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JEFFERSON — The Ashe County Board of Education held an emergency meeting on Jan. 14 at 4:30 p.m. at the administrative offices annex of Ashe County Schools. At the meeting, the board voted unanimously for the school system to continue with remote learning until Feb. 1.

Physically present at the meeting were Superintendent Dr. Eisa Cox, Chair Joshua Roten, Vice Chair Dianne Eldreth, Finance Officer Amanda Coldiron and board members Dr. Kimberly Simmons and Keith McClure. Board member Polly Jones participated virtually via Zoom, in addition to many ACS staff members.

The meeting was held in open session and a Zoom link was provided to members of the public who wished to participate. Nearly 300 people joined the Zoom call.

ACS operated remotely on Jan. 8, Jan. 11 and Jan. 12, due to inclement weather conditions resulting from a winter storm. Superintendent Dr. Eisa Cox alerted students and families on the evening of Wednesday, Jan. 13 that all K-12 students would operate remotely Jan. 14-15 and there would be no instruction on Monday, Jan. 18 due to the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

After the meeting was called to order, a moment of silence was observed for Crystal Bennett. Bennett was a beloved Exceptional Children teacher at Ashe County High School who died from complications due to COVID-19 on Jan. 13.

Jennifer Greene, who serves as Health Director/CEO at AppHealthCare was on the call to entertain questions and concerns from the board.

“This a virus that hides, it is not easily detected and in fact there are people who do not have any symptoms at all and unfortunately that makes it harder to get control of,” Greene said.

She added that many of the prevention measures currently in place to fight the spread of the virus are proven to make a difference.

According to Greene, AppHealthCare’s goal is to administer vaccines to those who are age 65 and older within the next few weeks and move on to essential workers next, which will include educators.

Greene said she anticipates the vaccine to become available to school employees by early or mid-February.

According to Greene, the Moderna vaccine is approved for ages 18 and older and the Pfizer vaccine is approved for those who are age 16 and older.

She added that she expects additional guidance to be released from clinical trials over the next few months regarding vaccinations for the younger population.

Cox expressed concern about staffing issues at Blue Ridge Elementary School where 11 staff members were quarantined either due to an exposure or testing positive for COVID-19.

She added that the school system’s hearts and minds have been with Ashe County High School after their tremendous loss of a colleague on Jan. 13.

“Our teachers are the most conscientious teachers I have ever seen anywhere, they are thorough, they care about children,” Cox said.

She added that she does not wish to give up on in-person instruction because she believes it is how children learn best and they crave social interaction.

During the meeting, the board allowed all school principals a chance to express their input as far as what decision would be best for the safety of students and teachers.

Westwood Elementary School Principal Jennifer Holden said she heard from many of her staff members throughout the day.

“I know my teachers love to be at school, they love to teach students,” Holden said. “I do think there is a fear, I think there is a lot of people that are very worried right now.”

Holden shared that she suffered a personal loss recently when her aunt died of COVID-19.

“I just saw how fast the COVID can hit and how fast it can attack your body,” Holden said. “It is just not fair.”

She added that she and her staff will support whatever decision the BOE chooses, but would appreciate a week or two of remote instruction to allow time for the current uptick in cases to decrease.

Ashe Early College Principal Elaine Cox said both Ashe County High School Principal Amanda Hipp and Bennett’s family have been in the thoughts of the school system.

Cox said she and her staff would also like a temporary remote instruction period to see if current case numbers in the county decrease.

She added that several parents and students contacted her that day expressing concern.

Blue Ridge Elementary School Principal Joallen Lowder commended everyone in the school system for the amazing job they have done since August.

“I have teachers now who have expressed to me that they would like to go remote, for a while,” Lowder said. “Not forever, not until May but just enough time to take a breath and see where things are going in our community.”

She added that teachers want students safe and in their classrooms. They also want to feel safe themselves and for their families to remain safe.

Mountain View Elementary School Principal David Blackburn said the general public’s personal fears and beliefs surrounding COVID vary from being nonchalant to extremely concerned. However, within ACS, all teachers share the same concerns. They all want their students to be safe and desire a safe workplace.

Ashe County Middle School Principal Dustin Farmer said his staff conducted remote instruction on Jan. 14. He did not reach out to them that day in order to allow them time to process and cope with the loss.

“Lives are more important than education at this point in time,” Farmer said.

He added that the BOE are the elected officials entrusted with difficult decisions and it is the responsibility of principals to take that decision and implement it the best they can.

After a great deal of discussion and hearing the perspectives of school administrators, Eldreth made a motion that ACS continue with remote learning until the next regularly scheduled BOE meeting on Feb. 1. The BOE will reassess this decision at the meeting and decide what their next actions will be based on the data available.

The motion was seconded by Jones. The board then voted unanimously in favor of the motion.

After the vote, it was decided that sports will not be suspended during this time and ACS will continue to follow the guidance of the NCHSSA.

Both Coldiron and McClure agreed that the entire community needs to be more vigilant about wearing masks and about the safety of others.

“It is going to take the whole community to get it under control, not just the school population,” Coldiron said.

Board members determined that the factors they will use in the re-evaluation process on Feb. 1 will include community case numbers and ACS staff member access to the vaccine.

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