepare,” Elliott said. “Given that immense time constraint and workload, they did an outstanding job. As we go into remote learning this fall, I’m confident that our teachers and students will be even better prepared to have a positive and productive remote learning experience.”


News
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Watauga Medical Center seeks rezoning for energy plant, new four-story wing

BOONE — The Boone Planning Commission on July 27 recommended approval of a conditional district rezoning request by Watauga Medical Center to accommodate plans for a new two-story central energy plant and a four-story hospital expansion — an estimated $72.9 million project.

The project would also include the relocation of Mary Street to the south to align with Johnson Street. The Johnson Street extension would intersect with Deerfield Road across from the CVS pharmacy entrance. A traffic impact analysis recommended a turn signal at the intersection.

The hospital is requesting a rezoning of existing hospital property and a portion of an adjacent tract from O/I Office Institutional and B3 General Business to Conditional District O/I Institutional with a phased site-specific development plan. The applicant has requested a five-year vesting period for the project.

The rezoning request goes before the Boone Town Council later this month for final consideration.

Hospital leaders have said the replacement of the energy plant, built in 1964, is a top priority, as it has failed several times in the past year. A failure of the HVAC system in July 2019 resulted in a loss of cooling for three days at the hospital, requiring the acquisition of cooling units from Charlotte and other areas, according to meeting materials.

“Most of our central energy plant is extremely out of date,” said Jim Deal, attorney for the project.

According to the Planning & Inspections Department staff report for the request, the project would begin with the 10,225-square-foot energy plant as the first phase, followed by the street relocation and site work for the future hospital expansion and then the new four-story, 92,849-square-foot hospital bed tower.

Deal said project leaders are requesting the five-year vesting period as a precautionary measure, but that they feel the project could be constructed within two years.

Deal said the new wing would house new surgical areas, new patient rooms and other facilities, and that existing patient rooms could be repurposed for other uses. As a result, the expansion will likely result in a similar number of patient rooms as the existing 117-bed hospital, Deal said, but the patient rooms will be oriented in a way that provides better access for staff.

The existing three-story hospital reaches a height just over 39 feet. The new tower would reach 60 feet at the top of parapets, with a stair tower that goes to 67 feet — meeting town height requirements.

Speaking earlier this year, Rob Hudspeth, senior vice president for system advancement at Appalachian Regional Healthcare System, said the timing of the new hospital bed tower construction would be dependent upon several factors, including the financial impacts of COVID-19.

The current project and rezoning request does not include plans for the Henson property, located to the south of Johnson Street on Deerfield Road. But the traffic impact analysis report identified the 15.9-acre property — which the Appalachian Regional Healthcare System purchased in 2016 for $9 million — as a site for a future “medical village,” with approximately 48,000 square feet of medical offices.

The Planning Commission recommended approval of the request with conditions, including a four-year vesting period and a condition that would require the hospital to install and pay for a greenway path on a 10-foot easement. The hospital campus has been identified as an area that could connect the Boone Greenway Trail to the planned Middle Fork Greenway, which eventually will link Boone to Blowing Rock.


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As active cases rise, hospital OK on beds, PPE

BOONE — As the number of COVID-19 cases increases each day on local, state, national and global levels, the Appalachian Regional Healthcare System, which includes Watauga Medical Center in Boone and Cannon Memorial Hospital in Linville, has plans in place for a possible surge in COVID-19 patients.

Hospitals statewide have been planning for surges since the beginning of the pandemic, and in June the North Carolina Rural Health Research Program released a study that states hospitals in Greenville, Charlotte and Triangle are “most at risk of reaching capacity in the next couple of months. However, it is possible that the constantly ‘shifting winds’ of viral spread could cause currently stable regions, or counties within them, to experience sudden growth requiring rapid mitigation.”

In April, ARHS modified two 20-bed units at Watauga Medical Center into “isolation units” where COVID-19 patients can be treated.

Rob Hudspeth, senior vice president for system advancement for ARHS, said that thus far in the High Country “only a few” COVID-19 patients have required ICU care, and ICU bed availability is fluid.

“There are days when all of the ICU beds are occupied, and some days when none are occupied. (On Aug. 3,) for example we had six patients in the ICU — none of which are related to the treatment of COVID-19,” Hudspeth said.

He also noted that, on Aug. 3, of the hospital’s 117 beds, 52 were occupied.

Regardless, ARHS monitors personal protective equipment utilization “on a daily basis” and has not had “a need to acquire” ventilators in addition to the system’s 26 existing ventilators. However, ARHS has “ensured” that it has access to additional ventilators through state emergency services, if needed.

Hudspeth said that, as of the beginning of August, ARHS doesn’t intend to treat COVID-19 patients at Cannon Memorial Hospital, but instead provide care for COVID-19 patients at Watauga Medical Center.

Additionally, Hudspeth noted that, in the event of a COVID-19 surge, it’s possible that ARHS would utilize retired doctors and nurses to assist with response efforts “if those resources are available.”

Individuals with chronic illnesses or in need of emergency care should not delay visiting a health care facility for medical attention, Hudspeth said.

“We want people to know that we are taking the necessary precautions to keep our patients safe when they are in our facilities. We hope patients keep this in mind — so they do not delay seeking care for medical emergencies,” he said, adding that the longer someone waits to receive care, the more serious an ailment may become.

Hudspeth also encourages community members to practice the “3 Ws” when not at home, wash their hands often, and wear a face covering or mask in public to “protect our families and neighbors … while the virus is still circulating.”

For more information about ARHS and details about its COVID-19 response, visit https://apprhs.org.