In a special called meeting March 17, the Wilkes Board of Education voted 4-1 to return to in-person learning each school day (Plan A) in sixth through 12th grades next week.
Board member Hardin Kennedy made the motion to make this transition on March 24 after it was recommended by Superintendent Mark Byrd.
Board member Joan Caudill said she “joyously, excitedly and any other adjective that you can think of second that motion.” Board member Kirk Walker also voted for the motion.
Sharron Huffman, the fifth board member, cast the dissenting vote. Huffman said she supported the return to Plan A in middle and high schools but preferred doing so March 29 instead of March 24.
Huffman said she favored March 29 because teachers and school staff vaccinated for COVID-19 the last week of February are scheduled to receive their second doses of the vaccine March 26.
“I want to get the kids back into school, but I’ve had a few teachers contact me asking that when we return the kids to school, can we wait until after they’ve had their second vaccinations,” she said. “I am definitely not against our kids going back to school.”
Huffman said she voiced her concerns earlier to Byrd and fellow school board members about making the transition before the second vaccinations.
Byrd said in an interview that he preferred not making the change on Monday, March 29, because spring break starts that same week on Friday, April 2.
“We would just be bringing them back together for four days before sending them home for spring break” (April 2-9) if Plan A started March 29, he said. “I just think the more time together before spring break the better. I don’t want us to bring everybody together for four days and then go home” for the break.
Byrd said some school districts are starting Plan A in middle and high schools on March 22. “But I wanted us to have a chance to ease in… and give everyone more time to adjust to each other.”
He was referring to adjusting to having most middle and high school students physically in their schools each day (Plan A) instead of less than half there each day (Plan B) now.
In the Wilkes school district’s Plan B, students in each school who don’t opt for full-time remote learning (Plan C) are split into two groups. Each day, one of these two groups uses remote learning and the other uses in-person, in-school learning. Each does the opposite the next day.
Byrd said starting Plan A in the middle and high schools March 24 means teachers will have a designated remote learning day for all students (March 19) to prepare their classrooms. He said teachers will also be able to review Plan A guideline with students when they’re in smaller groups on March 22 and 23.
On March 11, Cooper signed legislation into law requiring that elementary schools use Plan A and allowing middle and high schools to use Plan A for the remainder of the school year.
As part of the state law, social distancing is not required in schools under Plan A but is expected to be executed to the greatest extent possible.
Under plans given out at the school board meeting, “staff is onsite” under Plan A, while “essential staff is onsite” under Plan B.
Plan B says school buses run with one student per seat, but Plan A doesn’t have this stipulation. Under both Plans A and B, attestation (of wellness) forms or temperature checks are required to board buses.
Also under both Plans A and B, students and staff must wear masks; temperature checks are required for all personnel and students entering schools; meals are served in classrooms; and no field trips are allowed.
There are other safety requirements for Plans A and B.
All Wilkes public schools started the current school year with Plan C (100% remote learning), but switched to Plan B on Sept. 8. Wilkes elementary schools went from Plan B to Plan A on Oct. 20.
Cooper allowed elementary schools to switch to Plan A starting Oct. 5 and Wilkes elementary schools made this transition on Oct. 20.
Students at every grade level still have the option of using remote learning full-time for the rest of the year.
Demand for COVID-19 vaccinations in Wilkes County has slowed, but Wilkes Health Department Director Rachel Willard said this was expected.
Illustrating the decreased demand, the Wilkes Health Department had 24 doses of Pfizer vaccine left over and had to dispose of them when drive-through vaccination clinics at the four Wilkes County middle schools ended Saturday.
These remained unused even though clinic staff began asking people being vaccinated for names and phone numbers of others wanting the shots near the end of the clinics. People with appointments at other times also were called.
Willard said 1,380 doses of Pfizer vaccine were allocated for the four clinics Saturday, the first of clinics planned on the third Saturday of each month at the four middle schools to help make it easier for Wilkes residents to get vaccinated.
She said health department staff knew older adults wanted to be vaccinated for COVID-19 so weren’t surprised by long lines of vehicles of people waiting for this in drive-through clinics in January and February, first for those 75 and older and later for 65 and older.
“We were prepared for less demand” when the vaccine was made available to people under 65, said Willard, explaining that surveys have shown less interest in being vaccinated for COVID-19 among those under 65.
“Also, some of the interest died down when we had such long lines because we couldn’t get enough of the vaccine. We had some missed opportunities then.”
Health department staff and volunteers at East Wilkes Middle School said several people from the Charlotte area and elsewhere outside Wilkes were vaccinated there Saturday due to difficulties getting the vaccine closer to their homes.
Willard said most of the people being vaccinated now at health department clinics are in Group 4 of the eligibility plan, which are those 16 and holder with health conditions that make them more at risk with COVID-19.
For the immediate future, the health department will continue weekly drive-through vaccination clinics at Lowe’s Park at River’s Edge in Wilkesboro and drive-through vaccination clinics on the third Saturday of each month at the four Wilkes middle schools.
Unless otherwise announced, first dose clinics are each Thursday and second doses are each Friday at River’s Edge. A limited number of vaccinations by appointment are still available on weekday evenings at the health department.
Details on making an appointment for one of the clinics are on the health department website at https://www.wilkescounty.net/617/Vaccine-Clinic.
Willard said her goal is to eventually hold smaller vaccination clinics at churches, food pantries and other locations across Wilkes to make it easier for people to get vaccinated. She said the health department doesn’t have enough staff and volunteers to conduct these smaller clinics and the current larger ones simultaneously.
The health department currently is administering the Pfizer vaccine for first doses because that’s what the state is providing, she said. The Pfizer vaccine, which requires extremely cold storage, can be stored in the health department’s existing freezer under new guidance.
The Moderna vaccine has been given at most health department clinics and is currently used at its second dose clinics.
About 530 full- and part-time employees of the Wilkes County Schools have registered so far for second doses of the Moderna vaccine between 1 and 6 p.m. Friday in the drive-through clinic at River’s Edge, said Westley Wood, assistant superintendent of the Wilkes schools
Wood said 641 full- and part-time school employees (about 47% of total employment) pre-registered for first doses Feb. 24-26. Wood said school employees who didn’t pre-register were also accepted.
Willard said that according to new guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, people possibly exposed to COVID-19 no longer have to self-quarantine if at least two weeks have passed since they had a second COVID-19 vaccination.
Across the state and in Wilkes County, COVID-19 cases continue to drop. As of Monday, 6,234 Wilkes residents had tested positive for COVID-19 and 104 COVID-19-related deaths of Wilkes residents had been reported since the pandemic began in March 2020.
The expansion and reopening of a local behavioral health care facility with a regional focus was celebrated Friday.
Synergy Recovery at the Shirley B. Randleman Center in North Wilkesboro will serve adults throughout western North Carolina, but focus on residents of Wilkes, Alleghany, Ashe, Watauga and Avery counties.
It’s been closed for about a year for renovations and expansion in a $1.7 million project. The facility, on Peace Street, is known locally as the detox center.
Synergy Recovery leases the building from Wilkes County government and provides detox services and now expanded behavioral health care there under a contract with Asheville-based Vaya Health, which manages Medicaid and other public funds for behavioral health care in Wilkes and 21 other western North Carolina counties.
Vaya is supporting the center through non-recurring community reinvestment funds and Medicaid and non-Medicaid funding for Synergy’s ongoing operations.
The facility was renamed for Shirley Randleman of Wilkesboro, who successfully advocated for $1.4 million from the legislature for Vaya Health to help fund construction while she was a state senator.
“The expanded center represents a long-term investment in the future of Wilkes County and all of northwestern North Carolina,” said Randleman at the event Friday.
“Residents of our region deserve quality behavioral health treatment options that are close to home. I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished by working together and enthusiastic about the benefits for our region for years to come.”
Randleman became acutely aware of behavioral health care needs in Wilkes and northwestern N.C. while serving for many years as Wilkes County clerk of Superior Court.
The first floor of the two-story building was expanded by 1,647 square feet and now is occupied by a facility-based crisis center providing secure, residential stays for people experiencing mental health and substance use disorders, as well as people in need of non-hospital detox. Services include peer support, stabilization, treatment and crisis planning with the goal of alleviating acute crisis situations.
It now has two additional beds for a total of 16, a dedicated intake room, two new restrooms and shower area accessible to people with disabilities, family waiting room and green space accessible to people receiving crisis unit services.
Synergy Clinical Director Carl Spake said the application process has been started for securing accreditation from the Council on Accreditation (COA) for the facility to accept people involuntarily committed for psychiatric care.
Spake said the accreditation process will take at least a year. COA is an international, independent, nonprofit organization that accredits human and social service providers.
He said he plans to organize a subcommittee with representation of Wilkes Medical Center, local law enforcement agencies and other entities to work on meeting requirements for accreditation and how to best meet needs of people who are involuntarily committed.
Officials have said one goal of the Randleman Center is to be an alternative to taking people with involuntary commitment orders to Wilkes Medical Center, where they sometimes must remain for days while accompanied awaiting placement in an appropriate facility. Local law enforcement must be with them at the hospital.
Spake said the renovated facility has a modernized, welcoming environment that communicates respect for individuals served. “The Randleman Center is a place where people can feel comfortable and supported as they take the next step in their journey toward recovery.”
Vaya CEO Brian Ingraham said it “will be a place of healing for all people — for our family members, friends and neighbors. I’m honored to be part of a true community effort to strengthen behavioral health services and supports available in western North Carolina.”
The steering committee guiding the center expansion included representatives from Vaya, Synergy, Daymark Recovery Services, Project Lazarus, Wilkes Medical Center, the Wilkes County commissioners and the county’s administrative, social services, sheriff’s and health departments.
County Commissioner Keith Elmore served on the committee and commented on the persistence that helped make the current resource a reality.
County Manager John Yates said the Randleman Center is here today thanks to years of work by a broad coalition of county agencies and community organizations.
Applications from students for admission into the Wilkes County Schools’ new virtual academy will soon be accepted, with classes in the new program beginning at the start of the 2021-22 school year.
Applications from students in the Wilkes County Schools will be accepted starting March 31, when the form is posted on the local school district’s website, through April 12. Students in home, private and charter schools and in other districts can apply after April 12, using the same form on the WCS website.
“We are planning to make the virtual academy available to grades 4-12,” said Cotton, adding that students in the Wilkes Early College High School won’t be eligible since their program includes classes at Wilkes Community College. “At this time there are no caps on enrollment,” she added.
The only criteria for admission is that a student have been successful in remote learning during the pandemic, she said.
“This does not necessarily mean they made superior grades. A successful remote learner is one who regularly attended virtual classes, completed work and was engaged in the class/course. Once students submit their applications, we will ask their current teachers if they have been successful remote learners.”
She said the virtual academy will have more structure than the current full-time remote learning option in place due to the pandemic, with a greater emphasis on following rules, doing assignments and being engaged in class.
Cotton said the virtual academy is the only remote learning planned in the Wilkes schools in 2021-22 unless the governor requires otherwise.
She said attendance will be expected, as if students were attending school in brick and mortar building. Participation in both remote classes (synchronous learning) and asynchronous learning will be expected. Asynchronous learning allows students to access materials at any time.
High school students in the virtual academy can take a combination of virtual academy and in-person courses in brick and mortal schools, as well as Career and College Promise classes for juniors and seniors.
Virtual academy students must take state-required tests in a school building, Cotton added.
Students in elementary and middle school grades of remote learning will follow a set schedule. High school students will mostly use a traditional block schedule (courses offered during four periods), with a combination of synchronous and asynchronous time.
Cotton said virtual academy students will be allowed to participate in athletics in their home district schools. “They will be held to the same standards as students in the school building with expectations of enrollment, attendance and appropriate grades.”
The Wilkes schools will provide each virtual academy student with a chrome book or laptop. Cotton said students need to be proficient with the devices and have access to reliable internet service. Students won’t receive paper packets of assignments.
Cotton said students accepted will have required orientation in which they spend the day with their teachers. She said there may also be required in-person meetings during the year for team building activities.
She said parents of students accepted will have required orientation to help prepare them for coaching their children to be successful in the virtual academy.
Students and parents will be asked to sign an agreement committing to remaining in the virtual academy the entire school year. “It would be very difficult to have students sign up and then leave since the schools will already be set up… with the class size and everything,” said Cotton.
Teachers of virtual academy courses will not be teaching in-person and virtual students at the same time. Students in the virtual academy won’t necessarily have virtual teachers from their home district schools.
“Any online misbehavior will probably result in students losing their privilege to be in the virtual academy. They have to be able to behave properly online,” she said.
Students from outside the Wilkes School District can be accepted into the Wilkes Virtual Academy if space is available, she said, adding that they also can be charged an admission fee. The Wilkes district has reciprocal agreements with some adjoining districts that call for no fees.
School board member Joan Caudill said during the March 1 board meeting that virtual academy policies should be strictly enforced She said teachers have told her they have little recourse if students aren’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing in current remote learning.
Caudill said they also told her it’s hard to teach remotely and in-person simultaneously and that they would retire if they could.
Cotton emphasized that the virtual academy won’t be the same as current remote learning, set up during an emergency for students who had no choice about learning remotely. “I don’t want to see what our teachers have gone through for the last year continue,” she added.
Also during the meeting, board member Sharron Huffman asked what high school courses won’t be included in the virtual academy because they’re more hands-on. Huffman cited band and shop as examples. She said a lot of districts are starting just with the basics — math, science, social studies and English.
She said all school districts adjoining Wilkes have or are getting virtual academies.
In a recent survey of parents of WCS students, 374 respondents said they weren’t interested in a virtual academy and 272 respondents said they were interested in this.
A 20-year-old died from injuries he received in a wreck on Country Club Road Extension in the Edgewood community south of the Wilkesboros Saturday afternoon.
Trevelle Burgess of Moravian Falls was the operator of a 2007 Yamaha motorcycle that collided with a 2015 Dodge Ram pickup driven by James Ellis, 58, of West Jefferson, said Trooper Russell Walker of the N.C. Highway Patrol.
Walker said Burgess was ejected from the motorcycle before it collided with the pickup and burst into flames. He was found lying in the roadway in front of the pickup.
Broadway Fire Department Chief Tracy Brooks said Broadway firefighters extinguished the blaze upon arrival. Walker said the motorcycle was partly under the Dodge Ram but the pickup wasn’t damaged in the fire.
Wilkes Emergency Medical Services transported Burgess to a landing zone set up by the Broadway Fire Department at C.C. Wright Elementary School for an AirCare helicopter.
Walker said the helicopter landed, but Burgess was transported to Wilkes Medical Center instead of being flown to Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem due to his worsening condition. He died at the hospital, the trooper said.
He said Ellis, not injured in the wreck, was westbound on Country Club Road Extension and making a left turn to proceed on Ancient Oak Road in the Oaks subdivision when the wreck occurred.
Burgess was traveling at an excessive speed while eastbound on Country Club Road Extension and wasn’t able to stop in time to avoid a collision, said Walker. The motorcycle skidded over 130 feet, overturned and slid another 35 feet before colliding with the pickup, he said.
Walker added that a person working in a nearby yard was a witness.
He said the Broadway Fire Department did a good job in its response to the accident, including with traffic control. Country Club Road Extension was closed for about an hour.
Walker said the investigation is continuing.