Avery County Board of Education

The Avery County Board of Education made two major decisions at their August 10 meeting: to make masks optional for Avery County students and to push back the high school’s starting date to August 18. Pictured are Jane Bumgarner, Dr. Dan Brigman, John Greene, Kathey Aldridge, Patricia Edwards and Ruth Shirley.

NEWLAND — The Avery County Board of Education decided to delay the first day of school for Avery County High School until Wednesday, Aug. 18, due to delays in the construction schedule of the renovated high school building. Elementary and middle schools are not impacted by this decision and will still begin its school year on August 16.

Additionally, the board decided to make masks optional in favor of allowing parents to make decisions for their children, according to John Greene. Two parents of Avery County students spoke in favor of masks being optional during the public comment, stating that parents should be able to make decisions about their children's health and well being, and that wearing masks all day is not good for their children. 

Jane Bumgarner clarified after the announcement that the Board of Education is recommending masks, although they are ultimately optional.

"Masks will continue to be required on all buses, and all school visitors will access our schools by appointment only, screened upon entry, and will be required to wear a mask," according to a August 11 release from ACS Superintendent Dr. Dan Brigman. "At indoor school events such as volleyball, we will ask that non-vaccinated spectators wear a mask, but this will be on the honor system. We will continue to ensure the highest level of cleaning and disinfecting occurs on a regular basis in all schools, buses, and touched surfaces. We will continue to work in partnership with Deb Gragg and our local health department to monitor health and safety issues in Avery County. We will also provide ongoing updates to this Board and our stakeholders regarding COVID-19 in Avery County."

In regard to the ongoing Avery High School renovation project, Pierre Henwood from Boomerang Architecture provided an update to the board regarding the progress of construction. He reported that teachers are moving into their classrooms, but that he “will not lie, it is down to the wire.”

Noting progress in the construction, Henwood said that a recent success in the project was that the construction crew has put up a temporary wall needed in the pod 3 section of the building that will direct students through a corridor to avoid construction while moving through the building.

The construction is not without setbacks. Jeff Jaynes, Avery County Schools chief financial officer, reported that an unexpected delay has occurred during demolition. On Tuesday, Aug. 10, it was discovered that interior walls in the 100 and 200 pods of the building did not have the load bearing capacity needed in order to separate the building from the parts being demolished. Jaynes stated that demolition cannot continue until these walls are reinforced.

The subcontractor doing the demolition, according to Haynes, has made a plan to reinforce these walls. He noted, however, that the work must move quickly in order for the demolition crew to not be demobilized. Should the crew demobilize, Jaynes said, there would be added fees for remobilization. The wall reinforcement was estimated to cost $39,780, which the board approved in order to continue the construction progress.

Board president Greene as well as board members Kathey Aldridge and Ruth Shirley noted railings in the main atrium that, upon their last visit to the high school, were unsteady and insufficiently secured.

Henwood said that the fire marshal will conduct a final inspection on August 13, but many members of the board expressed their concerns that the renovations would not be completed in time. Even if the renovations are complete, board president John Greene stated that he is concerned about the cleanliness of the building and whether there will be time to thoroughly clean the building before students arrive. The board will continue discussions in the coming week to enlist custodians to begin cleaning the building in preparation for the new school year.

Ultimately, Shirley stated that the people at the heart of this issue are the teachers and students.

“Our students have been through so much in the past year,” she said, “and the first day sets the tone for the year.” Shirley said, adding that she wants the school to be ready for students.

Marisa Mecke is a Report for America corps member for Mountain Times Publications. Report for America is a national nonprofit service program which places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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