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Announcement on schools reopening plan delayed, input from Watauga parents varies

RALEIGH — A planned July 1 announcement by North Carolina leaders on how statewide K-12 schools would open this coming school year has been postponed, while Watauga County Schools is mulling over 2,665 parent responses about the possible return for students.

On June 8, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services released guidelines for schools to reopen for in-person instruction for the 2020-21 academic year. At the time, NCDHHS said that in consultation with the State Board of Education and Department of Public Instruction, it would announce by July 1 which of the three plans it laid out should be implemented for schools to most safely reopen.

“We’re not issuing a statewide directive today on how schools should open in the fall, but we will soon. We want to get our students back in the classroom, and we want to make sure that we get this right,” Gov. Roy Cooper said on July 1.

Cooper said state officials needed a little more time, and that an announcement of school reopening plans would be made “within the next couple of weeks.” Superintendent Scott Elliott said that while he appreciates state officials for being deliberate and using the data to make informed decisions, “at some point soon we need direction so everyone can plan accordingly.”

Elliott said the school system will do its best to accommodate families, but that it won’t be able to implement a plan that works for everyone. Elliott said that the plan is to have a final recommendation for WCS operations to the Watauga Board of Education by the board’s July 13 meeting.

The anticipated three reopening scenarios include: Plan A, which calls for minimal social distancing; Plan B, which calls for moderate social distancing; or Plan C, which would result in remote learning only. Since that announcement, public school officials across North Carolina have been planning for what school could look like under each of these scenarios.

Cooper encouraged public school officials to continue this planning with a special focus on how teachers, staff and students can best be protected. Cooper said the state is looking to get more input from teachers and others who are “on the ground” to ensure all of the requirements are understood.

“I think it’s important to get as much buy-in we possibly can across the board before we announce decisions,” Cooper said.

N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen added that emerging evidence and international research shows that schools have not played a significant role in the spreading of COVID-19.

“Children, particularly younger children, are less likely than adults to be infected with COVID-19,” Cohen said. “For children who do become infected with COVID-19, they seem to be less likely to transmit it to others. We will continue to have to evaluate the scientific research carefully on this, but the current science is encouraging.”

Cooper added that decisions will also need to be made at the local level as school districts are different. He said some school systems want the state to direct them exactly on what to follow, while others want more flexibility.

WCS solicited input from Watauga parents via a survey that was open from June 17-25. Of the 2,665 responses, Elliott said more than 1,200 of the parents provided comments on topics such as scheduling options, remote learning, mask wearing and the cleaning and sanitizing of school facilities. Feedback was diverse and included some very strong opinions, Elliott said.

According to Elliott, around 24 percent of parents who responded to the survey indicated that they would not feel comfortable returning their children to school under the state’s Plan A. He added that this was reflective of what other school districts who have conducted their own re-entry surveys have gathered as well.

“Parents are showing support for options that get students back in school but do so with the greatest consideration for their health and safety,” Elliott said.

Elliott said that one of the primary purposes of the survey was to plan for the “real possibility” that Cooper would order schools to re-open under a 50 percent capacity scenario under Plan B. Elliott said leaders would have to consider a lot of variables for a Plan B, such as bus transportation, meals, facility sanitation, protective measures for staff, managing alternating schedules, child care and ensuring an adequate number of staff to pull it all off.

“This will be the most difficult plan to implement, but we want to implement a plan that is as safe and as manageable as possible,” Elliott said. “Many of the other school superintendents I speak with tell me that a Plan B scenario is simply not logistically possible in their districts.”

Parents who responded to the survey indicated that that they prefer a scheduling option that provides the greatest consistency for students while also allowing for time for the proper cleaning of classrooms and school facilities. If operating on a Plan B option, the survey offered parents four options: half days every day (half of students attending in the morning, half in the afternoon); full days alternating every other day; full days alternating every other week (attending one week, remote learning from home one week); or full days alternating every two weeks (attending two weeks, remote learning from home two weeks). The survey also allowed parents to select if none of the above options were preferable.

Elliott said that a significant majority of the parents mentioned that they do not think that an option with a two-week on/two-week off schedule would be effective academically or would be manageable with family schedules. Parents gave a similar response to a schedule option that would split each school day into two parts with some students attending class in the morning and others in the afternoon.

The greatest parent support was shown for an option that would have students in school on a staggered schedule — such as every other day in school with remote learning options when not in school — which would allow for school buildings to be wholly cleaned and sanitized when no students are in attendance.

An option that was not offered on the survey but was offered by parent responses was the use of a model that would have half the students attending for two days in a row, a day of cleaning and then the other half of students attending for two days in a row. Elliott said this 2x3 flex-type schedule “makes a lot of sense.” It would offer two days at school and three days off, with some students attending on a Monday and Tuesday; other students would attend on a Thursday and Friday.

Elliott said this type of model would provide consistency from week to week, allow for adequate cleaning without students present and would be more manageable for student transportation and meals.He added that WCS would be looking at the 2x3 schedule if the state chooses the Plan B option.

Keeping siblings on the same schedules to the greatest extent possible was important to parents, Elliott said. He added that officials “heard loud and clear” that child care will be a significant concern for many parents — including WCS’s own employees.

“This will need to be a community-wide effort to help parents manage the return to school if schools do not operate on a full-time basis,” Elliott said. “We will be reaching out to churches, nonprofit organizations, the county and existing child care providers to try to expand the options available to families.”

Elliott said school officials are also aware that some parents are not comfortable returning students to school under any scenario. WCS will have an all remote option available for “as many students as possible,” he said.

Aside from the schedule options, Elliott said parents expressed varying and strong opinions about face coverings for students and staff. Original guidance provided in the DHHS toolkit released on June 8 stated that cloth face coverings were recommended but not required by staff and students (particularly older students). However, Cooper’s June 24 order mandating face masks to be worn in public would now require all adults and students in middle and high schools to wear masks. Elliott said elementary age children may wear masks but are not required to under the order. These regulations could be subject to change based on COVID-19 metrics, he added.

According to Cooper, state emergency management and public health staff recently began delivering a two-month supply of medical grade protective wear to schools across North Carolina. Face shields, gowns and other gear will be given to school nurses and staff who are providing health care to children while they’re at school. He added that the state has also given schools access to statewide contracts to easily purchase other health supplies.

School officials still need time to analyze survey results, Elliott said. School-specific results have been provided to each principal for their own review. Elliott planned to present a recommendation for WCS operations to the Watauga Board of Education in July.

Grand reopening: Earth Fare to open its doors July 6

Five months after its closure and liquidation was announced, the Earth Fare grocery store in Boone will hold its grand reopening on Monday, July 6, bringing about 50 jobs back to the community.

The news of the store’s reopening was released in March when a number of properties were sold to an Asheville-based investor group, Hulsing Enterprises, also known as DJ3 Delaware LLC. One of the primary investors of the group, Dennis Hulsing, said that he was an Earth Fare shopper before the company announced its bankruptcy.

“It was a way of life for me, I believe in ‘you are what you eat’ — the very healthy aspect of Earth Fare,” Hulsing said at the end of March.

Earth Fare stores had closed in February, declaring bankruptcy, due to changes in the retail industry and an inability to refinance its debt, the company announced on Feb. 3.

As the Boone location reopens on July 6, customers will see changes in the overall presentation of groceries, while the store’s mission remains the same.

Betsy Bevis, director of marketing at Earth Fare, said, “We have gotten back to the things that made Earth Fare a once-great company. We have brought our Food Philosophy and Boot List back to the forefront of what we do. Keeping that bad stuff out of our stores and keeping the good stuff in. We have focused on produce by carrying 70 percent organic produce with a new lower everyday price.”

Earth Fare’s “Food Philosophy” ensures that no products include other “unacceptable ingredients,” such as added hormones.

Its “Boot List” is a list of chemicals that are not included in any of the store’s products. These include artificial sweeteners, artificial colors and artificial flavors, according to the company.

The property in Boone will be managed by Sofield Properties, which bought the building in November of 2019, according to past reports. Sofield Properties will serve as the landlord, according to Heather Sofield Jones, an agent at Sofield Properties.

“I can truly say, it will be better run and lots of positive and exciting options for our organic community. As a landlord, we definitely wanted to replace the leased space with an organic grocery, so our community had an option of healthy foods and living,” Jones said. “Just in the short amount of time of negotiating the lease with (store owner) Dennis Hulsing and working to update the interior and exterior of the store with (new store manager) Derek Hall has been very positive, and we have built a great working relationship. The new management and ownership of Earth Fare want to be involved in the Boone community and want to make a healthy presence.”

Boone’s Earth Fare will utilize ECRS, a Boone-based point-of-sale system, for its registers.

“ECRS is a top-notch company made up of team members that focus on making retail point-of-sale not only extremely efficient but also easy to use. We were able to not only align ourselves with great partners but with a local N.C. company that was in our own backyard,” said Lynese Cargill, vice president of public relations for Hulsing Enterprises.

During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Earth Fare will adopt CDC requirements and recommendations, “as well as the Watauga County requirements, especially the reduced occupancy capacity,” according to Cargill.

“We will have team members serving the Hot Bar and Olive Bar to guests,” Cargill said. “These will not be in use as self-serve venues. The Salad Bar is pre-packaged in singles servings by items, so guests may grab-and-go, and create their individual salads.”

Team members will also be conducting nightly “deep cleans,” prepacking some groceries, such as soup, bulk items and pastries, and allowing guests to pack their own groceries in reusable bags.

The Boone Chamber of Commerce will host a ribbon cutting event on July 6 at 7:50 a.m.

Watauga Democrat to change print schedule

Based on the tremendous growth of its digital operations and the challenges resulting from the current global pandemic, the Watauga Democrat will begin to offer an expanded print edition once per week, on Wednesday, beginning July 8.

Beginning that week, the Watauga Democrat will decrease its print publication from two days to one, and subscribers will no longer receive a Sunday newspaper. Subscribers will continue to receive the Wednesday edition on the current schedule.

Making the adjustment will allow the Watauga Democrat to better focus on areas of strength as its readership continues to grow and consume news content in multiple ways, said Publisher Gene Fowler.

“We will be concentrating our print efforts around our strongest readership day, as well as the most impactful advertising day, Wednesday,” Fowler said. “We decided to make this strategic change due in large part to the strength of our digital operations.”

“Our readers will find more insightful and deeper content in the single printed edition, while giving up no content,” the publisher said. “Since 1888, the Watauga Democrat has been holding those in power and those in leadership in our community accountable. We will continue to do this with newfound vigor, now more than ever. And because of this, we will not be reducing staff or coverage; we will only be shifting the day certain content becomes available in the printed edition.”

Watauga Democrat Editor Anna Oakes said the newspaper will continue to provide local news coverage that is relevant, accurate and fair, and stories that highlight our community’s celebrations, challenges and character.

“Making this schedule change gives our editorial staff more time to focus on reporting the news that matters to Watauga County,” Oakes said.

As always, the single print edition will be the best place to find the area’s deals on local goods, services and store inserts, and content such as crime reports, business news and local sports coverage.

In addition to the Wednesday edition, Watauga Democrat readers already know they can visit and its social media pages for the latest breaking news and sports updates.

By publishing the newspaper on both digital and print platforms, readers can choose how they want to receive their local news and advertisements: on their computer, their phone, their tablet, or in a mailbox or news rack.

The Watauga Democrat has served the High Country community since 1888, and looks forward to continuing to find better ways to serve readers and advertisers.