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NC schools to open for in-person learning; Watauga's 2x3 plan: Two days at school, three days remote each week

RALEIGH — In a much-anticipated announcement on July 14, Gov. Roy Cooper said North Carolina public schools will be open for both in-person and remote learning under the state’s Plan B, which will require safety protocols like face coverings for all K-12 students, fewer children in the classroom and social distancing measures in buildings.

The governor also announced that Phase 2 of the statewide reopening plan — which had already been extended once, to July 17 — will be extended for three additional weeks.

“We want to be done with this pandemic, but it’s not done with us,” Cooper said at a press briefing in Raleigh.

The state’s Strong Schools NC Public Health Toolkit outlines the updated requirements for Plan B, and can be found at tinyurl.com/schoolstoolkit. Modifications have been made to Plan B since it was released in June to make it more protective of public health. For example, the state’s Plan B previously only required middle and high school students to wear masks. The July 14 announcement now requires every teacher, staff and student from kindergarten through high school to wear a mask.

“The studies have shown overwhelmingly that face coverings reduce disease transmission,” Cooper said.

The state is providing at least five reusable face coverings for each student, teacher and staff member. In June, the state provided packs of personal protective equipment to schools that included a two-month supply of thermometers, surgical masks, face shields and gowns for school nurses and delegated staff who provide health care to students.

The state also recommended that schools implement other safety precautions such as one-way hallways and entrances; ensuring students are in small groups; eating lunch in the classroom if the cafeteria won’t allow for social distancing; and suspending large group activities like assemblies.

Schools will also be expected to conduct symptom screening (including temperature checks); establish a process and dedicated space for people who are ill to isolate and have transportation plans for ill students; sanitize high-touch surfaces in the school and transportation vehicles regularly; require frequent hand washing throughout the school day; provide hand sanitizer at entrances and in every classroom; limit nonessential visitors and activities involving external groups; and discontinue use of self-service food or beverage distribution.

“Schools will look a lot different this year in order to be safe and effective,” Cooper said. “Public health experts and school leaders developed these rules to protect students, teachers and families. They also have detailed procedures for what’ll happen if a student or teacher tests positive.”

Cooper added that state officials know there will “always be some risk with in-person learning,” and that officials are doing a lot to reduce that risk. However, pediatricians and other health experts have said that there is also much risk in not going back to in-person school, he said.

Theresa Flynn, a practicing pediatrician who serves on the Board of Directors for the North Carolina Pediatric Society, stated during the July 14 press conference that in-person education is important for children, and it happens in the context of a community.

“This plan strikes the right balance between health and safety and the benefits of having children learn in the classroom,” Flynn said. “We must all continue with proven measures to reduce COVID-19 transmission like wearing a face covering, keeping distance between people and frequent hand and surface cleanings so we can move closer to safely re-opening public schools.”

Plan B is a baseline for the state, the governor’s office said. As a part of this plan, the state is asking school districts to provide a remote learning option for any child who chooses it. Additionally, school systems will have the option of Plan C — all remote learning — if school officials deem it best for their schools.

“The start of school is a month away for most of our children, and we know a lot can happen with the virus during that time,” Cooper said. “If trends spike and in-person school cannot be done safely with these safety protocols, then we will need to move to all remote learning like we did in March.”

During the July 13 meeting of the Watauga County Board of Education, Watauga County Schools Superintendent Scott Elliott discussed different plans for the fall with the board. At that time, educators were still unsure which plan the state would be operating under. Elliott explained that a Plan B selection would mean that schools would operate with a 50 percent building capacity, meaning only half of the number of allowable students would be able to attend school in person at one time.

He explained that capacity is different than enrollment numbers, and the capacity for each of the eight K-8 buildings in Watauga were determined by Clark Nexsen in a 2017 facilities study. The school system is using the Watauga Fire Marshal’s metrics of capacity for Watauga High School. In all cases but two — Parkway and Hardin Park — enrollment at the schools are at or below capacity. Elliott said this helps with flexibility in terms of scheduling. The two schools that already exceed 100 percent capacity will be something to consider, he said.

After Cooper’s July 14 announcement, Elliott said he was confident that WCS would operate within Plan B under a 2x3 flex-type schedule — an option that was influenced in part by responses to a WCS parent survey completed in late June. The school system would plan to operate in this manner unless Cooper eventually moves to a statewide Plan C.

The 2x3 plan would offer two days at school and three days of learning remotely — students would participate in learning all five days. Some students would attend in-person learning on a Monday and Tuesday; other students would attend on a Thursday and Friday. Those not at school in person would participate in activities both online and offline with teachers available to answer questions for remote learning students.

All students would be remote learning on Wednesdays, which would allow for adequate cleaning while students are not present as well as allow teachers time for planning.

WCS officials were looking at models of how to divide students alphabetically by last name into different cohorts, Elliott said. Students would likely be divided into cohorts by last name to ensure that areas of concern, like bus routes, are manageable.

Elliott added that WCS officials know that some parents will choose to not send their children to school due to health conditions that may put them at a high risk of infection, because there is a parent in the household that is at high risk or because of the parents’ determination that it’s not best for their child to return to in-person instruction. He said WCS wants to make a remote/virtual learning option available to the extent possible for students.

WCS plans to launch a website to allow families to apply for the Watauga Virtual Academy that would be an all-remote option. School officials will prioritize learning via the academy to those students with disabilities or with documented high-risk health conditions, Elliott said. Once those students are accommodated, school officials will begin to see what grade levels and subjects areas are needed through the academy.

The hope would be to pair teachers who are identified as being at higher risk and who also cannot return to school with students who can’t return. Elliott said it may not happen that way, and school officials will troubleshoot issues as needed.

WCS is requesting that parents who apply for the Watauga Virtual Academy be willing to commit to at least one semester of enrollment in that plan. Elliott said it would be difficult to arrange for and balance the needs of a student for changing plans throughout the year.

“As much as I want to meet every child’s needs, I realize from reading the surveys and from thinking of all of the different needs and concerns families have, there is no way to resolve every concern and to meet every possible need in the community,” Elliott said. “We will work very hard to meet every need we possibly can.”

WCS is in the midst of completing a survey this week of all school-based employees to identify those who identify as being high risk for a COVID-19 related illness. According to Elliott, NCDHHS guidance should explore remote work options for employees whose health conditions put them at risk.

“Ensuring that this plan protects not just students, but teachers and staff, too, is the top priority,” Cooper said. “I strongly encourage all superintendents and principals to listen to teachers and staff as they shape their plans. This will be challenging, but I have faith in our teachers.”

Drive-thru testing and Goodnight Brothers cluster

BOONE — AppHealthCare, the regional health department, is partnering with Mako Medical Laboratories to offer drive-through COVID-19 testing for Watauga County residents on Saturday, July 18, from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Watauga High School, located at 300 Go Pioneers Drive in Boone.

Individuals must be residents of Watauga County and over 10 years of age. There is no cost for testing, which is available regardless of insurance status, AppHealthCare stated. If you have insurance, bring a copy of your insurance information. Participants should be notified by Monday, July 20, of their test results.

AppHealthCare encourages individuals to be tested who meet the current guidance for testing:

  • Have COVID-19 symptoms,
  • Are at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19,
  • May have been exposed to COVID-19,
  • Work as a first responder or are in law enforcement, fire department or health care,
  • Work in a setting where social distancing is difficult to maintain,
  • Are part of a historically marginalized population who may be at higher risk for exposure, or
  • Have attended mass gatherings like protests or rallies.

“We are grateful for the partnership with Mako Medical Laboratories, support from Watauga County and Watauga County Schools allowing parking lot space to provide this drive-through testing event, free of charge, for the Watauga County community. With the increases in COVID-19 cases locally, we know this is an important step to take to further identify and control the spread of this virus and protect the public’s health,” stated Jennifer Greene, health director for AppHealthCare.

For information about the testing event, call (828) 795-1970 during business hours or email questions to preparedness@apphealth.com.

15 confirmed cases at Goodnight Brothers

AppHealthCare has confirmed and is continuing to investigate cases of COVID-19 among Goodnight Brothers employees. To date, there have been 15 confirmed cases, the health department stated on July 13.

“We have worked closely with Goodnight Brothers to coordinate and offer testing to all employees and review existing safety protocols in place to protect employees,” AppHealthCare stated. “This type of response testing is needed to determine how far the virus has spread and prevent further transmission.”

Goodnight Brothers — located in the Industrial Park in Boone — cures, de-bones, slices and packages country ham for restaurants and retailers.

Melissa Bracey, spokesperson for AppHealthCare, said that when the health department realized there were three positive cases among Goodnight employees, a team was sent to the business to test all employees on July 2. But due to delays in testing results, full results were not received until Sunday, July 12, Bracey said.

Goodnight closed the business for deep cleaning from July 2 to July 6, Bracey said.

“Goodnight Brothers is a USDA-inspected facility and is not one that we inspect in our role as a health department, but we have been working closely with them to provide guidance around additional COVID-19 infection prevention measures,” Bracey said. “Goodnight Brothers is considered a part of critical infrastructure during the COVID-19 response, so they may continue operations while taking actions to prevent further virus spread.”

Bill Goodnight, general manager of Goodnight Brothers, said that employees who have been identified as confirmed cases are not working and are isolating at home until they are released by public health.

“Many of the employee-driven protocols as well as the cleaning procedures were already in place prior to developing our relationship with AppHealthCare,” Goodnight said. “The additional expertise provided by our new partners has proven very beneficial by giving us enhanced cleaning and infection preventing protocols, which will help to prevent further spread of COVID-19. We are committed to protecting our community and will follow guidance from AppHealthCare in order to do our part to slow the spread of this virus.”

COVID-19 spreads most commonly through respiratory droplets when someone coughs or sneezes and is in close contact with others, AppHealthCare stated.

“When there is a confirmed case in a work setting like Goodnight Brothers, we want to work quickly to test everyone since the virus can spread easily in these environments due to people working in close proximity to others,” AppHealthCare stated.

Jennifer Greene, AppHealthCare director, said, “We are grateful for Goodnight Brothers’ partnership and appreciate their support and involvement in assisting with the contact investigation and testing. We are continuing to work together to implement control measures to limit further spread of the virus. Since we know community transmission is occurring, exposure can happen at various locations where individuals have close contact.

“We urge everyone to practice kindness and think of others by practicing the 3Ws when leaving your home — wear a face covering, wait at least six feet from others and wash your hands often or use hand sanitizer,” Greene added.

AppHealthCare shared the following ways that people can protect against COVID-19:

  • Wear a cloth face covering
  • Wash your hands often or use hand sanitizer
  • Wait at least 6 feet from others
  • Stay home when you’re sick
  • Keep distance from others who are sick
  • Avoid touching your face
  • Avoid crowded areas
  • Clean and disinfect high-touch surfaces in common areas like doorknobs, remotes, lightswitches, tables and handles.

AppHealthCare’s COVID-19 call center is available to take COVID-19-related calls during regular business hours at (828) 795-1970, and you can also email questions to preparedness@apphealth.com.

AppHealthCare is available and on-call 24/7 to respond to public health emergencies. To reach AppHealthCare, call Watauga at (828) 264-4995, Ashe at (336) 246-9449 or Alleghany at (336) 372-5641 anytime and follow the prompts. For more information, visit www.AppHealthCare.com and follow on Facebook or Twitter.

Two found dead with gunshot wounds in Deep Gap
Report describes incident as murder-suicide

DEEP GAP — A married couple was found dead from apparent gunshot wounds in Deep Gap on the night of July 8, according to the Watauga County Sheriff’s Office. The incident report describes the deaths as a murder-suicide.

“On July 8, 2020, at 10 p.m., a 911 call was received at Watauga Communications regarding 172 Born Again Drive, in Deep Gap,” the WCSO stated. “The caller stated that he had found his brother and sister-in-law deceased.”

WCSO deputies responded along with Watauga Medics and Deep Gap Fire Department to the address and found Douglas Allen Watson, 57, and Elizabeth Case Watson, 57, to be deceased in the home. Upon initial investigation, both individuals appear to have suffered gunshot wounds, WCSO stated.

“The incident is believed to be domestic in nature; however, the investigation is still ongoing,” WCSO stated. “During this difficult time, our thoughts are with the Watson family during this tragic loss.”

The 911 caller indicated that a neighbor had noticed a door at the home had been open for two hours, and the neighbor looked in a window and saw the deceased couple. The caller said he himself then went inside the home to check.

“My brother and sister-in-law are dead,” he told the dispatcher. “One shot the other one, and ... (his voice trailed off).”

WCSO Major Kelly Redmon said on July 10 that there was evidence that the incident was domestic in nature, but that the investigation was ongoing. Redmon said he had no new information to share as of July 14.

The first page of the WCSO incident report described the incident as a “murder/non-negligent manslaughter” and “murder/suicide” and listed the weapon as a handgun. Elizabeth Watson was listed as a victim on the incident report.

Redmon said he did not believe anyone else resided with the couple at the Born Again Drive residence. According to their obituaries, the Watsons are survived by three sons and their grandchildren.

'Back the Blue' protest planned July 18 to show support for High Country law enforcement

BOONE — A “Back the Blue” protest will be held in Boone, on the campus of Appalachian State University on Saturday, July 18, to show thanks and appreciation to the High Country’s law enforcement officers, organizers said.

Beginning in the Peacock Parking Lot at 1:30 p.m., the ceremony will include a “Blessing of the Law Enforcement Officers,” and officers are encouraged to wear their uniform to the ceremony but are not required to do so. Face masks are encouraged along with social distancing practices throughout the event.

The protest is organized by Pastor Michael Greene of Bible Way Baptist Church in Boone and co-sponsored by the Boone-based conservative Christian political advocacy group Citizens for America Foundation and BLEXIT, which is a foundation that “strives to change the narrative that surrounds America’s minority communities — with a particular focus on African-Americans,” according to its website.

Greene, who has law enforcement members within his congregation, said, “Our nation is in pain right now. Many people are hurting, including our law enforcement officers and their families. Our goal is to let these officers and their families know that we appreciate their sacrifices. We, as a community, love them and God loves them.”

Founder and president of Citizens for America Foundation, Boone resident Chris Hughes, said that “the event is not a political event and is not a response to the actions of any other organization. It is a prayer event designed to let the wonderful law enforcement agencies and officers of the High Country and their families know that they are loved and appreciated … The actions of outside groups were never part of the conversation.”

Greene said that the event has been “extremely well received throughout the community.”

“I have spoken with many law enforcement officers in recent weeks, and they are excited and very appreciative to have a community that is willing to love them and show support for their service to the High Country,” Greene said. “It is something different and shows them how important they are and how much they mean to the community.”

According to Greene, every visitor and resident of the High Country is invited to attend on July 18.

“Every church in the High Country, local elected officials and all residents of the High Country and their guests are all invited to a special time to honor those who put these lives on the line for us every day,” he said.

During the event, there will be a time of prayer for each of the law enforcement agencies represented, followed by a presentation revolving around the history and overall need for law enforcement by Ron Baity, the chaplain for the Winston-Salem Police Department and founder of Return America.

The mission of Return America is “to build a network of churches and individuals to educate, motivate and mobilize citizens in a united effort in promoting Judeo-Christian values; to educate and influence government in these principles upon which our state and nation were founded,” according to the foundation’s website.

According to the event’s announcement, other “several well-known area pastors” will be in attendance to offer prayers to law enforcement.

Officers and their families are invited to take part in a free meal hosted at Bible Way Baptist Church following the conclusion of the event.