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Appalachian State plans to start classes online only until Feb. 1

BOONE — Appalachian State announced Jan. 8 that classes will start Jan. 19, but will meet online only until Feb. 1 and will delay the return to campus.

Residence hall students will begin moving back in during the week of January 25. according to an email obtained by the Watauga Democrat. Students living on campus were originally scheduled to move back in between Jan. 15-18.

Appalachian State housing will send more information to students living on campus on Jan. 11, according to an email sent by the university.

The move comes after the university reviewed current data and positive case trends locally and statewide. In an email to students, Chancellor Sheri Everts wrote that the Appalachian State campus numbers are not a cause for concern, but state and Watauga County cases are on the rise.

“Data modeling indicates a peak in this latest wave of COVID-19 cases is likely to occur in the western part of the state in the next one to two weeks, and we are seeing a strain on local and regional hospitals,” Everts wrote. “State and local data trends are concerning as students prepare to return to Boone and, in particular, to live in residence halls on campus.”

AppHealthCare listed 222 active cases in Watauga County as of Jan. 8. while the Appalachian State COVID-19 dashboard listed 28 students and six employees as positive with COVID-19. North Carolina has reported 10,000 new COVID-19 cases for two days in a row.

Everts wrote that in the past week the university conducted 818 COVID-19 tests with 26 positive results and that the university is using less than 1 percent of its isolation and quarantine space.

Last semester, the Appalachian State split between approximately 55 percent remote classes, 30 percent hybrid classes and 15 percent face-to-face classes. In early October, Appalachian State hit nearly 200 active cases.

At the Dec. 7 Appalachian State Faculty Senate meeting, Behrent was asked to read emails obtained through a faculty members public records request that brought up questions on if classroom transmission occurred during the fall semester.

In the emails read at the meeting, AppHealthCare health director Jennifer Greene questioned if saying there was no classroom transmission of COVID-19 could be clearly stated.

“We know we have some courses that had multiple cases purely from report to us, and we’ve documented in Veoci many cases that have attended class while infectious,” Green wrote in the emails read at the meeting. “I realize that there was a decision made to only notify when necessary, but even in the cases where we know there’s been exposure, I’m not sure that has happened.”

The emails — sent on Oct. 13 — were also obtained by the Watauga Democrat.

In a joint statement, Appalachian State spokesperson Megan Hayes and AppHealthCare spokesperson Melissa Bracey said it is accurate to say there was no classroom transmission in the fall semester.

“Email communications between AppHealthCare and App State employees are a very small piece of the constant communication process that takes place between our teams multiple times a day,” the statement read. “Often, they begin a conversation that we then continue during our daily meetings.”

Regarding the email Greene said, Appalachian State and AppHealthCare “talked through the questions during follow up meetings that involved App State pulling class rosters, and our teams looking at the rosters together, evaluating the contacts that infected cases had, and any possible transmission that occurred as a result,” according to the statement.

The statement did acknowledge there can never be 100 percent certainty about how COVID-19 transmission could occur.

“Our two organizations have a longstanding partnership built on years of working together, which includes case investigations during what are sometimes chaotic circumstances,” according to the statement. “We will continue to have conversations in which we ask questions and answer them together, in order to protect the health and safety of the App State community.”

As far as spring semester, Everts wrote in her email to students that university operations and staffing will resume as scheduled Jan. 12.

“Given the current concern relating to case numbers nationally, locally and at the state level, I think that this is a reasonable decision,” said App State Faculty Senate Chair Micael Behrent. “I think it’s the the right thing to do from a public health standpoint, at the present time.”

The Appalachian State COVID-19 response team is also preparing for COVID-19 vaccine distribution, according to the email from Everts.

“The university will not independently procure, store or distribute COVID-19 vaccines,” Everts wrote. “We do have an agreement in place with AppHealthCare, the local public health department, to serve as a distribution site for vaccines for students, faculty and staff.”

She wrote that the university does not have a vaccination timeline to share at this time and that she would share additional vaccine distribution in upcoming updates.

AppHealthCare announced Jan. 7 that it is planning to move into phase 1b for group 1 the week of Jan. 11 to give vaccines to those who are 75 years or older regardless of health status or living situation.

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