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3 new assistant principals announced | A8

Homeschooling increases during pandemic
  • Updated

The COVID-19 pandemic caused a larger percentage increase in homeschooling statewide than in Wilkes County, according to data from the N.C. Department of Public Administration.

The number of home schools grew from 94,863 in the 2019-20 school year to 112,614 in 2020-21, an 18.7% increase. Home schools in Wilkes County alone increased by 15%, from 1,046 in 2019-20 to 1,207 in 2020-21.

The states estimated that the number of home-schooled students statewide rose from 149,173 in 2019-20 to 179,900 in 2020-21, a 20.5% increase. The number of home-schooled students increased about 19.94% in Wilkes only, from 1,559 in 2019-20 to 1,870 in 2020-21

Enrollment in home schools isn’t exact because the state doesn’t necessarily receive accurate information, or any information, on the number of students in a home school.

Between 2016 and 2021, the number of home schools grew by 39% statewide and the number of students grew by 41%. The number of home schools increased from 784 in 2015-16 to 1,207 in 2021-21 in Wilkes, a 64% increase. There were an estimated 1,195 home-schooled students in Wilkes in 2015-16 and 1,870 in 2020-21, also a 56% increase.

With the 179,900 estimate of home school enrollment in 2020-21, home schools are now the second most popular choice for education in the state after traditional public schools.

The public schools’ share of students statewide and in Wilkes has been dropping for years. Every year from 2016-17 to 2019-20, the number of students served has been going down.

The N.C. Division of Non-Public Education puts enrollment in private schools at 107,341 for this school year, an increase from 103,959 the year before.

The Wilkes County Schools offers home school students the opportunity to participate in public school interscholastic athletics by dual enrolling in public school and middle school classes.

Dr. Donna Cotton, chief academic officer for the Wilkes schools, said one high school student currently dual enrolls and participates in athletics and one middle school student may participate in middle school athletics this year.

Cotton said this is the only Wilkes school policy that directly related to home school students.

“Any home school student is welcome to dual enroll with us. This would mean they remain enrolled in their home school but would enroll for half a day in a Wilkes County public school. Students would do this if there were specific courses we offered that they may want to participate in,” she said.

Cotton said the Wilkes County Schools won’t be able to offer its proposed WCS Virtual Academy because of pending legislation in the General Assembly, “but we would have welcomed dual-enrolled students in the virtual academy if we were offering it. We initially only have one home school family submit an application to enroll in the virtual academy.

The pending legislation is Senate Bill 654. Requires a school number and an assigned principal to a virtual academy along with other requirements.

To dual enrolled and participate in face-to-face classes or virtual classes, a home school student would have to present their home school card from the Division of Non-Public Education.

Closures affirm COVID-19 surge
  • Updated

A rapid rise in COVID-19 cases in Wilkes County is continuing, with 195 new cases confirmed here from Friday to Monday.

The Wilkes County Health Department reported that as of Monday, 7,488 Wilkes residents had tested positive for the virus since the pandemic began in March 2020.

Those included 314 currently active cases, the most since the health department started reporting active cases in early February.

Ten of these 314 Wilkes residents with COVID-19 were in hospitals, the most reported by the health department as hospitalized since 23 in early March.

Signs announcing closures and reduced hours on doors of government offices and nonprofit agencies in Wilkes graphically reflect the surge in COVID-19 cases here.

Hand-written signs on doors of the Wilkes Register of Deeds office in the Wilkes County Courthouse last week stated, “Due to COVID, we are extremely short-staffed this week. Expect long wait times! We will be closed for lunch and essential errands from 1-2:30 p.m. Please be patient with us.”

Wilkes Register of Deeds Misty Smithey said Friday that she and Becky Caudill, assistant register of deeds, were the only two people out of a staff of six in the office vaccinated for COVID-19 when one of the six tested positive for the virus in late July.

Smithey said she arrived at work and found that County Manager John Yates had closed the register of deeds office and was having it “fogged” to kill the virus.

One of the staff members tested negative after being in quarantine and returned to work, said Smithey, adding that this person plans to get vaccinated. She said two others who were in quarantine decided to get jobs elsewhere. The employee who tested positive hasn’t returned to work yet.

Wilkes Superior Clerk of Court Regina Billings said a few employees in her office recently had to quarantine after two people working there tested positive for COVID-19. She said the positive cases resulted from exposure to family members with the virus.

Billings said staff of the Wilkes Clerk of Court’s office are cross-trained to handle multiple responsibilities so the quarantining of a few didn’t cause a major disruption.

Jennifer Snider, executive director of the Ruby Pardue Blackburn Adult Day Care at West Park, North Wlkesboro, said the facility is temporarily closed after two cases were brought there by participants from involvement in two different community activities. Those cases were identified as positive as families noticed participants becoming symptomatic at home.

“Our center chose to be proactive and take measures to close and clean for a 14-day period in order to shield safety on all other participants, families and staff after two cases were brought in,” said Snider. No staff tested positive.

Signs on the front door say the facility closed at 1:30 p.m. Aug. 6 and will reopen Aug. 23.

Snider said staff continued wearing masks when it no longer was required They also continued doing daily symptom checks and having their temperatures taken upon entering the building.

She said no concerns were raised during these check-ins or at other times at the center.

Program participants “have been encouraged to wear masks as much as they can understand why they need to do so,” said Snider.

A sign on the front door of Wilkes Art Gallery on C Street, North Wilkesboro, said that facility is closed “out of an abundance of caution” through Aug. 15 “due to a positive COVID-19 case.”

Willard said there are COVD-19 outbreaks at three long-term care facilities in Wilkes: Accordius Health at Wilkesboro, Wilkes Assisted Living on Old Brickyard Road, North Wilkesboro and Wilkes Health and Rehabilitation on Old Brickyard Road. Willard said she didn’t have immediate access to the number of positive cases at each facility.

There also are COVID-19 outbreaks at several Wilkes churches and a growing number of local churches have returned to outdoor services.

The number of confirmed COVID-19-related deaths of Wilkes residents has been 117 for a few months. Death totals usually increase a month or longer after case numbers rise.

Another statistic used to show the severity of the virus is the number of people per 100,000 testing positive in the prior two weeks. This provides a rate and allows comparisons between counties with widely differing populations.

Wilkes County’s rate was 583 new cases per 100,000 in the two weeks prior to Monday, which was more than any adjoining county.

The Wilkes rate for the two weeks prior to Friday was 478 per 100,000. Early that same week, on Aug. 3, it was 383 per 100,000.

The percentage of all Wilkes residents who have been vaccinated for COVID-19 has remained low at 34% since July 30.

As of Monday, Wilkes was among 12 North Carolina counties with 34% or lower vaccination rates for all residents. The lowest was Robeson County at 27%. Most of these counties had rates of 33% or 34%.

Orange County, home of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, had the highest vaccination rate at 76%.

LGC reprimands Wilkesboro for late audits
  • Updated

The N.C. Local Government Commission (LGC) on Aug. 3 unanimously passed a resolution requiring the Town of Wilkesboro to hire additional help in submitting delinquent financial audit reports for 2019 and 2020.

The resolution requires that the town “hire additional outside entity or entities, within 30 days of (Aug. 3), to assist the town in preparing its books and financial statements for audit.”

It further compels the town to “take whatever steps need to be taken to complete the outstanding audits as soon as possible.”

The town must present the “expected and realistic timeline for completion of the 2019 and 2020 audits, as well as the 2021 audit which will be due Oct. 21” at the LGC’s next meeting on Sept. 14.

Failure to comply with the resolution “may result in the enforcement of North Carolina G.S. 159-181©, under which the (LGC) may assume control of the Town’s financial affairs.”

During the LGC’s meeting Aug. 3, held remotely via Zoom, State Auditor Beth Wood asked LGC Secretary Sharon Edmundson to define the issues that led to Wilkesboro’s delinquent audits.

“There were issues with their books not being ready in 2018,” she said. The town submitted its 2018 audit on Dec. 1, 2020, more than two years after its due date, according to the LGC, which has fiscal responsibility oversight of local governments.

Wilkesboro hired Lexington-based Rives & Associates LLP to conduct its 2017 and 2018 audits, but the firm was late in delivering the 2018 audit to the town.

The N.C. Board of Certified Accountant Examiners issued a press release in March 2020 saying it had suspended the certified public accountant certificate of Leon L. Rives II, owner of Rives & Associates.

The press release said the action was related to a lawsuit that accused Rives of acting fraudulently and breaching his fiduciary duty as an officer in Steel Tube Inc. The suit also accused Rives & Associates of acting negligently in preparing Steel Tube’s tax returns.

A jury ruled against Rives and Rives & Associates and ordered that he and the company pay $2.2 million.

Last September, the town hired an accounting firm new to them, Atlanta, Ga.-based Mauldin & Jenkins, to conduct audits for the 2019 and 2020 fiscal years for $25,000 annually.

Bob Urness, Wilkesboro’s director of finance and assistant town manager, told Wood on Tuesday during the meeting, “I can assure you nothing nefarious is going on. (Mauldin & Jenkins) is very close to finishing 2019, with only some finer pieces left.”

Urness added, “We’re picking up the pieces from a misstep a while back” that affected the 2018 audit. “I’m happy to comply and will comply” with the resolution.

Wood advised Urness to “hire somebody doing nothing but the books until the books get caught up.”

Urness said he would come back on Sept. 14 with a “roadmap for compliance. By then 2019 will be done and we’ll have a CPA (certified public accountant) picked for getting us over that hump.”

He explained in an interview on Aug. 2, “From my perspective, the town is in the process of completing these (audit) reports to bring itself into compliance and will continue to do so.”

Urness said he appreciates the LGC and the role it plays in municipal finances. “I believe that we have the same goals in mind and look forward to putting the issue behind us. The town remains in strong financial position and will take the measures necessary and prescribed to comply with these reports.”

He added that the town hired an additional staff person, Kimberly White, to perform general duties in the finance department.

The LGC issued a notice of warning to the town in November 2020 for not submitting annual financial audit reports for 2018 and 2019.

State statutes require that each local government and public authority be audited annually and that a copy of the audit report be submitted to the LGC secretary as soon as possible after the end of the fiscal year.

Audit reports for counties and municipalities are typically due by Oct. 31 under terms of local government contracts with auditors. The LGC offers a one-month grace period, after which a report is considered late.

Two catfish state records broken

Tyson makes vaccination mandatory for employees
  • Updated

Tyson Foods Inc., Wilkes County’s largest employer, announced Aug. 3 that nearly all of its employees must be fully vaccinated by Nov. 1.

Tyson employees who are members of a union will be subject to the results of union bargaining on this issue, the company stated. Exceptions for medical or religious reasons will be considered.

Employees who are officers or in higher positions must be vaccinated by Sept. 24; other people working in offices by Oct. 1; all other employees by Nov. 1; and all new hires prior to starting work, Tyson announced.

The company said that upon verification in the Tyson Vaccination Verification Program, employees will receive $200 for being fully vaccinated. For employees who are members of unions, this is subject to ongoing discussions with unions.

This is an expansion of the company’s existing policy of compensating workers for up to four hours of regular pay if they’re vaccinated outside of their normal shift or through an external source.

Tyson said almost half of its U.S. workforce has been vaccinated and coronavirus infection rates among employees remain low. Tyson has a workforce of about 2,300 people in Wilkes County, mostly at the company’s chicken processing complex in Wilkesboro.

Donnie King, Tyson president and CEO, stated, “We did not take this decision lightly. We have spent months encouraging our team members to get vaccinated…. We take this step today because nothing is more important than our team members’ health and safety, and we thank them for the work they do, every day, to help us feed this country, and our world.”

King said new variants of COVID-19 are more contagious, more deadly and responsible for most cases in America today.

“In some communities, doctors and hospitals are once again overwhelmed, while the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reporting nearly all hospitalizations and deaths in the U.S. are among those who are unvaccinated,” he added.

“It is abundantly clear that getting vaccinated is the single most effective thing we can do to protect ourselves, our families and our communities.”

A Tyson press release said the action makes the company the largest U.S. food company to require COVID-19 vaccinations for its entire workforce.

“Getting vaccinated against COVID-19 is the single most effective thing we can do to protect our team members, their families and their communities,” said Dr. Claudia Coplein, Tyson chief medical officer. “With rapidly rising COVID-19 case counts of contagious, dangerous variants leading to increasing rates of severe illness and hospitalization among the U.S. unvaccinated population, this is the right time to take the next step to ensure a fully vaccinated workforce.”

The Tyson press release said that since February, Tyson has hosted more than 100 vaccination events for employees across the country and more than 56,000 Tyson employees have been vaccinated so far. “Additional onsite vaccination events will be scheduled, and the company will continue to collaborate with local health departments and healthcare providers to make the vaccine more accessible.”

“Tyson Foods and Matrix Medical have worked together since the beginning of this pandemic to develop and implement strategies to mitigate the risk of the virus to Tyson employees and their families, as well as the communities where they live and work,” said Dr. Daniel Castillo, Matrix chief medical officer and group president.

“Matrix clinicians and Tyson team members have worked hand-in-hand to implement a broad array of workplace safety measures at Tyson, and we now feel the rising number of new cases across the U.S. warrants advanced clinical strategies — including requiring vaccinations.”

Tyson has spent more than $700 million related to COVID-19, including on buying masks, face shields and temperature scanners, installing protective barriers and providing on-site testing and vaccinations and more to help prevent its spread.

Tyson partnered with an independent medical provider to bring medical services on site, hired an additional 200 nurses and its first chief medical officer. Tyson Foods also invested in educating employees, in dozens of languages, about the benefits of COVID-19 vaccination.