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Grandfather Mountain community celebrates health care workers

LINVILLE — The Grandfather Mountain community has come together to honor health care heroes who have worked and risked their lives throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

With the national Random Acts of Kindness Day around the corner, Avery County school board member Ruth Ann Shirley contacted Grandfather Mountain President and Executive Director Jesse Pope with an idea — to create a tribute to the local health department.

“I saw on Twitter that Feb. 17 was Random Acts of Kindness Day,” Shirley said. “I hit the link, and it said send somebody a thank-you note, and I thought, ‘Well, I can’t send a thank you to every medical worker in the state or area! But if I did a big, big thank you so that they all could see it, that would be just the same.”

While the original plan was to take a quick, casual photo featuring Shirley’s handcrafted luminary lights, Pope soon took the idea to new heights — literally.

To bring the vision to life, Pope called local photographer Todd Bush, who offered his talents to help make the gesture extra special.

Within hours, the team had a plan, locations scouted for the photo, and wooden letters built to help the luminaries stand out.

“We cannot thank our health care workers and leaders across our community and state enough for the hard work and dedication to addressing COVID-19 and implementing the vaccine rollout effort,” Pope said. “Their jobs are tireless and often thankless. When most of us were staying at home last spring, they were on the front lines and have remained there for the entirety of this very stressful global pandemic.”

“From the day COVID started, they have not stopped,” Shirley added. “They live it, they see it every day, and it’s just so embedded in everything that they do. Health care workers didn’t get a break from it, and it’s been a year now, so it just kind of stuck in my heart.”

Pope invited the community at large to share its appreciation for local health-care workers by posting a photo with the hashtag #MayIThankYou.

The hashtag is also the title of the song Bush wrote specifically for the effort and is featured in a video tribute also created by Bush and shared on Grandfather Mountain’s YouTube and social media channels.

“‘May I Thank You’ is a film to health-care workers, their families and others affected by COVID, inspired by Ruth Ann Shirley’s idea,” Bush said. “So, the image, this film and song were born as my gift to their great idea and to those helping others and to those affected by this pandemic.”

Phillip Barrier, Avery County manager, also thanked local health care workers, while encouraging others to do the same.

“I could not be prouder of Team Avery!” he said. “No Avery County government department has stepped back from the challenges COVID has brought with it. ‘Together, we are Avery’ are words in our motto, but COVID has proved it to be true.”

“Grandfather Mountain extends mile-high gratitude to our local, national and global heroes,” Pope said. “This Wednesday on Random Acts of Kindness Day, we ask folks to act deliberately with a kind gesture to these brave and dedicated individuals — be it a heartfelt ‘thank you,’ buying them a meal or simply posting the #MayIThankYou hashtag. The smallest gesture can have a tremendous impact.”

To view the “May I Thank You” video, click to https://youtu.be/57IPycw3pzM. The video can also been seen on Grandfather’s social media channels: Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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Grades K-8 return to in-class instruction five days a week

NEWLAND — Avery County School students in grades K-9 returned to in-class learning five days a week on Monday, Feb. 15, after the Board of Education voted to approve the transition at the governor’s recommendation during the monthly BOE meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 9.

The return to in-class instruction five days a week is in effect for grades K-8 within the Avery County School System. However, students at Avery High School will continue to have in-class instruction four days a week, with a remote learning or split learning day set for each Wednesday, due to the social distancing requirements still in place by the state and the comparatively large numbers of students who attend AHS.

“Last week Gov. Cooper and the Director of the Department of Health and Human Services emphasized the need for students in the elementary grades to return to in-class instruction five days a week, while practicing minimum social distancing. As the board is aware, we have been fortunate to be one of the few school systems in the state of North Carolina to have face-to-face instruction four days per week since Aug. 17,” Superintendent Dr. Dan Brigman said.

Before the board officially approved the motion to return to in-class instruction five days a week, it heard from two concerned parents, the first one being Lyndsay Ennis, who expressed the challenges related to remote learning and voiced their support for more face-to-face instruction.

Ennis, who has two children who attend Banner Elk Elementary, began by expressing the need for teachers to receive the COVID-19 vaccine before going on to explain the difficulty involved with shuffling her children between home, work and church, which has a day program, during remote learning days. Ennis said her two children have five classes via Zoom between the hours of 9 a.m. and noon, which she says her and her husband must help facilitate.

“The true travesty here is that there are families in this county who don’t have it as easy as our family does,” Ennis said. “Keeping our schools open for in-person instruction should be a team effort, and it should be a number-one priority.”

Another parent, Tiffany Moon, also gave feedback on what remote learning has been like for her family. Moon said that both of her children are Exceptional Children (EC) students, and her and her husband are employed full-time.

“During remote days, I am the one who is responsible for staying home with our kids, as my husband has no paid time off with his employment. With me, this means that for my kids to get their work done, I have to sit with them and keep them on task, which results with me working at very odd times. Thankfully, I do have a job that is flexible, but this is asking a lot and creates a level of stress that I’m sure will create negative impacts in addition to the impacts of this pandemic,” Moon said.

Moon recognized that there are people in the community who are not blessed with a flexible work schedule and have to choose between “putting food on the table or making sure their kids are getting an education and their school work done.” Moon added that the pandemic has placed additional barriers between a children and their education and has made other challenges more pronounced, such as the lack of access to the internet, as well as the lack of the additional structure or encouragement some children may need from an adult.

“My kids have to be back in school five days a week, and I know I can’t be the only parent who feels this way,” Moon said. “I feel like, as a community, we have got to come together and intervene to limit the impact this situation is going to have on a generation of students in Avery County.”

In response to the public comments, BOE Chair John Greene addressed the actions that the school system has taken based on the guidelines it has been given by the state.

“With the parameters we were given, we were one of the only (school) systems that went as much as we did. A lot were doing A/B (schedules) and going half the time and the schedules flip-flopped every week, while some were doing totally virtual. So we understood the value of face-to-face education. Restrictions have loosened up a little bit, so we’re going to be able to do more,” Greene said.

With the two parents still in attendance, the board moved forward with its decision to reinstate in-class instruction for five days a week. Dr. Brigman also addressed the circumstances that allowed the school system to make the change.

“As the data and research shows, schools are not transmitters, especially among elementary age kids. Being at home is more devastating to these kids than the threat of getting Covid at schools, from the social and emotional well-being to the nutrition that they’re not getting. (The Governor) recommended school boards to bring elementary-aged kids back five days a week,” Brigman said. “It is not only my recommendation to this board to adhere to the governor’s recommendation, but to also do so with K-12. The high school is a little different with the size of those classes and the population. But what I would like for us to do is go ahead and bring K-8 and pre-K back five days a week.”

The board quickly approved the motion to go ahead with the change. Additionally, the board heard from AHS engineering teacher Matthew Michel who announced to the board that his class has received a grant in the amount $5,000 to outfit the school’s engineering and design lab, which allow the high school to move forward with a new program to train students in technology and engineering design.

“This will allow students to get more hands-on experience using tools and will benefit them, whether they’re planning on attending a four-year university or going into the trades. They will learn things like small engine repair, basic mechanical equipment and basic mechanic tools. It will basically outfit our whole lab and really help that program,” Michel said.

As the next order of business, the board received a construction update on the Avery High School project from Boomerang Design architect Rob Johnson and project liaison Mike Love of Branch Construction. Johnson reported that the new expected completion date for the project is now set for June after previously being set for May. Johnson and Love also reported that the rest of the roof was expected to be completed by the end of the week, with the ice and water shield being applied. Masonry work continues, as does work inside the building, although weather has delayed some aspects of the project during the winter.

After receiving the news on the new completion date, Greene expressed concern about the ever-moving goal post after April had previously been set for the drop-dead date for the project.

“We want these students to be in that building come August. We’re looking at some more winter. We know the timeline of getting demolition and asbestos abatement done before we do other things, but there’s no room for any error,” Greene said. “From the standpoint of people in Avery County who are paying for this, from the school board and staff, and most of all our kids, we are going to be sorely disappointed and irate if we don’t have school starting this Fall (in the new building).”

Love responded by saying that there are a few things with the project that are holding up other areas. Brigman seconded Greene’s statement, and stressed the need to remove barriers instead of constantly moving the timeline. In order to nail down a timeline and hold parties accountable, the county will hold a joint meeting with the board of commissioners and BOE, along with representatives of Boomerang Design and Branch builds, at 5 p.m. on Feb. 23 at the Avery County Community Building.

“I cannot as Superintendent open up school on August 17, and I know that the wish of this board is to have our kids coming out of a pandemic walking into a $20 million facility on August 17. I don’t want to have to explain why we’re not (doing so) to the county commissioners and taxpayers in this county. We’re in that situation of urgency, and if there are any further delays, I hope we can talk about that before it’s put in an email and announced,” Brigman said.

Finance Officer Jeffery Jaynes presented several change orders and budget amendments to the board. The first change orders involved one in the amount of $1,600 related to the roof at the high school to prevent water damage in the future, while the other was in the amount of $2,000 to install equipment such as vents within the science labs of the new building. The board also approved a change order in the amount of $65,000 for construction crews to complete a ditch that runs from the back of the building to the front. The completion timeline for the Crossnore roof project was also extended by 38 days to adjust for weather delays.

For capital outlays, Mountain Heritage Systems has secured needed material to replace the intercoms at Newland Elementary and is expected to be completed by March 15. Camera systems are also scheduled to be replaced at Cranberry Middle and Freedom Trail as well thanks to a Sheriff’s Safety Grant.

The board approved two budget amendments, one in the amount of $78,000 to add to the total budget that had come in through federal funding and partly from the governor’s COVID-19 project fund. The board then approved the annual Mental Health Support Report, in which Jaynes reported that the school system has two psychologists, five guidance counselors, one social worker and three nurses on staff as of Dec. 31.

School administration continues to prepare next school year’s calendar, and has posted a draft calendar on its website for parents to refer to. However, an official decision is yet to be made on the calendar, as the board expects eventual changes to be made to school calendar law at the state level. Lastly, school administration has begun the process of updating its inventory of band equipment by declaring about 12 to 15 instruments as surplus in order to begin the process of negotiating a trade or sale of this equipment. Jaynes said that about $3,800 is needed to repair salvageable equipment.

The board met in closed session before adjourning.

Mobile vaccination units rolling out to Riverside Elementary

AVERY COUNTY — The new Avery County mobile vaccination clinic will make its first stop out in the community this week by setting up at Riverside Elementary from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 20, for individuals 65 years of age and older to receive their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Meanwhile, the community vaccination clinic at the Avery County Agricultural Extension will continue operations. As of press time, appointments are still currently available this week for those who are 65 and older to receive the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. To make an appointment, call (828) 733-8273. Appointments for the first dose are required.

The county reminds recipients to bring their insurance card and to wear appropriate clothing for ease of access for the vaccine to be administered in the upper arm. Face coverings are required.

Additionally, second dose vaccines for the 65 and older group are still scheduled from Wednesday to Friday, Feb. 17 to 19. Recipients must attend these clinic days for their second dose as noted on their paperwork. No appointment is needed for the second dose.

Moreover, free transportation to the vaccine clinic is now available through Avery County Transportation for Avery County residents. Call (828) 733-0005 to arrange transportation if needed.

According to Avery County Manager Phillip Barrier, the county has received a shipment of 200 first-dose vaccines that will be split between the mobile vaccination site and the Agricultural Extension building. Along with the clinics for the first dose, the county will also administer 1,200 second-dose vaccines. Barrier said that the location for the mobile clinic was chosen with the weather in mind and hopes it will provide easier access to the vaccines for those in the eligible group.

“We knew the weather would be okay for that location. I want to (take the mobile clinic) to the top of Beech Mountain one day. I want to go to Carey’s Flat, but we were skittish of the weather. The weather may cause some havoc for us this week,” Barrier said.

The most recent allotment comes as Governor Roy Cooper announced on Wednesday, Feb. 10, that the state plans to move forward with vaccinating group three, which will commence on Feb. 24 for essential workers in child care and employees at pre K-12 schools and will expand to include additional essential workers on March 10.

A letter from the Department of Health and Human Services that was sent out to the state’s 100 counties stated that even though the aforementioned groups will be eligible to receive a vaccine, it does not mean they will be guaranteed one.

“While staff in child care settings and PreK-12 schools will be eligible starting February 24, that does not guarantee they will get an appointment or get vaccinated between February 24 and March 10 because of very limited supply. However, the two-week period between February 24 and March 10 will allow for a more measured opening of the frontline essential workforce group,” the letter stated.

According to DHHS, those working in child care and schools, such as teachers, bus and van drivers, custodial and maintenance staff, and food service workers, will be eligible for vaccines. This includes staff in child care centers and homes, Head Start Programs, Preschool and Pre-K programs, traditional public schools, charter schools and private schools.

In order to meet the demand in Avery County, Barrier has applied to the state to receive 300 first doses of the vaccine for the following week, but will not know if the county will be approved until Thursday night. Upon receiving the letter from the state, Barrier expressed frustration over the limited allotment of doses the county is receiving, since larger portions of doses are being administered at mass vaccination clinics in Charlotte, and it appeared that the county would not be able to move on to the next group.

However, when the county’s vaccination call center opened on Monday, Feb. 15, appointments for the first dose did not immediately fill up, which may offer hope that the county has vaccinated the majority of people who are 65 and older.

“It’s kind of surprising that we’re concentrating on people 65 and older, and we did not fill appointments yesterday (Monday, Feb. 15). So I’m feeling good. We have maybe 28 appointments we can still take. We want to finish that age group before we move to the next allotment. We’ll see what happens, but we’re confident we’ll fill them,” Barrier said on Tuesday morning, Feb. 16.

As of Feb. 15, Avery County has administered a total of 3,863 doses of the Moderna vaccine, with 2,843 of these shots being first doses and 1,020 of these shots being second doses, according to DHHS data. On Feb. 8, the state recorded a larger portion of second doses of the vaccine being administered than first doses for the first time, with 134,688 being first doses and 197,712 being second doses.

Statewide, a total of 1,780,687 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been administered, which includes 163,662 doses through the federal government’s long-term care program.