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JEFFERSON — The Ashe County Board of Education held a special called meeting on Sept. 24 at 6 p.m to make a decision about the implementation of Plan A for K-5 students. This plan would allow elementary schools to reopen without capacity limits, while still enforcing masks and social distancing measures.

Gov. Roy Cooper announced on Sept. 17 his latest decision to ease restrictions for schools related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Through his announcement, North Carolina school districts will be allowed to operate under Plan A for K-5 students, effective Oct. 5.

Ashe County Schools is currently operating under Plan B, which is a hybrid model of remote learning three days each week with two days of in-person instruction. There are also students enrolled in the district’s completely virtual option, Ashe Online.

In the interest of transparency, the meeting was live-streamed and is available to view at any time by visiting the school district website at asheschools.org. To access the video, select the “District” tab and “Board of Education” from the District Directory.

The video can also be found on the ACS Facebook page @Ashe County Public Schools.

Physically present at the meeting were Superintendent Dr. Eisa Cox, Chairman C.B. Jones, Vice Chairman Dr. Lee Beckworth and board members Keith McClure, Dianne Eldreth and Polly Jones. Also present were Health Director at AppHealthCare Jennifer Greene, Director of Technology Amy Walker, Director of Maintenance Jerry Baker and Director of Human Resources/Public Information Officer Roy Putman.

After nearly three hours of discussion, the board voted 5-0 for Ashe County Schools to operate under Plan A beginning Monday, Oct. 19.

The option selected unanimously by the board was the second option presented for a return to school under Plan A.

This option states that K-3 students will return to school on Oct. 19 under Plan A, with Wednesday remaining remote for deep cleaning. Also under this option, fourth and fifth graders will return to school on Oct. 26 under Plan A with Wednesdays remote for deep cleaning. All K-12 self-contained students will also be able to return to school under Plan A and complete remote learning on Wednesdays.

Self-Contained students are a small number of students with the most need. These are the students, in all grades, that are significantly more likely to fall behind.

During the discussion, Cox said school principals were more in favor of a staggered return but not prior Oct. 19 in order to have time to appropriately plan. It was also addressed that this is an ideal timeframe, since it correlates with the the end of the nine weeks.

Prior to voting, board member Polly Jones said she feels the school system is doing everything that they can possibly do to keep students safe.

“I made the comment that our students really are safer at school than anywhere else,” Jones said.

She added that when students go to stores and other businesses they are likely to encounter others who are not following safety guidelines such as wearing masks and social distancing.

Eldreth said she had a hard time deciding what was best. She expressed concern for teachers and staff members who have experienced a significant increase in their workload and responsibilities.

Beckworth asked Cox what the metrics would be to revert back to Plan B if the school system implements Plan A and sees a steady increase in cases.

Cox said since the school communicates regularly with AppHealthCare they have the information to determine quick actions such as shutting down one school or one classroom if necessary.

She added that ACS has been fortunate to not have any cases spread within school so far, which is not a guarantee.

“We are not going to the auditorium, we are not sitting in the cafeteria in close quarters and sharing lunches,” Cox said. “Those things will not happen under this current Plan A because they just can’t. This just gives more children the opportunity to come back face-to-face in school more days a week.”

Cox added that by examining the data for the school system, she believes they are in a position to bring students back.

Greene said from a public health perspective she does not want more people to get sick and it is a concern of hers. However, she also worries about student health because she knows they are healthier when they are in school.

“The numbers do not indicate a big, alarming trend to me,” Greene said. “I think our procedures have worked so far.”

She added that she is cautiously optimistic and feels everyone needs to continue being vigilant with regard to the virus.

After calling the meeting to order, Chairman Jones entertained a moment of silence in remembrance of Hailey Eastridge, a fourth grade student at Blue Ridge Elementary. Eastridge died in a severe automobile accident on Sept. 21.

“Our school community is saddened and we want to reach out to the family and wish them well during their grief period,” Jones said.

Greene presented an update from AppHealthCare, including the latest case numbers and precautionary measures taken by her and her staff.

Greene said she is been pleased with their partnership with the school system, expressing that they have very dedicated leaders and nurses trying their best to protect the children and community.

As of meeting time, there were 259 total cases in Ashe County since testing began, with 11 active cases and 26 individuals quarantined who were close contacts of those who tested positive.

According to data provided by AppHealthCare, ages zero through 17 account for 11 percent of those testing positive for the virus. 18-24 year olds also represent 11 percent of positive cases. The largest percentage of cases are those aged 24-49. Ages 50-64 account for 28 percent of positive cases and ages 65-74 account for 10 percent. Ages 75 and older account for the smallest percentage of positive cases, which is 5 percent.

According to Greene, Ashe County’s percentage of positive tests is 4.4 percent. The statewide percentage for positive test results is 4.8 percent.

Greene referenced the state report for turn-around time for labs, which is available at the North Carolina of Health and Human Services website at ncdhhs.gov. According to the data, the state average for turn-around times is 1.3 days, while the average for AppHealthCare is 2 days.

In summary, AppHealthCare reports that rapid testing is becoming more available and personal protective equipment levels seem to remain stable.

“It is important that people don’t get tired of wearing masks, we want our kids to continue to move forward,” Greene said. “So, in order to do that, we’ve got to keep doing the right thing.”

She also emphasized continuing to wear masks consistently, practicing social distancing, avoiding big crowds and practicing proper hand washing techniques.

“I think we’re in a new world where previously a lot of us might have brushed off symptoms, it is very important that we are all being vigilant about that and seeking testing if we need it,” Greene said.

The health department is continuing to offer free testing daily for those who are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19.

As previously reported by the Ashe Post & Times, six students from Westwood Elementary School tested positive for COVID-19. Greene said AppHealthCare believes the students that tested positive were exposed within their household. These students were from four different families.

According to Greene, to date, the health department has not seen any positive cases in students that they believe are school-linked. However, there have been students and staff members who were screened-out by nurses following the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit.

Greene said if students excluded from attending school it is due to a sibling being sent home sick or a parent testing positive, not students coming to school while sick and exposing others.

AppHealthCare has added more case investigators to assist in contact tracing and plan to add approximately six more.

Eldreth asked Greene to walk the board through the actions AppHealthCare takes when a school staff member notifies the health department of a positive case.

According to Greene, the first step is to engage in conversation directly with a school representative to learn what grade the student is in, their teacher and get contact information. The next step is to confirm the laboratory result, which Greene added is sometimes received by the patient before AppHealthCare. The contact information of the student is used to confirm the laboratory results and then contact the parents to complete a case interview. Meanwhile, the school is responsible for assessing whether or not social distancing was practiced in the classroom and speaking with the child’s teacher(s).

Once AppHealthCare reviews all of the provided information, they decide whether or not anybody else met the definition of close contact during the infectious period, which is 48 hours.

According to Greene, they would then examine other factors including whether or not the student rides a bus or is involved in other school-related activities. They also confirm with teachers whether or not they feel there has been adequate social distancing practiced within their classroom.

A close contact is defined as a cumulative amount of time of 15 minutes and being within six feet of someone who has been exposed to the virus.

“Regardless of whether you are wearing a mask or not, it counts as close contact,” Greene said.

All of this information is then used to determine if any students need to be quarantined. If a student meets this requirement, they must leave school for 14 days and the contact tracing team reaches out to them to inquire about their recent contacts.

They also provide support for those in quarantine such as delivering groceries to homes or picking up their prescriptions.

According to Greene, they also notify people in the classroom which allows all families to be informed in the event their student or other family members begin to display symptoms.

Greene and Cox wrote a letter which has been sent out student families and those who were identified as close contacts.

“We wanted to do that to be very transparent with our families and other people who may have been exposed,” Cox said.

According to Cox, most of them have not been asked to quarantine because they were not defined as known close contacts. The school system has been asking families, as a precautionary measure, to go get tested because their student has been in a classroom or is currently in a classroom with someone who tested positive.

Cox presented the results of the recent parent and teacher survey. The purpose of the survey was to gauge whether or not they were in favor of the implementation of Plan A.

This survey was completed by K-5 parents and teachers only.

According to the data, 1,032 students out of the 1,268 enrolled were represented by the survey which amounts to 81.3 percent.

For the survey, Cox said there were about 27 percent of responses with students enrolled in Ashe Online. Overall, the district has about 30 percent of its students currently enrolled in the completely virtual option. About 73 percent of respondents were those participating in the Plan B option.

When asked, “Are you in favor of beginning Plan A for grades K-5 on Oct. 5?”, 72 percent of parents with students participating in the Plan B option were in favor; 28 percent of parent responses said they were not in favor.

Another question asked, “Would you be in favor of a plan that gradually brings Plan B students back to school?”

About 55 percent of parents in the district answered “yes,” while 63 percent of parents with children currently participating in Plan B were in favor with 33 percent of Ashe Online parents in favor of the gradual return.

44.8 percent of parents in the district responded by saying “No.” 37 percent of parents with children currently participating in Plan B were in favor with 67 percent of Ashe Online parents not in favor of the gradual return.

The survey also included a question about transportation needs. Cox said the school system has completed extensive research about whether or not they can continue Plan B cleaning and COVID-19 regulations on buses under Plan A.

According to Cox, the results from the survey showed higher ridership in the afternoons. While accessing the numbers from the survey, they determined whether or not they are able to still follow the sticter Plan B rules on the bus. She added that by their estimation based on the data collected, they will be able to do this.

“I think if we are going to do this well, I do not want to take chances that are not necessary,” Cox said.

The Plan B rules for transportation regarding buses include one student per seat, with family units able to share seats. There is also cleaning each morning and afternoon on all buses.

These rules are strongly recommended, but no longer required under Plan A.

“We are doing it anyway because we can and I think that is always best,” Cox said.

Along with the survey for K-5 parents was a separate survey for K-5 teachers.

The survey for these teachers included the question “Starting Oct. 5, how do you prefer K-5 students to attend school?”

Almost 64 percent of teachers responded by saying they would like K-5 students to attend school under Plan A. Of these responses, 9.7 percent said they want instruction to be face-to-face five days per week. 53.9 percent were in favor of attending face-to-face four days per week and continue not attending in-person on Wednesdays to maintain deep cleaning, planning, etc.

About 36 percent of teachers responded saying they prefer to continue attending on the Plan B hybrid model.

The teachers were also asked “Would you be in favor of a plan that gradually brings student back to school?”

About 60 percent were in favor of a gradual entry while 39.6 percent were not.

After presenting the data from the survey, Cox presented COVID-19 cases and quarantine data for the school system since Aug. 13.

The data presented was current as of 5 p.m. Sept. 24.

According to the data, there have been 12 total students in the district that have tested positive for COVID-19 since Aug. 13. Three of those were at the high school, with one current. There have been eight cases at Westwood, with four current. There was also one positive current case at Ashe Early Learning Center.

Also according to the data, there have been 64 total students since Aug. 13 who have been quarantined for 14 days due to close contact or while awaiting testing.

Ten total students have been quarantined at Ashe County High School, two of which were current. One student has been quarantined at Ashe Early College. Three students have been quarantined at Ashe County Middle School. One student has been quarantined at Blue Ridge Elementary School. Twenty-three total students have been quarantined at Mountain View Elementary School with 11 being exposed at a daycare. The other 12 students were contacts of a positive case in the household or were awaiting testing. Twelve students at Westwood Elementary School have been quarantined with six of those being current. 12 students have been quarantined at Ashe Early Learning Center, with 10 of those being current.

School staff data showed that there have only been 2 positive cases out of the 434 employees, since Aug. 17. There was one current positive case as of Sept. 24.

According to Cox, there were nine staff members currently out for testing. This is inclusive of all ACS staff including bus drivers, custodial staff, administrative office staff. The school system, as a whole, has been maintaining about nine or 10 staff members out each week on average.

This is due to a variety of reasons, some needing to be with their children while others may have been exposed elsewhere in the community.

Cox added that there have not been any school-originated exposures.

Baker shared some information about the cleaning protocols that are currently in place at all school facilities.

He added that once a positive case has been discovered at any of the schools, the cleaning protocol does not change as a result because they are already doing extensive cleaning.

“We are already doing what we should be doing,” said. “If there was a situation already going on or if there was not a situation going on, our cleaning is still going to be very thorough.”

All of the highly-touched areas are being cleaning constantly at all district schools. The “deep cleaning” days, which are Wednesdays and Fridays, are when custodial staff members focus on the other areas which are not highly touched. “I’m really proud of our staff, they are putting forth the effort,” said.

The next regular meeting of the Board of Education will be on Oct. 5, which will be prior to the implementation of Plan A. At this meeting, they plan to evaluate the most up-to-date data pertaining to COVID-19 as provided by AppHealthCare.

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