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Faculty Senate votes 'no confidence' in Everts' leadership

BOONE — The Appalachian State University Faculty Senate voted to approve a resolution of no confidence in Chancellor Sheri Everts’ leadership as well as a resolution holding the University of North Carolina system Board of Governors and Everts responsible for COVID-19 illnesses and deaths as a result of reopening the campus.

The no-confidence resolution was discussed by Faculty Senators during two executive sessions the body held in July, and was officially passed on Aug. 17 with 23 in favor, 12 opposed and six abstentions. Faculty Senate Chair Michael Behrent clarified at the beginning of the meeting that the resolution doesn’t have a direct consequence, but voices concern about the administration.

The resolution states that Everts is frequently isolated from and unable to effectively communicate with faculty, and that she has failed in strengthening institutional finances, providing goals, operating in a transparent fashion and embracing shared governance.

In a message to faculty on the same day as the vote, Everts and Interim Provost Heather Norris sent Faculty Senate a joint letter acknowledging the resolutions. The letter stated that the two value faculty and the work they continue to do under increasingly challenging circumstances to continue the university’s core academic mission. The joint statement also mentioned a May 26 unanimous vote from the Appalachian Board of Trustees “in support for Chancellor Everts, Provost Norris, Vice Chancellor Forte and Director of Athletics Gillin” and a July 6 trustees vote to pass a “resolution of confidence in the leadership of Chancellor Sheri Everts.”

“We have greatly enjoyed the individual meetings with academic departments, and have found they provide an important opportunity for direct and unencumbered communication with the faculty at large,” said the statement from Everts and Norris. “We will use continued departmental meetings, as well as regular email updates, to communicate directly with all faculty regarding important matters and initiatives underway. We need and want your input and will continue to seek it.”

Roughly 14 faculty members voiced either their support or opposition to the no-confidence resolution during the Aug. 17 meeting. Faculty Senator Mike Hambourger — an associate professor in chemistry — sponsored the resolution and explained his reason for it. He said that many of his concerns in Everts’ leadership predate COVID-19 and have continued through the pandemic.

Hambourger pointed to a time in August 2015 — shortly after Everts came to the university — that she outlined nine priorities for her administration. The top three priorities were support for faculty and staff; wellness, health and safety for the campus; and diversity, Hambourger said.

“On all three points, I believe our university has gone backwards from where we stood in 2015,” Hambourger said. “For this reason, I urge a vote of no confidence in Chancellor Everts’ leadership.”

Hambourger said that during Everts’ tenure, faculty salaries have not kept pace with inflation or salaries of peer institutions; decisions made about reopening campus during the pandemic didn’t prioritize the wellness, health and safety of the campus community; and that the chancellor had “repeatedly shown” that she will not take the “bold steps necessary to make this a truly inclusive campus.”

“In numerous instances, Chancellor Everts has shown herself more interested in protecting the university’s image than in protecting the university’s people or academic mission,” Hambourger said.

Faculty Senator Ben Sibley, a professor in Appalachian’s Recreation Management and Physical Education Department, said he did not support the resolution as most of the faculty in his department and college do feel supported in their roles. He said that they felt supported in decisions about curriculum, teaching modes, resources for teaching, advising support, tech support, travel funds, support for research and scholarship, family considerations and work and life balance. Based on his day-to-day experiences, Sibley said he can’t conclude that the administration isn’t supportive of the academic mission.

When it comes to the decision of bringing students back to campus for face-to-face classes this fall, Sibley said that the Board of Governors and the UNC system “made it clear” that chancellors don’t have the authority to make the decision to go all online for their individual campus.

During the Faculty Senate’s Aug. 10 meeting, Sibley explained that UNC system President Peter Hans said during the Aug. 7 Faculty Assembly meeting that there were no set metrics or criteria that would determine automatically if a campus should shut down or modify operations. Hans thought that decisions for campuses to go online would largely be made on a campus by campus basis, according to Sibley.

“I just don’t see how it’s appropriate to hold the campus-level administration accountable for that decision,” Sibley said. “I think we’ve done an adequate job in making the best out of a bad situation.”

Hambourger said he thought it was fair to expect university leadership to stand against external decisions if those decisions directly threaten the health and safety of members of the campus.

Others who spoke in opposition to the resolution felt that now was not the time to pass such a resolution, and that faculty and administrators should instead work more cohesively on plans for the fall. Most who spoke in opposition did voice concerns about university communication and transparency with faculty. Sibley said the administration seems reluctant at times to communicate decisions until it’s already 100 percent certain, which usually means it’s too late for faculty input. He said faculty want to be and should be kept in the loop, even if that means sharing information while decisions are still developing.

“When we’re kept in the dark and we get news of major developments from local media outlets instead of our leaders, that creates a feeling of distrust and of not being valued,” Sibley said.

Faculty Senator Peter Soulé, a professor in the Department of Geography and Planning, said that his primary motivation for voting in favor of the resolution was to send a clear message to Everts that many faculty at App State have serious concerns with how campus is being managed.

“We want substantive change in communication, transparency, shared governance and faculty support,” Soulé said. “I just want the chancellor to realize it’s absolutely possible for administration at ASU under her leadership to treat faculty as true partners in the enterprise.”

Faculty Senator Matthew Robinson, a professor in the Department of Government and Justice Studies, was the sponsor for the resolution “holding administration responsible for COVID-19 illness and death.” He said during the meeting that reopening campus and possibly subjecting thousands of people to the virus is dangerous. He said Everts mentioned in an email to faculty that the university expected a rise in positive cases when students returned.

“Imagine expecting some harm to come to some members of your family due to campus and going ahead with plans to reopen anyway,” Robinson said. “I argue that that is deviant behavior, acting with the knowledge that a harmful outcome is likely.”

The resolution passed with 18 votes in favor, 14 against and six abstentions. Robinson said the resolution would be a statement by faculty but that the resolution is not legally binding.

Educators, students launch into first week of remote school

The start of the 2020-21 Watauga County Schools academic year that began Aug. 17 is the culmination of months of planning to prepare school operations in three different formats amid the growing COVID-19 pandemic.

At the Aug. 12 Watauga County Board of Education meeting, WCS Chief Academic Officer Tamara Stamey outlined the work WCS employees had conducted to plan for “2x3 flex,” a hybrid face-to-face and remote learning schedule with students alternating between two days at school and three days remote learning each week; full-time remote learning; as well as the Watauga Virtual Academy — an option for families who want students to remain in remote learning full time when schools resume face-to-face instruction.

As the school board voted on July 28 to delay any in-person instruction for nine weeks, WCS will begin remotely for all students except pre-K and students with special needs or circumstances.

Classes for pre-K, exceptional children and high school students began on Aug. 17. K-8 students started the first week of school with optional introductory activities that families could conduct at home as well as opportunities to connect with their teachers. Superintendent Scott Elliott said the intention was to help students and families begin by doing some review work from the prior year. Direct instruction with teachers will begin on Aug. 24.

Stamey explained that teachers had communicated with K-8 families to set up appointments for meet-and-greets at the schools during the first week. The meet-and-greets allow for one adult and a student to meet their teacher in person to discuss how remote learning may operate for their classroom, how to use computers to access school resources and what families can expect. She added that if a family couldn’t attend in person, teachers could set up virtual meetings.

Teachers have spoken with families to inquire about wifi hotspot needs and if any students need print materials for remote learning.

WCS still has not received an order for Chromebook devices, so some first- and second-graders will start the school year without laptops. Kindergarteners have been equipped with touch-screen Chromebooks; third through 12th grades will have devices as well. Most first- and second-grade classrooms will be equipped with laptops for students, but larger K-8 schools — such as Blowing Rock, Hardin Park and Parkway — will have some classrooms in those grades starting without them, according to Stamey.

“As much as that’s not how we wanted things to be, we know we can have a work-around for a little while with those students with some print assignments,” Stamey said. “That is an obstacle that teachers are having to face right now.”

While school officials were still in the process of finalizing rosters for the Watauga Virtual Academy, Stamey said the virtual school has roughly 800 students. This includes 395 K-5 students, 200 middle school students and 200 high school students. Elliott said that administrators are having discussions about the possibility of WVA being a permanent program, including how it would be funded and staffed.

For the fall, WVA will be staffed with 18 full-time teachers and eight part-time teachers for K-5; seven full-time and four part-time for middle school; and one full-time and 10 part-time for the high school.

Elliott said the school system doesn’t typically have an educator teaching multiple grade levels, but this year there may be some who are; he mentioned one teacher teaching about four different grade levels at one school. Elliott added that to compensate, the school system has lowered class sizes for that particular teacher.

Stamey said WHS teachers will usually teach three out of the four class blocks with one class block for planning. In order to make the school system’s current schedule work, some teachers were asked to teach during their planning period; to do so, the school system must “purchase” the planning period time by paying a teacher an additional 25 percent. Elliott said this was to provide students with as many courses as possible.

Stamey explained that full-time teachers in WVA will be strictly teaching those students, while part-timers are splitting their time between WVA and remote-learning students who will eventually go back to school in person. She added that it was important to her and other administrators for students to be in cohorts with peers from their school, and not have a situation in which a Green Valley student would be included in a classroom of all Parkway School students.

All K-5 and WHS students in WVA are being taught by teachers from their school. WCS could not do the same for middle school students, so sixth- through eighth-grade students will be taught by a school system “district team,” Stamey said.

Green Valley School first-grade teacher Mitzi Ledford will be teaching her four remote learning students on Mondays and Tuesdays, and instructing her seven WVA students on Thursdays and Fridays. She said the preparation for her remote learning class and the WVA class has been similar as the curriculum is the same for both. The difference is in the schedule for how each mode of learning will be conducted.

“Teachers are some of the most resourceful people you will ever encounter,” Ledford said. “We are able to adapt and deal with it. You just roll with it.”

Remote learning students in Ledford’s class will start their school day with a morning meeting followed by lessons in 20-minute increments. She said teachers have been encouraged to offer instruction for 20 minutes with subsequent 10 minute breaks to allow students time to get up and move around. Ledford said she’ll likely start her class day with math lessons and move on to other topics such as language arts, but will base the flow of her day on her students and “meeting them where they are.”

Ledford’s first-grade remote learning students will have a virtual physical education class each Monday and Tuesday that they meet, as well as time for other special classes like music. This is different than WVA instruction, as WVA students will be given links to special class lessons rather than taking them in real time. Ledford will meet with WVA students on Thursdays and Fridays, with large group instruction with all seven students in the morning and small group time in the afternoon.

Ledford said she can offer targeted instruction with WVA students who need it during the small group time for students who need a little extra direction. Other students she is not working with during the small group instruction may be given assignments to work on independently. When small group instruction ends at about 1:30 p.m., Ledford can be available for office hours if parents have questions regarding assignments.

On Wednesdays, Ledford plans to have specified times for her remote learners and WVA all together in a Google Meet to focus on building community. During this time she said she plans to allow the students to interact with their friends, host community-building activities and conduct exercises for the group’s social and emotional health. The rest of that day would be spent meeting with other first-grade teachers from the school system for common planning time as well as time for professional development.

Ledford said she hopes that the community understands that while the situation isn’t ideal, educators are going to do the best they can do.

“We’ll get through it. There are stressors … but finding ways to preserve and finding ways to do what’s best for the students is the absolute best thing we can do,” Ledford said. “That’s what we are committed to doing.”

Virus Outbreak UNC Cluster

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Butler man charged with murder after Boone store clerk reported missing

MOUNTAIN CITY, Tenn. — Authorities in Johnson County, Tenn., and Watauga County are searching for 67-year-old Allen Boy McGee — who reportedly worked in Boone — and have charged his roommate in his alleged murder.

“The body of Allen B. McGee has not been located and the investigation remains ongoing,” stated the Johnson County (Tenn.) Sheriff’s Office.

McGee reportedly worked at the Circle K at 1230 State Farm Road in Boone. According to the JCSO, a missing person report was filed on Aug. 7 for McGee — who resided at 357 Norman Dugger Road in Butler. He was last seen on Aug. 6 in the Butler area. The Johnson County Sheriff’s Office, working alongside the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, launched an investigation into McGee’s disappearance.

A search warrant was executed at McGee’s residence and the surrounding property on Aug. 14. Forensic scientists with the TBI Violent Crime Response Team responded to the scene.

During the course of the investigation, authorities determined that David Lee Albright —McGee’s landlord and roommate — was allegedly responsible for his disappearance, according to JCSO. Albright was arrested that evening and charged with first-degree murder, tampering with evidence and abuse of a corpse. According to the app Mobile Patrol, Albright was also charged with driving while license revoked, possession of a firearm by a felon, possession of drug paraphernalia and simple possession of marijuana.

Albright is currently being held at the Johnson County Jail on a $192,000 bond and is scheduled to appear in Johnson County General Sessions Court at 9 a.m. on Aug. 19.

The Johnson County Sheriff’s Office and TBI were assisted by the Johnson County Dry Run Volunteer Fire Department as well as the Watauga County Sheriff’s Office and Boone Police Department. Boone Police Lt. Shane Robbins said the department assisted by chasing down some leads for Johnson County authorities, but had not had any substantial information come out.

Anyone with information regarding this case is asked to contact the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office at (423) 727-7761.

COVID-19 active cases: 84 county residents, 46 at ASU

BOONE — AppHealthCare reported 84 active COVID-19 cases in Watauga County as of Aug. 18, with Appalachian State University reporting 46 active cases among students and employees.

Cumulatively, 397 county residents have tested positive in Watauga, and 169 Appalachian State students, employees and subcontractors have tested positive to date.

In its weekly COVID-19 situation update on Aug. 13, AppHealthCare said that of the newly identified cases for that week, the health department was continuing to see a trend with cases exposed due to close contact with others through living or working closely with others or attending social gatherings.

“We are concerned about increased community transmission with more cases reported,” Jennifer Greene, AppHealthCare health director, said in the Aug. 13 statement. “This virus is highly contagious and sometimes people can spread the virus without realizing it because they have mild or no symptoms at all. By practicing the 3Ws and avoiding large gatherings of people, we can slow the spread together.”

AppHealthCare indicated that the largest percentage of cases in Watauga are in the 18-24 and 25-49 age groups.

“With App State University students returning to campus, we are continuing to work closely with our university partners and provide public health guidance and recommendations to ensure our response efforts are coordinated,” AppHealthCare stated. “Case review is currently occurring each weekday between App State and AppHealthCare and continues on weekends as needed.”

The health department said it is also working with Watauga County Schools as it begins a new school year, and it is continuing work to increase testing opportunities for the community.

“Planning for proactive testing for staff in locations that have opted-in to that service continues,” AppHealthCare stated. “Also, we are conducting response-based testing when data gathered in the case investigation of a positive case informs the need to conduct broader testing. These response-based testing events are intended to focus on areas where there is potential for further spread, a cluster of cases, or an outbreak.”

AppHealthCare noted that PPE (personal protective equipment) levels remain stable in most areas and that turn-around times for testing have improved, with most tests results available within 2-4 days.

In neighboring counties, Ashe County reported 21 active cases among county residents as of Aug. 18, with 175 total cases to date. As of Aug. 17, Avery County had 40 active cases and 139 total, according to the Toe River Health District.

Statewide, the total cases to date numbered 146,779 as of Aug. 18, with 2,396 COVID-19-related deaths to date, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. The number of new cases reported each day has been on a downward trend since July 18, when 2,481 new cases were reported. On Aug. 18, 1,263 new cases were reported.

Hospitalizations have also been on a slight downward trend since July 22, when 1,280 people were hospitalized with the virus statewide. On Aug. 16 and 17, the number of people hospitalized dipped below 1,000 for the first time in weeks, but increased to 1,026 on Aug. 18, according to NCDHHS.