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An election like no other - and it's not over yet
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Consistent with the times, this year’s general election has been like no other.

Wilkes County voters produced a record 80% turnout, with more than half of those who voted doing so before Election Day (Nov. 3).

There were 10,960 ballots cast on Election Day in Wilkes, and before that 20,109 cast at the county’s two one-stop, early voting sites and at least 4,428 through absentee, by-mail voting. Driven by COVID-19 concerns and intense interest in the presidential race, it was the most votes cast yet before Election Day in a Wilkes County election.

With Democrats accounting for only about 18% of the registered voters in Wilkes, the huge turnout favored Republicans. GOP candidates finished farther ahead of Democrats than normal in most cases locally.

A record 5,814 absentee ballots were requested from the Wilkes Board of Elections office. Those remaining must be postmarked on or before Nov. 3 and arrive at the Wilkes elections office on or before Thursday to be counted.

The Wilkes Board of Elections and its counterparts in the state’s other 99 counties are reviewing tens of thousands of absentee and provisional ballots this week to determine who will be the N.C. Supreme Court chief justice, state attorney general and results of a handful of other close races. (See inside for more details.)

Local racesNo Wilkes County elected positions remain undecided.

Republicans Casey Joe Johnson of Mountain View, Eddie Settle of Pleasant Hill and Keith Elmore of Roaring River easily claimed three of the five Wilkes County commissioner seats by defeating Democrats D. Jerome Watkins and Chalma W. Hunt, both of Wilkesboro.

Unofficial results by the end of Election Day showed Johnson with 24,929 votes (28.48%); Settle, 24,770 (28.30%); Elmore, 22,241 (26.55%); Watkins, 7,395 (8.54%); and Hunt, 7,193 (8.22%). Settle and Elmore are incumbents and Johnson, Watkins and Hunt ran for the first time.

Johnson, 29, said he benefitted from contacts made while teaching at Mountain View Elementary and singing at local churches as a member of a gospel music group. He campaigned at polling places on Election Day and had friends and kin doing the same on his behalf. Johnson said he’s “super excited and thankful for the opportunity” to be a commissioner. His goals include getting more family recreation opportunities.

Settle, current chairman, said he believes people realize county government is in good shape financially. He said the concern mentioned to him most often was needing more than two one-stop, early voting sites in Wilkes. Settle said he campaigned at the polls on Election Day for the primary but not last week because of COVID-19. “All of the candidates ran clean races” and Hunt and Watkins “are good folks,” he added.

Elmore said he wants to see more people involved in Wilkes County government by sharing their ideas with commissioners, especially people with experience and vision. “We need to better utilize these resources,” he said. Elmore added that he wants to focus on education and economic development.

Wilkes hasn’t had a Democratic county commissioner since Luther Parks (2002-2010). The closest anyone other than a Republican has come to being elected since Parks was Tom Morris, an unaffiliated candidate who finished with almost 22% of the votes in a race with three running for two commissioner seats.

New Ronda mayorIn the Ronda mayoral race, results by the end of the day on Election Day had former commissioner Rheajean Benge defeating incumbent Victor Varela 100 to 80. Varela was seeking his fourth term. Benge said she has a lot of ideas and is excited about taking office in December. She cited working with the Wilkes Sheriff’s Office to do more about drug and speeding motorist problems in Ronda, plus improve overall effectiveness of town government in Ronda.

Kevin Reece, a former Ronda commissioner, received 105 votes in his bid to return to the Ronda board by claiming one of two seats on the ballot. Incumbent Sandra Simmons was reelected with 86 votes. Bobby Munsey and Gene Fowler trailed with 47 and 43, respectively.

A key issue in Ronda is whether Ronda’s water system should be merged with Elkin’s system to maintain adequate service for Ronda’s 400-plus water customers. About 70% of Ronda’s water is bought from Elkin, with the rest coming from two town-owned wells. Infrastructure for buying water from North Wilkesboro or Wilkesboro is lacking, while the Elkin water system has additional capacity needed to serve Ronda.

Results by the end of Election Day had incumbent Charlie Sink edging out Charles Porter, 14,855 (50.22%) to 14,340 (48.48%), in the race for one of two elected seats on the five-member Wilkes County Soil and Water Conservation District Board of Supervisors.

Porter stated at the Wilkes Board of Elections office on Nov. 4 that he would seek a recount of votes, but Wilkes Board of Elections Supervisor Kim Caudill said later that day that results didn’t meet requirements for a recount. For non-statewide contests, the difference between candidates must be 1% or less of the total votes cast in the contest. Caudill said the difference between the votes for Sink and Porter had to be less than 296 but it was 515 votes.

Republican Misty Smithey was unopposed in her bid for a second four-year term as Wilkes Register of Deeds.

Republican Donna Shumate of Sparta also faced no opposition and was elected to fill District Court judge seat four in the 23rd Judicial District, which encompasses Wilkes, Ashe, Alleghany and Yadkin counties. Judge Jeanie Houston of Hamptonville, a Republican, previously held this position and didn’t seek reelection.

Legislative seatsRepublican incumbent Sarah Stevens of Mount Airy, with 29,838 votes (74.61%), defeated Democrat Beth Shaw of Elkin, with 10,153 votes (25.39%), to win the 90th N.C. House District race. This district includes about half of Wilkes, about half of Surry County and all of Alleghany County.

Republican Jeffrey Elmore of North Wilkesboro ran unopposed in his bid for reelection to represent the 94th N.C. House District, which includes about half of Wilkes and all of Alexander County.

Republican Deanna Ballard of Blowing Rock was reelected to represent the 45th N.C. Senate District, which includes Wilkes, Watauga, Ashe and Alleghany counties and the western three quarters of Surry County. Ballard defeated Democrat Jeanne Supin of Boone 71,370 (68.48%) to 32,849 (31.52%).

In the 93rd House District race, which includes Ashe and Watauga counties, Democratic incumbent Ray Russell of Boone lost to Republican Ray Pickett of Blowing Rock 24,496 to 21,663.

Republicans still had majorities in both legislative chambers as of late last week, but some races were too close to call.

The annual Veterans Day ceremony on the Wilkes County Courthouse lawn, held Sunday, was shorter and drew fewer people due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ivy Cooper is at the podium singing the national anthem. Boy Scouts in Troop 301 presented the colors. Wilkes Veterans Service Officer Allison Huffman, in rear at left, organized the event.

Tribute to veterans

Wilkesboro, Ronda put on notice for delinquent town audits

The N.C. Local Government Commission (LGC) voted Tuesday to issue notices of warnings to the towns of Wilkesboro and Ronda 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

Wilkesboro, Ronda and Castalia, a Nash County town warned for not submitting audit reports for 2017, 2018 and 2019, will be given 30 days to show they are correcting the issues by hiring outside entities to complete and file the audits, stated a press release from the state treasurer’s office. The LGC is a division of the state treasurer’s office.

If not satisfied with progress made by the towns toward compliance after the initial 30 days, the LGC could next order that they submit audit reports. The LGC has fiscal responsibility oversight of local governments.

Bob Urness, Wilkesboro’s director of finance and assistant town manager, said Tuesday that Wilkesboro’s 2018 audit is in final stages of review by the firm doing the audit. Wilkesboro hired Lexington-based Rives & Associates LLP to conduct its 2017 and 2018 audits.

“I have been given every assurance (by Rives & Associates) that it will be delivered to the LGC by the 30th of November. I have maintained open communication with the LGC and they are aware of where we stand, currently and moving forward.”

The N.C. Board of Certified Accountant Examiners issued a press release in March 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.

On Sept. 14, the Town of Wilkesboro hired Atlanta, Ga.-based Mauldin & Jenkins to conduct audits for the 2019 and 2020 fiscal years for $25,000 annually. This will be the firm’s first work for Wilkesboro.

“All aspects of the 2019 report are prepared for that report to be completed by (Mauldin & Jenkins) in short order once 2018 is approved,” said Urness. “We expect to be back on track with this function in early spring.”

Urness concluded, “The town’s finances are in fine shape and the (LGC) issue is in regards to our financial audit reporting, not financial status or cash flow.”

Ronda Mayor Victor Varela said Ronda’s failure to submit audit reports for 2018 and 2019 to the LGC resulted from the town’s accounting firm, also Rives & Associates, not completing the audits. He said Rives & Associates has a new name.

“They say they almost have the 2018 audit completed and that it will be done in the next two months,” said Varela. “They haven’t given us any reason for not getting it done. We have a new firm coming on because of this.”

Lack of student engagement in remote learning tackled
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Lack of student engagement during COVID-19-related remote learning, an issue nationwide and locally, was addressed in the Wilkes County Board of Education meeting Monday night.

Twenty-one percent (1,842) of students in the Wilkes schools were failing more than one class at the end of this year’s first nine-week grading period and 1,210 of them weren’t considered engaged, said Dr. Donna Cotton, the school district’s chief academic officer.

She said these 1,842 students included 538 (20%) in high school and 734 (35%) in middle school, with 173 of the high school students and 664 of the middle school students not being engaged.

It also included 570 (15%) of elementary students, but they aren’t given pass/fail grades so “not showing academic growth” is used. Among the 570 elementary students, 373 weren’t engaged.

“Those are high numbers, but we know a large number of those (resulted) from not being engaged and not doing the work — not because they don’t understand it,” said Cotton. The percentage of elementary students is lowest likely because parental involvement is greatest with youngest students, she added.

Not being engaged includes not turning in assigned academic work, not being present or participating and not doing the bare minimum, she said.

All students in the Wilkes schools had fulltime remote learning the last three months of last year. It continued this year until all Wilkes schools started alternating between remote and in person learning each day (Plan B) on Sept. 8.

Middle and high schools are still using Plan B but elementary schools went to full-time in-person learning (Plan A) at the start of the second nine-week grading period on Oct. 20. Cotton said more elementary students became engaged and showed academic growth after the switch to Plan A.

Cotton said student nonengagement is more of a problem among the 1,797 students in all grade levels who opted to continue remote learning fulltime (Plan C), but it’s an issue for some middle and high school students in Plan B.

She said middle and high school principals told her recently that it was rumored among their students that failing course grades wouldn’t be given this year. She said this false rumor likely resulted from a no-failing grades policy statewide when public schools switched to 100% remote learning last year due to COVID-19.

She emphasized the effectiveness of students realizing that not doing required work not being engaged at all could result in having to repeat a course or grade level. “I’ve also told principals that if students are trying, we’re going to do everything in our power to make them be successful” and they shouldn’t get a failing grade.

Cotton said she believes student engagement will improve due to the outreach of principals, teachers and other school personnel to parents in home visits, phone calls and texts, meetings and online means. Over 20,000 such contacts have been made with parents of high school students and over 6,000 with parents of middle and elementary schools, plus over 500 contacts by interpreters with non-English speaking parents, she said.

Cotton said parents of nonengaged students considered at risk of failing classes, including some at risk of dropping out, are being contacted. Parents are told what they can do, but their input is sought.

Cotton said meetings are being held with students via Zoom and some are shown videos on how to use online learning platforms utilized at their schools. Some Wilkes schools switched to giving paper assignments because online platforms were overwhelming them and their parents.

Professional development for teachers on reaching students during remote learning will be offered. Some high schools offer alternate assignments as makeup work to get students caught up. Cotton said one-on-one talks with parents are the most effective among student engagement strategies initiated after the second nine-week grading period began.

Superintendent Mark Byrd said lack of student engagement in remote learning “is a huge source of stress for teachers in Wilkes County, North Carolina and across the nation… along with everything else going on in the world.”

Cotton said it’s hard to adjust to teaching remotely. “Teachers can see what’s not working in the classroom, but recognizing this with remote teaching takes a whole different skill set…. Having to reach out to children (to address lack of engagement) adds an extra layer of stress” for teachers, who already are overworked.

School board member Joan Caudill asked what consequences could be implemented for students who don’t turn in required assignments.

“I think the best recourse is to get parents involved” and for school personnel to provide parents with strategies to address issues such as unwillingness of students to use a computer for school work, said Cotton.

She said some principals asked about a legal recourse, such as charging truancy. “I don’t know if that is possible.” Report cards should be a wakeup call and bring home the message “that school counts this year,” she said.

Caudill said, “I think that if you make an effort with parents and you’re still not getting results, you probably need to look at a truancy-type reprimand.”

When principals met in September, said Cotton, principals in each grade level voiced concern about students not turning in assigned work and in some cases not doing any work. She said there was discussion then about pandemic-related and other challenges students face, including unemployed or sick parents and food and housing issues. “All of the change has made it hard for some students to even think about learning,” she added.

To facilitate remote learning, each student in the Wilkes schools was provided with a laptop or similar device and Wilkes Communications and Carolina West Wireless added numerous free WiFi hot spots in Wilkes. Cotton said digital systems used to deliver information don’t fit how all students learn, plus students need structure and support when learning new information regardless of their age.

“All of these things are holding our kids back from actually engaging with the content and learning and that is creating a big problem for the Wilkes County Schools,” she said.

Cotton said school officials hope students will become more engaged through parent and teacher encouragement and as a result of seeing how not doing their work impacts their grades.

Record number of Wilkes COVID-19 patients hospitalized
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The Wilkes County Health Department reported Friday that 19 Wilkes residents were hospitalized with COVID-19, the most yet for the county.

Also on Friday, the 42nd COVID-19-related death of a Wilkes resident occurred. The person, in his/her 70s, was a patient at Wake Forest Baptist Health — Wilkes Medical Center in North Wilkesboro when the death occurred.

Wilkes County’s COVID-19 case total since the pandemic began in March crossed a new threshold mark of 2,000 this weekend, increasing from 1,998 Friday to 2,051 Saturday. The total Tuesday was 2,077.

Twenty-six new COVID-19 cases reported Friday brought the county’s total to 1,998, up nearly 200 from 1,803 a week earlier. It also was reported Friday that Wilkes had 202 active COVID-19 cases.

The Wilkes Journal-Patriot wasn’t able to ascertain the number of COVID-19 patients at Wilkes Medical Center from the Wake Forest Baptist Health media office, but local officials say Wilkes Medical Center receives the majority Wilkes residents with COVID-19 who need to be hospitalized.

The newspaper received a statement from Dr. Hayes Calvert, chief medical officer at Wake Forest Baptist Health — Wilkes Medical Center, in response to questions.

Calvert said, “There has been an increase of COVID-19 cases and patients requiring hospitalization due to COVID-19 in our community, across the state and around most of the country. Our dedicated staff at Wilkes Medical Center and throughout the Wake Forest Baptist Health system continues to provide the highest-quality care for all patients — those with and without COVID-19.

“We are monitoring current and projected volumes throughout our health system and have developed surge plans to ensure we are prepared for any increases that may occur.

“While caring for patients with COVID-19 requires additional resources and safety measures, neither Wilkes Medical Center nor any of the other hospitals in the Wake Forest Baptist system are overwhelmed and we do not want anyone to delay seeking medical care.

“We urge everyone in our community to do all they can to protect themselves and their loved ones, especially as we enter flu season. The same measures we can take to reduce the spread of COVID-19 are also effective in reducing the spread of influenza.”

The Triad Healthcare Preparedness Coalition, which includes hospitals in Wilkes and all adjoining counties plus Forsyth and other Triad counties, led the state’s eight healthcare preparedness coalitions in COVID-19 hospital patients last week and this week.

Hospitals in the Triad Healthcare region, including Wilkes Medical Center and all other hospitals in the Wake Forest Baptist system, had 327 COVID-19 patients late last week and 346 early this week. There were 1,169 people hospitalized with COVID-19 statewide on Monday, up from 1,138 the prior day.

North Carolina had its largest one-day increase in confirmed COVID-19 cases Friday with 2,908.

There were more than 2,000 new cases every day last week except Nov. 2, according to data from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services on Monday reported 1,521 new COVID-19 cases, down from 2,094 reported the prior day. Monday marked the first time in a week that the daily case count was below 2,000.

The state’s seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases Monday hit a record high of 2,405. The average gives a wider view of infections over the course of a week. Eight coronavirus-related deaths were reported in the state on Monday.