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WCS: 10 COVID-19 cases in first week in person, community urged to follow guidelines

BOONE — Watauga County Schools nurses have conducted 64 investigations of symptomatic students, staff and close contacts of known positive cases in its first week of allowing in-person classes.

In an Oct. 9 email to WCS employees, Superintendent Scott Elliott said the school system had four new cases among staff and six new cases among students in the first week of students’ partial return to school buildings. He urged the community to “control what we can control to protect ourselves from this virus and to make it possible to keep our schools open.”

WCS nurses maintain records of any students or school employees who exhibit possible COVID-19 symptoms. Elliott said an “investigation” may take place when people do not pass the screening procedures when they enter the school, but most case investigations occur when someone self reports to the nurse.

“One thing that seems to be getting across to people is to monitor themselves and their children for COVID-19 symptoms and to immediately self-isolate if they are symptomatic or if they have been a close contact to a known positive,” Elliott said.

When a student or employee is identified COVID-19 positive, school nurses conduct interviews with the person to identify anyone who has been a close contact 48 hours prior to the positive test or the onset of symptoms. A close contact is defined as being within six feet of someone for a cumulative 15 minutes or longer in a 24-hour period. Elliott said the contact tracing process is vitally important in order to identify everyone who might have come in contact with an infected person to then stop or slow the chain of further transmission.

According to Elliott, the spike in school cases were the result of activities outside of school where health and safety precautions were not being followed.

“I know we all want life to be as normal as possible and we are all taking a risk in anything we do,” Elliott said. “But we can minimize our risks by wearing masks, keeping appropriate distance — including with each other at work — washing your hands, regularly monitoring yourself for symptoms and immediately self-quarantining when symptomatic or after a close contact.”

Elliott added that the biggest reason for the increase in case investigations and positive cases among school-age students last week was related to a community-based travel basketball program. Several athletes in the program were identified as being in close contacts to other students during outside of school activities, Elliott said. WCS suspended athletic practices in both football and basketball for one week to give school nurses time to thoroughly work through the contact tracing procedures as a precautionary measure.

The school system is requiring mandatory testing for athletes who are identified as close contacts and are in isolation. Athletes who are symptomatic are required to have a negative laboratory test rather than a rapid antigen test, or to be cleared by their doctor, before returning to play, according to Elliott. Athletes who have tested positive must test negative or be cleared by a doctor before coming back to play for the school.

Elliott said he is proud of the safeguards WCS coaches have put into place in school-based practices, as so far the school system has no known cases of transmission as a result of school-based athletics.

“The cases involving outside of school athletics made it clear how involved and connected our students and coaches are to one another even outside of school,” Elliott said. “The additional testing requirements I am implementing are an added safeguard intended to ensure that all athletes who are close contacts go get tested whether they are symptomatic or not.”

In the email, Elliott reminded employees that free tests can be obtained from AppHealthCare, and that several providers in the area are providing “rapid” antigen tests for a cost. However, he advised those who are symptomatic or concerned about being a close contact to get the “more reliable laboratory test” from AppHealthCare or a medical provider.

Going forward, students or employees who are actively symptomatic and have a negative antigen test result will also need to provide either a negative laboratory test result or a note from a medical provider before returning to school, according to Elliott.

“This is to provide further safeguards that a COVID-19-positive person does not return to school due to a false negative antigen test,” Elliott said.

Elliott reiterated that while other school systems are moving forward with Plan A — with full attendance — for grades K-5, WCS does not plan to do so at this time. School officials continue to implement a Plan B operation on a 2x2 flex plan — a hybrid in-person and remote learning schedule — while also monitoring the impact of local cases on school operations.

In conversations with other superintendents across the state and in the region, Elliott said most school systems are not posting a regular dashboard update. Instead, they are notifying the public of any clusters of cases in schools as well as notifying close contacts — which WCS plans to do as well.

Rather than a dashboard, Watauga County Schools plans to post a COVID-19 update with an infographic of data each Friday. The information can be found at www.wataugaschools.org/Page/4481.

“While our numbers are currently relatively low, I want to share information with the public to help reassure our community that we are working hard to monitor and address suspected cases in order to prevent further spread at school,” Elliott said.

'Calm corners' help Watauga students manage big emotions

Amid the stress of COVID-19, students returning to Watauga County Schools facilities have access to 80 “calm corners” in school classrooms thanks to the Compassionate Schools Initiative.

“It’s safe to say that everyone across the board is experiencing more challenges and higher levels of stress. That’s students, teachers, parents, administrators, community members,” said Denise Presnell, the social worker for Hardin Park School. “All the more reason that when kids come back, we’re saying to them, ‘yes you’re going to have a hard time sometimes and that’s OK, and you have the power to regulate your own emotions.’”

The Compassionate Schools Initiative started in three schools in Watauga in 2018, and has since expanded to all eight elementary schools and Watauga High School. According to initiative leaders, the initiative’s goal is to “keep students engaged and learning by creating and supporting a healthy climate and culture within the school where all students can learn.” Presnell said the initiative is based on trauma-informed school principles.

One project has been the establishment of “calm corners” in classrooms. A box of materials is given to classrooms with eight to 10 items such as stress balls, coloring books and weighted stuffed animals, Presnell said. Several school counselors have developed virtual calm corners for remote learning, with items like online puzzles and calming photos.

According to Presnell, calm corners help increase the amount of time that kids are in the classroom and help develop students’ abilities to regulate their emotions. When a classroom receives a calm corner, Presnell and WCS Prevention Counselor Candis Walker conduct a short training with students about what a brain needs to learn — including regulated emotions.

“When you’re having big emotions, your brain cannot process new information,” Presnell said.

Students then learn a five-point scale to help identify their emotions. A level one means a student is feeling great and ready to learn; a level two indicates that a student is not the best but is still feeling OK and can learn. A level three shows that a student is having a “big emotion,” in which they are then taught “seat skills” that they can do at their desk to calm down — such as breathing, positive self talk and tensing and relaxing muscles, Presnell said.

A level four emotion is when a student feels they can’t regulate their feelings on their own, and they can utilize the calm corner tools to calm down.

“These might have been typically kids who didn’t know how to calm themselves down, and either had to go out in the hall or out to the office,” Presnell said. “Research shows that because you’re giving kids skills to recognize their own emotions and giving them tools to regulate them, they’re able to stay in the classroom more.”

Presnell said that during the training, she and Walker will tell students that a teacher is not responsible for telling them how to feel and how to fix it. Rather, students as young as 4 and 5 years old are taught how to identify what they’re feeling and how to help themselves. Calm corners include a five-minute sand timer that students use to indicate when they should be ready to return to instruction from the calm corner.

A level five emotion indicates that a student doesn’t think they can regulate the emotion on their own, and needs the help of an adult. Five minutes is typically the amount of time someone needs for an emotion in the brain to settle down, Presnell said. If after five minutes the student is still at a level four or five emotion, Presnell said they’re instructed to ask a safe adult for help.

Currently, 80 calm corners have been placed in the system’s nine schools, and the initiative recently received a $3,000 grant from AppHealthCare to place 30 more.

Photo submitted 

A calm corner in a Watauga County Schools classroom features materials to help students regulate their emotions.

Calm corners wouldn’t be possible without the help of community support, Presnell said. Materials for a calm corner kit cost about $125, and all of the money for the project has been donated.

Hardin Park kindergarten teacher Kim James said she’s had students in her class know when they’re feeling frustrated or upset because they’re not getting what they want, can’t do something or if a task is too hard.

“You can see on their face they’re starting to get angry,” James said. “Most of the time they know, ‘I need to take a break,’ and they’ll walk to the calm corner and flip over the timer. They’re normally a completely different child afterward. They come back and they’re not in that angry state anymore. They’re happy, ready to join the group and do whatever activity we’re working on.”

During the training, Presnell and Walker explain that the calm corner is not to be used because a student doesn’t want to sit in their seat. She said she’s heard few reports of students taking advantage of the calm corner, and that younger students have been good about only using them if needed.

Initiative leaders also explain to students that they may see an adult in the calm corner. Presnell said that people in the current culture and society think it’s OK to not be OK.

“We’re trying to model for them that we all have a hard time sometimes, and we all need to take a minute to pull ourselves together,” Presnell said. “Maybe this morning on my way to work my cat got out, maybe I spilled my coffee or maybe my car wouldn’t start. It may be when I come in this morning that I need to sit and breathe and try to pull myself back together so that I can interact with people in a positive way. We try to (tell them that) adults need this sometimes, and adults aren’t perfect just because they’re older.”

Presnell and Walker have created a video presentation of the training for teachers to use in their classrooms. Now that they have a Compassionate Schools Initiative started with teachers and students, initiative leaders want to strengthen the parent component. She said the message the group wants to portray to parents is how educators help kids regulate in the classroom, and that it would be helpful if families could be reinforcing these ideas at home. James said she’s had one parent reach out to her about the use of the calm corners.

“She was very thankful for the calm corner, and even started a calm corner in her house for her child that they could go to when they lose control at home,” James said.

Walker and Presnell have also created a three-hour Compassionate Schools Initiative foundational training; Presnell said she was proud of the school system because each school requested the foundational training based on a book called the “Heart of Learning and Teaching.” The first hour of the training is about trauma, resiliency and the impacts on the brain and learning; the second hour is ethical obligations for self care and wellness. The last hour is practical classroom strategies.

“It wasn’t mandated by state law; it wasn’t something where we got a grant and we had to comply with the requirements. It was just because people knew what was in the best interest of children,” Presnell said.

Each school has now developed its own Compassionate Schools team in addition to a district-wide Compassionate Schools team. Presnell said the teams have completed phase one — foundational training in all of the schools. Initiative leaders are planning to develop a phase two for the school system.

For more information about the Compassionate Schools Initiative or to view the group’s district-wide plan, visit tinyurl.com/WataugaCompassionateSchools.

Watauga COVID-19 cases near 1,600, App State nears 1,000
Hospitalizations peak at 13 in past week

BOONE — While active COVID-19 case numbers have declined in Watauga County and at Appalachian State over the last week, Watauga Medical Center experienced a peak in virus-related hospitalizations.

AppHealthCare, the regional health department, reported 218 active cases of COVID-19 among Watauga County residents, and Appalachian State reported 98 active cases as of Oct. 13.

Watauga’s total case count was 1,591 as of Oct. 13, an increase of 207 cases from the total reported on Oct. 6. The week prior, Watauga’s total case count increased by 308 cases.

App State’s cumulative case count was 965 as of Oct. 13, an increase of 113 from the total reported on Oct. 6. The week before, App State’s total case count grew by 224 cases.

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.

The number of people currently hospitalized with COVID-19 at Watauga Medical Center was eight as of Oct. 13, with a peak of 13 who were hospitalized at the same time in the week since Oct. 6, according to Rob Hudspeth, senior vice president for system advancement at the Appalachian Regional Healthcare System. The peak the previous week was 11 patients hospitalized with COVID-19.

Appalachian State spokesperson Megan Hayes noted that none of the hospitalized patients are students or employees of Appalachian State.

“We are continuing to see steady increases in cases for COVID-19. These continued increases are concerning,” AppHealthCare stated in its weekly situation update on Oct. 9. “Case trends have continued to increase with the largest percentage of cases in the 18-24 age group. We have seen cases among students living on campus at Appalachian State University as well as off-campus locations.

“Our hospital partners at Watauga Medical Center, a part of Appalachian Regional Healthcare System, are maintaining active communication with public health and other community partners about emerging trends,” the health department stated. “The public health team is grateful for the continued efforts our hospital frontline workers make to care for the patients who need hospital level care. Unfortunately, the trend of hospitalizations is going in the wrong direction and will require additional response efforts. We urge all of our community partners and the broader public to commit to prevention measures so we can slow the spread and stop the increasing trend of hospitalizations for COVID-19.”

As of Oct. 9, AppHealthCare reported 19 active clusters (five or more cases that are linked) and outbreaks (two or more cases that are linked) in Watauga County, with all but one associated with organizations or residence halls at Appalachian State. Eleven of the county’s 15 reported COVID-19-related deaths have occurred at Glenbridge Health & Rehabilitation, a nursing facility, according to the Oct. 9 update.

Statewide, the total cases to date numbered 234,481 as of Oct. 13, with 3,816 COVID-19-related deaths to date, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. On Oct. 13, the number of people hospitalized with the virus was 1,103, according to NCDHHS.

County has already doubled 2016 absentee ballot count
Majority are registered Democrat, followed by unaffiliated voters

BOONE — Watauga elections officials have accepted 2,760 mail-in absentee ballots as of Oct. 13 — a leap from the 1,244 ballots approved during the 2016 election.

Watauga County Board of Elections members have been meeting twice a week since ballots started pouring in to count and approve each ballot. Board of Elections Director Matt Snyder said the board had 329 ballots to review during its Oct. 13 meeting (included in the aforementioned 2,760 count).

Of the ballots received, Snyder said 1,256 have been registered as Democrat, 994 are unaffiliated, 501 are Republican, eight are libertarians, one is Green Party and none have come from the Constitution Party.

The form now requires only one witness signature, and asks the witness to print their name and list their address with a city, town and zip code. Snyder said this was a little different than before when the form required just the witness’ signature.

When ballots come to the elections office, Snyder said staff identify ballots that have all required information versus those with missing elements or “deficiencies.”

Once those are received by the staff, then the board reviews those. Any ballots with deficiencies are being held separately until the county board receives new guidance from the N.C. State Board of Elections about how to handle them. So far, Watauga has around 22 ballots with identified deficiencies.

Local officials have had to adjust to the number of absentee ballots the office is receiving as well as the social distancing board members are asked to abide by while approving the ballots. Snyder said the Watauga elections office has mailed 6,000 ballots so far to voters. Each ballot is reviewed by the board members to ensure they meet the requirements.

According to the N.C. State Board of Elections, voters can request an absentee ballot by 5 p.m. Oct. 27. Snyder said the county office can accepted mailed-in ballots through Nov. 6 as long as they are postmarked by 5 p.m. on Nov. 3. If ballots are hand delivered, the ballot must be submitted to the office by 5 p.m. on Nov. 3.

Snyder urged voters who are submitting ballots by mail to ask a postal clerk to place a date stamp while in the presence of the voter. He said date stamps are not always put on the ballots, and if by chance the ballot is received by elections officials after Election Day without a date stamp, it will not be accepted. He also suggested that voters read absentee instructions carefully on the back of the forms, as they’re “very specific.”

To receive an absentee ballot, voters must send in a request. Absentee ballot request forms can be found at tinyurl.com/WataugaAbsenteeRequestForm. For more information, call the Watauga Board of Elections office at (828) 265-8061.