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News
Back 2 School Festival announces plans for drive-thru event

BOONE — Due to ongoing issues from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Back 2 School Festival has announced that this year’s event will be drive-thru only. The 2020 Back 2 School Festival will be held at Watauga High School over two days; Friday, Aug. 7, and Saturday, Aug. 8, with each school being assigned a specific time for their families to come pick up supplies.

The schedule is as follows:

FRIDAY, AUG. 7

• 9-10:30 a.m. Green Valley

• 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Mabel/Parkway

• 1-2:30 p.m. Bethel/Blowing Rock

• 3-4:30 p.m. Cove Creek/Two Rivers

SATURDAY, AUG. 8

• 9-10:30 a.m. Hardin Park (Last names A-K)

• 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Hardin Park (Last names L-Z)

• 1-2:30 p.m. Valle Crucis/Home School

• 3-4:30 p.m. Watauga High

For the safety of children, families and volunteers, the school building will not be open, and families will pick up their supplies in a drive-thru fashion. Students are not required to attend the festival with their parent/guardian; representatives from each Watauga County school will be present at their school’s assigned time to check in and register attendees. In order to serve everyone in a timely and efficient manner, the festival will only able to serve families at their school’s designated time, and requests that attendees do not arrive before their scheduled time slot, as they will not be able to join the line until that time.

“Our mission remains the same,” said festival coordinator Kendra Sink, “to make sure each Watauga County student returns to school with the tools they need to start the school year off confident and prepared. This year is going to look a lot different from previous years, but we are still committed to providing kids with much needed school supplies.”

Sink added that the Back 2 School Festival still needs around $10,000 in donations in order to meet the “unprecedented need in our community.”

In addition to the drive-thru style pickup, face coverings will be required for all attendees, both inside their vehicles while picking up supplies, and inside the shoe tent where children will be selecting a new pair of shoes. Only 25 people will be allowed inside the tent at a time.

“The school-specific pickup times will allow us to maintain social distancing in compliance with the guidelines from the Department of Health and Human Services and the executive order from Governor Cooper,” said the festival’s publicity coordinator, Matthew Lucas. “This year has given us some unique challenges, so we’re asking everyone to bear with us so we can get everyone through the line as quickly, efficiently and safely as possible. Every child who needs them will get the school supplies they need.”

The Back 2 School Festival was created in 2013 to provide school supplies free of charge for any Watauga County student whose family is struggling to meet the high cost of back to school shopping. Last year the festival provided supplies for over 1,200 students, and anticipates a higher number this year due to the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

You can learn more by visiting www.back2schoolfestival.org.


Covid19
breaking
Governor enacts curfew on alcohol sales in restaurants after 11 p.m. beginning July 31

RALEIGH — Restaurants in North Carolina will be restricted to selling alcoholic beverages to no later than 11 p.m. starting this Friday, July 31, Gov. Roy Cooper announced in a media briefing on COVID-19 on July 28. State law usually allows sales until 2 a.m.

Executive Order No. 153 outlining the decision and be found by clicking here.

The governor cited a tendency in later hours for restaurants to function more as bars, with less of a tendency to observe protocols such as social distancing, also noting that the move is necessary as case numbers have risen among young people.

“We’re hoping this new rule can drive down cases – particularly in young people,” Cooper said.

The governor’s office released a statement on Tuesday, July 28, regarding the curfew on alcohol sales.

“With actions to slow the spread of COVID-19 beginning to have impact, Governor Roy Cooper is doubling down on prevention measures with Executive Order 153 stopping the sale of alcoholic drinks in restaurants, breweries, wineries and distilleries at 11 p.m. North Carolina bars that are currently closed will remain closed,” the statement reads in part.

“Slowing the spread of this virus requires targeted strategies that help lower the risk of transmission,” Cooper said. “This will be particularly important as colleges and universities are scheduled to start, bringing people all over the country to our state. We have seen case numbers increase among younger people, and prevention is critical to slowing the spread of the virus.”

This newest executive order will not apply to grocery stores, convenience stores or other entities permitted to sell alcohol for off-premises consumption, and local governments that have implemented orders that end alcohol sales before 11 p.m. or that apply to other entities remain in effect.

As of July 28, the state has more than 116,000 lab-confirmed cases; 1,749 new cases since the previous day; 1,244 people in the hospital and 1,820 people who have died.

NCDHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen provided an update during the briefing on COVID-19 trends in the state, noting that there has been some stabilization in some areas, including trajectory of COVID-like syndromic cases, trajectory of cases, trajectory of positive tests as a percentage of total tests and trajectory of hospitalizations. She added that state hospitals still possess adequate bed capacity, but that additional time is necessary to evaluate data.

“Slowing the spread takes a sustained effort from all of us,” Cohen stated. “Seeing glimmers of progress does not mean we can let up. It means it’s time to double down. While we’re stabilizing, these trends are still high. Adding nearly 2,000 cases per day is a lot of new cases, and this level of viral spread is stretching our response resources… The positive signs in our trends should only strengthen our resolve to keep at it with those three W’s of wearing a face covering over your nose and mouth, waiting six feet apart, and washing your hands often.”


Train 190 (copy)

STOPPED IN ITS TRACKS NCDHHS orders Tweetsie Railroad to close after opening for two weekends


News
Black students critical of July 21 meeting with university leaders

BOONE — Differences over the process for a July 21 meeting between Black students at Appalachian State and university administrators left the students feeling “silenced in a manner we have never seen before,” the Black at App State collective said in a statement.

In response, Appalachian leaders acknowledged that there were “different expectations” for the meeting, but said they have since followed up with the collective and remain focused “on the work the university administration is going to do to make Appalachian a more diverse, welcoming and inclusive community.”

Black at App State — which includes current students and alumni — on July 6 issued a letter with 23 demands to university administrators related to admissions, faculty, student retention and support, health and wellbeing of students of color, curriculum, change in organizational culture, campus culture and leadership, and endowments and scholarships.

The Chancellor’s Cabinet responded with a statement on July 10, saying they wanted to work collaboratively with the students to create a more diverse campus that is inclusive and equitable, and that Chancellor Sheri Everts had extended an invitation to the group to meet to discuss “these critical issues.”

The Black at App State collective then received a July 16 email from Toussaint Romain, the deputy general counsel for App State. Romain offered to facilitate a July 21 meeting between the collective and administrators as a “neutral third party,” and he stated that a Zoom meeting link would be sent.

Black at App State then sent a July 19 email to Everts, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs J.J. Brown, Interim Provost Heather Norris, Chief Diversity Officer Willie Fleming and other administrators to “clarify the objectives” of the meeting, as Romain’s email indicated that a “large number of folks” had been asked to participate.

“Members of the collective were informed that third-party entities who have no direct impact or knowledge of the demands have received invitations to this meeting,” stated the Black at App State email. “This is a cause for concern. Restricting this meeting to those best informed and best able to engage in a productive dialogue will make the best use of all of our time.”

The July 19 email also included an agenda proposing how Black at App State would like the meeting to proceed, including introductions from both parties and a portion of time to allow administrators to explain how the demands would be implemented and a projected timeline of fruition. The group asked that individuals who had not received the Black at App State email not be on the call. The email also included a Zoom link provided by Black at App State in order to have a productive meeting and maintain an “equitable power dynamic,” according to the collective’s July 24 statement about the meeting, which it posted to social media channels.

The statement indicated that Black at App State was told the day of the meeting that the link they provided would not be used, and that a new one would be sent out before the meeting. The collective believed it was “miscommunication and technical difficulties” as to why their link wasn’t used, but later felt they were “dismissed” when the collective asked to use the agenda they provided.

In an audio recording of the July 21 meeting, Romain can be heard telling group member Korbin Cummings that the meeting would not be following the Black at App State agenda and that they’ll “still stick with what we have.” He asked that questions be held until the end, after Fleming gave a presentation of the university’s plans for implementing the demands, and Romain added that students were “here to be heard, not here to be ignored.”

The July 21 Zoom call had around 50 people in attendance, which Black at App State described as a “textbook example of intimidation tactics.”

The July 24 letter stated that students were muted on the call and unable to participate, and that they asked in the Zoom meeting’s chat box if they could be unmuted so they could speak. Romain can be heard in the audio recording of the meeting acknowledging the collective’s requests to be heard while Fleming spoke, but saying that Fleming was responding to the demands “line by line.”

The Black at App State letter states that the chat function was later disabled.

Appalachian State spokesperson Megan Hayes confirmed that all participants other than the presenters were muted once the meeting presentations began, until the time on the agenda for questions. She said that at no time was the chat disabled during the meeting.

Once Black at App State members were able to speak, university senior Jay Edwards said that the group wanted to facilitate the meeting because they “knew that you all would mute us.” Romain interrupted Edwards and said that at that time he wanted to entertain questions and concerns about the demands.

Kynda Bichara, a member of the university’s women’s track and field team and the president of the Black Student Athlete Association, then tearfully explained that facilitating the meeting would’ve ensured that Black student voices were heard. Instead, she said the meeting that took place was a “slap in the face.”

“We have been silenced so much — not just at this school but in America — because our voices do not matter,” Bichara said. “The way this meeting was conducted reaffirms that we are not heard. We worked very hard to address the fact that Black students do not feel safe on this campus. I urge you to see the irony in the fact that this is about the safety and voices of Black students being valued, but we were muted and ignored.”

In response, Fleming said that the intent was to demonstrate that the administration saw the demands — not to be disrespectful. He said the hope was to show that the university was working on the demands, but had more work to do.

But in its July 24 statement, Black at App State said that “the use of Black staff, administrators and alumni in an attempt to invalidate the claims of Black students further serves to demonstrate Appalachian State’s role in perpetuating racist tactics of tokenizing and gaslighting.”

The end of the July 24 letter called for a Black at App State-led meeting with Everts and the Chancellor’s Cabinet, as well as formal apologies by Everts, Romain and university administration.

Hayes said that followup with students began on the evening of the July 21 meeting, and that both Norris and Brown met with students last week, while additional communication continues.

She said that it is important to focus on the work that has happened, work that is underway and that which is to come. She added that the meeting’s purpose was to bring together a group to hold the Chancellor’s Cabinet accountable for the work presented, and that the university felt it was important to involve all of the people on the call in order to have meaningful change and accountability.

Asked why the administrators did not follow the agenda proposed by Black at App State or yield to its request to facilitate the meeting, Hayes said, “In looking at their agenda, they dedicated the majority of it to addressing, point by point, each area they asked the university to focus on, and that is what we did at the meeting on Tuesday. The ultimate goal is to focus on the work the university administration is going to do to make Appalachian a more diverse, welcoming and inclusive community.”

“When it became clear during the meeting that there were different expectations for the meeting, both Mr. Romain (meeting facilitator) and Dr. Fleming apologized to the students in attendance,” Hayes said.

“We are in the very fortunate position at App State to have many, many people in our university community who are committed to moving our institution forward, and recognize the need for establishing a clear process to having these conversations and find a way to include all university stakeholders that leads to co-created outcomes,” Hayes said. “The Chancellor’s Cabinet will remain focused on moving steadfastly toward accomplishing the work before us to make our university a more welcoming and inclusive campus for all, and we will continue to bring people to the table for accountability.”

Black at App State did not immediately respond on July 28 to emailed questions seeking reaction to the university’s comments.


Covid19
School planning a moving target, officials confronted with changing guidelines

BOONE — As Watauga approaches three weeks before public schools are scheduled to open for in-person instruction, school officials continue hammering out details of how schooling may operate.

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and the State Board of Education changed protocols for the return of students to public schools in the fall on July 24. Public school students will now have to wear masks if they return to in-person instruction even if they are farther than six feet away from others.

This change came just two days before the closing of the application deadline for the all-remote Watauga Virtual Academy through Watauga County Schools, and four days later the Watauga Board of Education was to hold an emergency meeting to consider taking action on an updated recommendation for the return to in-person instruction. For updates on that meeting, visit www.wataugademocrat.com.

The state’s StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit previously stated that schools were to ensure that all of those in the school — students, teachers, staff and adult visitors — wear face coverings when “they are or may be within six feet of another person.”

The current toolkit omits that language and now makes mask wearing mandatory at all times unless the person — or family member for a student — states that an exception applies, is eating or is engaged in strenuous physical activity. Masks will also be mandatory for those on a bus or other transportation vehicle, unless the person — or family member for a student — states that an exception applies.

Watauga County Schools Superintendent Scott Elliott said on July 25 that school officials were working hard to provide parents and teachers with the most accurate information possible while state guidelines are changing daily.

“I know the issue of wearing face coverings is an issue for many people for many different reasons, so it is important that everyone pay attention to this change and think about what it means,” Elliott said. “For some, it will be reassuring to know that the face masks will be worn by everyone most of the time. For others, they might want to think about how they prepare their children for this expectation.”

The state’s guidance also mentions building in time throughout the day when students and staff can take breaks from wearing their masks. Elliott said WCS will work hard to identify safe ways to do so.

The state of education has been a buzzing topic during the last few months as officials and parents contemplate the best choices for students in the fall. Elliott said educators were “working around the clock” to implement safety procedures during a July 21 Boone Area Chamber of Commerce webinar to discuss back to school plans. Panelists in the webinar included Elliott; Jody Barnes, engineering manager at SkyLine SkyBest; Brian Bettis, Bethel School principal; Julie O’Dell, senior vice president and chief administrative officer and ethics officer for Blue Ridge Energy; and Jeff Trexler, facilities director for Watauga County Schools.

During the webinar, Elliott outlined the different options that WCS was considering. Elliott said that while officials were planning for a school week that would include two days of in-person instruction and three days of remote learning for students, it was “entirely possible” that Gov. Roy Cooper could later mandate that schools move into all-remote learning in Plan C. He added that it was also possible that WCS could determine while working with public health partners that local students would need to move in and out of different phases.

Elliott also mentioned that in order for students to take advantage of the all-remote option, they need to be able to connect to the internet to interact with teachers and access digital content. Data indicated that 12-25 percent of Watauga children do not have access to high speed internet at home, according to Elliott.

“We wouldn’t tolerate a family not having access to clean water or electricity,” Elliott said during the webinar. “It should not be the case that a family can’t get access to high speed internet.”

Barnes said SkyLine SkyBest receives requests on almost a daily basis of local areas that don’t have access to broadband, and the agency will evaluate if it’s feasible for the company to do so — although sometimes the company isn’t able to provide internet in some areas. Barnes added that the pandemic has highlighted a divide in internet connection, and it may be what drives internet connection toward a utility market.

“We’ve never relied on the internet to this extent,” Barnes said. “We were forced overnight to become at-home workers and an-at home school.”

Barnes and his family had to create a family schedule of how the internet could be used in his home to ensure there was enough bandwidth to go around. He explained that some families are struggling with internet connectivity as parents are working from home and students are remotely learning. The Barnes family then created a schedule to determine when the internet was to be used for education and work, and when services like Netflix or music could be used.

Adding to the laundry list of worries for parents, many are unsure of how to go about child care if students are remote learning part or full time. Elliott said WCS was in the midst of helping to plan child care for school employees, as he knew it wouldn’t be possible for staff to perform their duties at school and have their children with them. Chamber President and CEO David Jackson urged employers to work with their staff members who have children to try to establish some sort of remote work schedule.

O’Dell explained that Blue Ridge Energy allowed employees leave time to be away from regular work if they couldn’t work from home when schools first moved to remote learning in March. The company also has adjusted shift schedules and allowed employees to work different hours during the day than they typically would or on weekends to ensure the work schedule works for their employees.

“We’re willing to step up to the plate and try to make it work for everybody,” O’Dell said.

To wrap up the webinar, Elliott stated that plans could change as the COVID-19 pandemic continues and state guidelines fluctuate. He asked families and businesses to continue thinking of contingency plans to “be prepared for the uncertainties of what’s to come.”


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