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Response to vaccine in Wilkes slows
  • Updated

Wilkes County Health Director Rachel Willard said COVID-19 vaccinations in Wilkes have leveled off, despite the local health department’s decision to make them available to everyone age 16 and older about two weeks ago.

“The vaccination response (locally) in general has slowed. It has reached a plateau,” said Willard.

As of Wednesday (today), any approved COVID-19 vaccine is available to everyone 16 and older in every North Carolina county.

Wilkes was among several North Carolina counties that made the vaccine available to everyone 16 and older in advance of this occurring statewide.

Meanwhile, the health department reported that 6,338 Wilkes residents had tested positive by Monday. Wilkes had 118 active COVID-19 cases as of Monday, with six of those hospitalized.

The health department also reported 106 COVID-19-related deaths in Wilkes as of Monday, which is two more than in the past several weeks. One of the two deaths was a person in his/her 50s who died March 28 in Wilkes. The other was a person in his/her 70s who was in a local long-term care facility and died at a hospital outside Wilkes.

Willard said she expects COVID-19 cases in Wilkes to spike in two to three weeks, partly due to people becoming more active and having more contact with each other.

COVID-19 vaccinations are free to everyone. No photo ID or insurance are needed and people don’t have to be U.S. citizens to be vaccinated. They also can get vaccinated in a county that isn’t where they live.

Willard said the health department has been unable to fill all of its vaccination appointment slots in recent weeks.

She didn’t accept any vaccine from the state for first dose vaccinations last week because the health department still had about half (about 600 doses) of its allocation for first doses from the prior week. Those were all used last week, she said.

Willard said about 75-80% of people scheduled to receive second doses of COVID-19 vaccine from the health department have been showing up for their appointments in recent weeks. The health department doesn’t know how many people are opting to get second doses from a source other than the health department, she said.

Willard added that the health department’s experience with second dose appointments is similar to what has occurred in much of the rest of the state.

She said the reduced interest in being vaccinated in Wilkes is related to the fact that it’s mostly younger people now who haven’t gotten the shots. Willard said they’re less concerned about health threats of COVID-19. She said there also are concerns among women, although unfounded, about the impact of the vaccine on their ability to have children.

The health department has received the Pfizer vaccine from the state in recent weeks after receiving only the Moderna vaccine for several weeks.

Willard said she is interested in seeing the response to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine at the health department’s first dose drive-through clinic from 1-3 p.m. Thursday at Lowe’s Park at River’s Edge. The health department received 200 doses for that clinic.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine on Feb. 27, making it the third vaccine available for COVID-19.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine only requires one dose, while Pfizer and Moderna both require two doses. Only Pfizer is approved for those under 18.

According to the health department website, the department had a second dose clinic for the Pfizer vaccine Tuesday of this week instead of Friday.

This health department’s next monthly drive-through vaccination clinics at the Wilkes middle schools are April 17. Willard said the clinic that has been at Central Wilkes Middle School once a month will instead be at Wilkes Central High School to help avoid traffic problems.

Check the health department website at https://www.wilkescounty.net/617/Vaccine-Clinic or call the health department at 336-990-9950 for detail on other clinics. The health department is now also scheduling vaccination appointments online.

Sweet potatoes a winner for Wilkes teacher, students

A Wilkes Central High School teacher received $500 for herself and $500 for a shopping spree for her classrooms from the N.C. SweetPotato Commission by winning the commission’s inaugural #TeachSweet Contest.

Jennifer Estes entered the competition with her Foods I and Foods II classes at Wilkes Central. Estes has been a family and consumer sciences teacher for about 20 years, mostly at Wilkes Central. She was chosen the school’s “teacher of year” this school year.

Michelle L. Grainger, the commission’s executive director, came to Wilkes Central on April 1 to tell Estes that she won. (The commission, observing its 60th anniversary, promotes spelling its namesake vegetable as one rather than two words.)

Dr. Dion Stocks, Wilkes Central principal; Scott Waugh, an assistant principal at Wilkes Central; and Wayne Shepherd, director of career and technical education for the Wilkes schools, were also there to see Estes’ surprised reaction. She was in her classroom with students.

Entrants in the competition were required to use to use the commission’s Teach Sweet curriculum, with activities using sweet potatoes for all grade levels in math, science and other subjects.

Estes said she used activities that were relevant to her Foods I and Foods II classes. She has freshmen in Foods I and sophomores, juniors and seniors in Foods II.

Students in Foods II learned about the sweet potato “farm to fork” food system from a PowerPoint presentation provided by the commission. This included how sweet potatoes are planted, grown, harvested, stored, distributed and prepared for sale. Students prepared notes and graphics about this process.

Each Foods II student did a project on sweet potatoes, which included researching sweet potato growers in North Carolina online and learning about the steps of buying them.

Each student developed a recipe incorporating sweet potatoes, chose ingredients for it and prepared a dish using it, said Estes. These included sweet potato pancakes, two different roasted sweet potato recipes and two different sweet potato casserole recipes.

One student prepared a sweet potato bowl with rice, black beans, lime, cilantro and other ingredients.

Estes said this was done as a competition, with Wilkes Central staff picking the best dish based on taste. Photos of the dishes were put on Facebook to come up with a “people’s choice” award based on appearance.

Students in the Foods II class said they didn’t realize the sweet potatoes could be used in so many different ways.

Estes said students in Foods I, where the challenge was to create a healthy snack using sweet potatoes, students made sweet potato pancakes.

This began with Waugh coming to the class as a guest chef to teach students how to make sweet potato pancakes. Estes said Waugh is a pancake expert and showed students all the tricks of making them. “The next day the kids came in and made their own sweet potato pancakes,” she said.

Pancakes were cooked in a microwave and then pureed before being added to the pancake batter.

Estes said the exercise included discussion of sweet potatoes and how to wash and prepare fresh sweet potatoes. It also included practicing kitchen and food safety and setting a table for a meal.

Students also discussed and learned to identify the anatomical parts of a sweet potato plant and the difference between organic and conventional farming.

The competition required posting photos of students engaged in their activities on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter using the hashtag #TeachSweet and tagging the NC SweetPotato Commission (@ncsweetpotatoes).

The N.C. SweetPotato Commission, based in Benson, is a nonprofit corporation made up of over 400 sweet potato growers, along with packers, processors and business associates that support them.

The purpose of the commission is to increase sweet potato consumption through education, promotional activities, research and honorable horticultural practices among its producers.

Since 1971, North Carolina has been the number one sweet potato producing state in the nation. They’re grown in eastern North Carolina.

Top Wilkes teacher, principal announced
  • Updated

Traci D. McManus from Wilkesboro Elementary is teacher of the year and Dr. Heather M. Freeman from North Wilkes Middle is principal of year for the Wilkes County Schools for 2021-22.

Their selections for these honors, along with their comments and comments of others, are included in a YouTube video posted March 30.

The video is in lieu of the annual Teacher/Principal of the Year Awards Dinner at the Stone Center in North Wilkesboro due to the pandemic. It can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qe-gnwWYi8g&t=7s.

McManus and Freeman now advance to regional competition.

Teacher of the YearMcManus said she was grateful to all who shaped her to become the teacher she is today. “This award kind of encompasses all of those people and the influence they’ve had on my career.”

She said former teachers taught her that humor can keep kids engaged and wanting to come back to school to learn, while administrators set high expectations for her.

“My current principal, Becky Spears, constantly challenges me and encourages me to grow as an educator.” McManus noted the support and influence of fellow third-grade teachers Holly Stone and Alisha Minton.

“Most importantly I am most thankful and grateful for my students. They are my heart…. They are behind my passion and my love for teaching. I continue to push myself every day for them,” she said.

“My goal is to always have a classroom that is open and a community that is engaging and fun where kids want to come to school every day.”

She thanked her husband, Brian, and her daughters, Sidney, Peyton and Addison, for their support.

Wilkes School Superintendent Mark Byrd said every day in McManus’ classroom is a celebration of learning, growing and sharing the joys of the school day.

He said McManus approaches the challenge of teaching third grade with energy, creativity and fun. Her strong relationships with families have a powerful impact on students, he added.

According to Mrs. Spears, Byrd said, McManus believes in second chances and focusing on progress over perfection. “She models how to be a good citizen and great encourager.”

McManus has a bachelor’s degree from Appalachian State University.

Also nominated by their schools for teacher of the year were Michelle Hartley, Boomer-Ferguson Elementary; Emily Fulcher, C.B. Eller Elementary; Katie Trivette Wright, C.C. Wright Elementary; Hayley S. Trivette, Central Wilkes Middle; Joan W. Sparks, East Wilkes High; Kari Reeves, East Wilkes Middle; Laurin Mayberry, Millers Creek Elementary; Tina Waller, Moravian Falls Elementary; Savannah Kilby, Mount Pleasant Elementary; Ashley York, Mountain View Elementary; Ali Carr, Mulberry Elementary; Sarah Miles, North Wilkes High; Kelly Trivette, North Wilkes Middle; Zana Whittington, North Wilkesboro Elementary; William Pearson, Roaring River Elementary; Melanie Yarboro, Ronda-Clingman Elementary; Penny Pruitt, Traphill Elementary; Megan Gambill, West Wilkes High; Jennifer Estes, Wilkes Central High; and Daniel Sluder, Wilkes Early College High School.

Principal of the YearFreeman said her grandmothers worked and retired from the Wilkes schools, one as a teacher assistant at Millers Creek Elementary and the other a food nutrition staff member at Wilkesboro Elementary.

“I remember as a small child seeing the joy in their hearts from helping others and I knew I wanted to feel just like that in my work someday.”

Freeman said she wanted to thank God for giving her the opportunity to do what she loves every day for the last 21 years.

She said teachers who influenced her when she was a student in the Wilkes schools included Sylvia Robinson, Lynn and William Clark, Ginger Bentley and Norma Collins. “Their dedication convinced me to pursue the North Carolina Teaching Fellows Scholarship… and then the hope of one day having my own classroom.”

Freeman added that she has been fortunate to work with outstanding professionals in the Wilkes schools, including Danielle Dowell, Amy Samples, James Byrd, Cindy Fowler and Candy Greer.

She said North Wilkes Middle staff always work hard to do what is in the best interest of students and families, while looking for ways to generate equity in learning opportunities and collaborating.

She thanked her husband, Joel, and her daughters, McKenna and Addison, for their support “and for so often making sacrifices so I can be the best educator I can be.”

Freeman began her career in the Wilkes schools in 2002 as a math teacher at Wilkes Central High and became a principal in 2015.

Byrd said she engaged staff in changes at North Middle to best serve students and their families. Freeman also led students, faculty and staff in implementing the Franklin Covey Leader in Me program at North Middle, which achieved “Lighthouse” status under this initiative in 2019.

Byrd said overall efficiency in reading at North Middle rose by 6.1% and by 9.1% in math in the last four years under her leadership.

Other nominees for principal of the year were David Johnson at North Wilkes High, Dr. Dion Stocks at Wilkes Central High and Michelle Shepherd at Wilkes Early College High School.

Experiences during pandemicAlicia Stone, 2020-21 Wilkes teacher of the year, said experiences during the pandemic reiterated that the most important aspect of teaching is relationships.

She said teachers started teaching remotely with little or no training but nothing could have prepared them for the past year.

It was among the most, if not the most, challenging times teachers would ever experience, said Stone. “But I am a stronger teacher because of it.”

She recalled her anxiety over teaching remotely and first hearing the terms Zoom, virtual classroom and Bitmoji. (Bitmoji is a social media app used to create a cartoon version of one’s self.)

Stone experienced this while helping her two elementary grade children, Samuel and Nathaniel, adjust to remote learning,

A teacher for 17 years, she said her tips for teaching in a pandemic are, first, keep students safe; second, lower their anxiety; third, make them laugh; fourth, make them feel wanted; and fifth, teach them something, “all in this order.”

She said a quote she read summed up the experience, “We can’t always choose the music life plays for us but we can choose how we dance to it.”

She also said teaching is a mission and teachers are in the mission field every day. She thanked God for His blessings, as well as her husband, Robbie, and two sons for their support.

Stone is a Wilkes native and product of the Wilkes schools.

Her father worked at the Wilkes School Bus Garage and her mother drove a school bus and was a substitute teacher and PTO volunteer.

West Wilkes Middle Principal Pam Huffman, 2020-21 Wilkes principal of the year, commented on the impact of the pandemic.

“Who would have known education would change forever” five days after last year’s Wilkes teacher and principal of the year event when the Wilkes schools had to start fulltime remote learning.

Huffman said she’s grateful for learning fundamentals as a student, teacher and assistant principal, but new things were learned in the past year.

“Some of the things that are going to focus us on the future are those things” learned in the pandemic, including the importance of home visits and how to utilize technology, she said.

Huffman urged fellow Wilkes school employees to give themselves grace and think about what was accomplished. “It wasn’t a perfect year and we didn’t know what the unexpected would bring.”

Huffman spoke about teachers who influenced her while she was a student in the Alleghany County Schools, including Bill Jarrett, whom she said arrived early in the morning well before his first class to provide tutoring or time to finish homework. He also did this on his lunch break.

Byrd said events of the 2020-21 school year demonstrated how fortunate Wilkes is to have quality educators. He said effective leadership is more important now than ever.

“I can say without a doubt that the job of a principal is harder than ever before.”

Dr. Westley Wood, associate superintendent, introduced the 2021-22 teacher of year and principal of the year selection committee, consisting of Alicia Stone, 2020-21 Wilkes teacher of the year; Carol Cleary, assistant principal at Wilkesboro Elementary School; and Susan Bachmeier, chief nursing officer at Wilkes Medical Center.

Wood noted the “do whatever it takes” attitude displayed by teachers and staff during the recent challenging times.

Rudy Holbrook, chairman of the Wilkes school board, congratulated all of those nominated for teacher or principal of the year, plus all of the other teachers and principals for how they handled during the pandemic.

$1.5 million Golden LEAF grant okayed for building
  • Updated

The Golden LEAF Foundation Board of Directors on April 1 awarded $1.5 million for constructing a 31,000-square-foot building in Wilkes County for commercial or light industrial use to help address the lack of available facilities here.

The funding was awarded to the Wilkes Economic Development Corp. as part of Golden LEAF’s Community-Based Grants Initiative (CBGI), contingent on the Wilkes County commissioners allocating a $1.5 million local match, said Wilkes EDC President LeeAnn Nixon.

The pre-fabricated metal building is planned on 4.8 acres just east of the intersection of N.C. 268 East, Airport Road and River Road-Liberty Grove Road. Purchased by the EDC from Carl Renfro in 2016, the site is behind the Knotville Fire Station and has access from N.C. 268 East and River Road-Liberty Grove Road.

Wilkes County Manager John Yates said the commissioners earlier indicated their support of the grant application and their intentions of approving the $1.5 million match for the building, called the Wilkes Commercial Business Center. They haven’t voted yet.

Yates submitted the proposed building planned as Wilkes County’s top priority in competition for this round of CBGI funding in the Northwest Prosperity Zone counties of Alexander, Alleghany, Ashe, Burke, Caldwell, Catawba, McDowell, Mitchell, Watauga and Wilkes.

Yates also submitted a proposed livestock education barn as a Wilkes project when he submitted the initial funding request for the Wilkes Commercial Business Center. The barn wasn’t approved for a full application.

Alleghany’s top request was $1.5 million for the Northwest N.C. Tech Hub, a proposed Wilkes Community College initiative to be based in Sparta. Golden LEAF approved this for submission of a full application but it wasn’t among those approved April 1.

Nixon said, “We’ll meet with the (Wilkes) commissioners now to determine the next step and continue working as a partnership to establish the Wilkes Commercial Business Center.” She said a little over half of the space in the building will be leased to one business and a little less than half to the other.

Nixon said it will target established businesses, either new to Wilkes or already here. She said initial lease rates will be discounted and progress over time to market rates. The building will have 20-foot-tall ceilings and dock doors, she added.

The Golden LEAF press release said the EDC will offer ongoing mentoring, professional legal, accounting and marketing consultation, with additional support from the Wilkes Small Business Center and similar entities.

The press release announcing approval of the $1.5 million grant for the Wilkes Commercial Business Center said 13 companies with a combined 157 new jobs contacted the EDC over the past two years seeking help finding buildings in Wilkes with 20,000 square feet of floor space or less.

Nixon said the EDC’s documentation of these inquiries and its inability to help these companies find the buildings they wanted because they weren’t available in Wilkes helped secure the grant. “They (Golden LEAF) had confidence in us due to these metrics,” she said. She said it normally is hard to get a grant for a building “when you don’t already have a tenant and jobs created.”

Plans for the Wilkes Commercial Business Center were modeled after a Bladen County initiative that resulted in construction of over 20 buildings available for lease to generate economic investments and jobs, with financing secured by using those already constructed as collateral.

Similarly, said Nixon, the goal in Wilkes is for the building planned behind the Knotville Fire Station to be the first of several here constructed and leased. Golden LEAF

EDC and Wilkes County government officials, including the commissioners, met remotely with Bladen County officials and others in Bladen in January to learn about the Bladen initiative.

The $1.5 million for the Wilkes Commercial Business Center is part of $9.6 million awarded by the Golden LEAF board Thursday for 14 CBGI projects in the Northwest Prosperity Zone. CBGI funding is intended for projects ready for implementation and with potential to have a significant impact.

A Golden LEAF press release said no more than three projects and up to $1.5 million are awarded per county under CBGI, but three projects in Burke County received a total of $2.5 million Thursday.

Western Piedmont Community College’s proposed 30,000-square-foot Construction Trades Solution Center in Morganton was the only other CBGI project in the Northwest Prosperity Zone awarded $1.5 million. It will offer degree and certificate training in carpentry, masonry, electrical technologies, HVAC, plumbing and green construction principles.

Also in Burke, Industrial Commons and the Town of Drexel were awarded $500,000 apiece. Industrial Commons is a proposed training initiative to help small and medium textile and furniture manufacturers b more resilient and profitable. Drexel’s plans involve developing a former Drexel Heritage furniture factory into a shovel-ready industrial site.

Ashe County government was awarded $500,000 for an access road, gas line, water main, sewer main and telecommunications infrastructure to support creation of a 41.7-acre industrial park. The Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) awarded $1.5 million for building a road within the park.

Alexander County government was awarded $193,776 to extend a sewer line to help a furniture manufacturer at the Alexander Industrial Park in Taylorsville expand with 10 new jobs and $1.2 million in private investment. The ARC awarded $1.5 million for building a road within the park.

Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute was awarded $1.09 million for developing a regional diesel and heavy equipment technology program.

Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture in Boone was awarded $108,000 for personnel, equipment, supplies, marketing and a vehicle to help expand delivery and distribution by developing satellite pickup locations for its food hub online marketplace.

The Golden LEAF Foundation is a nonprofit organization established in 1999 to receive a portion of North Carolina’s funding from the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement with cigarette manufacturers.

Golden LEAF’s 15 board members are appointed by the governor, the president pro tem of the Senate, and speaker of the House.

For 20 years, Golden LEAF has worked to increase economic opportunity in North Carolina’s rural and tobacco-dependent communities through leadership in grant-making, collaboration, innovation and stewardship as an independent and perpetual foundation.