JEFFERSON — A special meeting was held by the Ashe County Board of Education on June 24 to work on the local budget. The meeting, which started at noon, was held in-person at the Central Support Services Annex and was open to the public.
No members of the public were present and those in attendance were Superintendent Phyllis Yates, Finance Officer Amanda Coldiron, Chairman C.B. Jones Jr. and Vice Chairman Dr. Lee Beckworth, as well as board members Keith McClure, Dianne Eldreth and Polly Jones.
Dr. Eisa Cox, who will be sworn in as the new Ashe County Schools Superintendent on July 1, was also present via phone call.
At the beginning of the meeting, Yates said she and Coldiron discussed and rationalized the budget items and came to the consensus of the recommendation to put the local budget on hold.
Yates said there are many unknowns from both the state and federal level and they still do not know which one of the three plans for the reopening of schools they will have to operate under.
“We think it would be prudent on our part to wait until after July 1, we need to see what the final state budget is going to be and we need to see what the final federal budget is going to be. And then I think we can better allocate funds from current expenses.”
After her initial statement, Yates turned the meeting over to Coldiron to discuss items in the capital budget.
According to Coldiron, out of the $200,000 and the $125,000 approved for fund balance, the school system has $325,000 to work with. School allotments, allotments of funds for school principals and allotments for replacing any equipment is taken out of that $325,000, which left a total of $181,000 up for discussion by the BOE.
The first item discussed was lighting for the auditorium at Ashe County High School. Since the auditorium is currently remaining unused, the board agreed that it would probably be best to reapply for the high school to reapply for this project next year.
There was also a request for new furniture and equipment for a computer lab at Mountain View Elementary, which was a project that involved discussion to put it on hold since the lab cannot be accessed at this time. However, there was also a request concerning the safety issue of the basketball goals in the school’s gym which the board decided to discuss further towards the end of the meeting. The goals no longer can be raised up or down without someone on hand to manually adjust them.
The Ashe County Early College has made a request for an additional teacher, which was an issue on which Cox provided some insight. She said it is a possibility, but before they commit to another teacher she would like to sit down to discuss the needs and scheduling of the ACEC with Principal Elaine Cox prior to making a decision.
Ashe Early Learning Center is in need of an air conditioning system, as well as tables and chairs for its media center. The BOE has previously discussed the possibility of starting to hold their monthly meetings there since the room in which they currently house their meetings is too small for large gatherings.
The facility is twice as large as the Central Support Services Annex but its high ceiling proves a challenge to sound projection during meetings. To resolve this issue, Coldiron said she spoke with Maintenance Director Jerry Baker about the possibility of lowering the ceiling.
Another issue the BOE has experienced while holding meetings in the AELC’s media center, is the fan system which is loud. During the summer months, the room gets hot and the fans would need to be turned off due to the noise they produce.
Regarding the Informational Technology and Media portion of the capital budget, Coldiron said they completed a separate request for the chrome books, which was denied. However, they believe some of the money received from the CARES Act will cover the first wave of replacements of chrome books.
According to Coldiron, the chrome books need to be replaced in phases and the school system intentionally designed it that way so all of the laptops purchased would not need to be replaced at the same time. However, Google extended the life one more year, which means two groups of the school’s laptops will need to be replaced at the same time.
Coldiron said Ashe County Schools received more than $60,000 from the CARES Act from the State and they also put an additional $200,000 in the federal CARES Act money.
Cox added some additional information to the discussion about the three plans for reopening schools. She said Plan B, which would be a combination of both in-person instruction and remote learning, would be an expensive option.
She said Plan A would be the most ideal plan in her opinion, which would provide them with additional expenditures such as safety protocols in place. Students will still need devices to use for learning purposes in the event schools will return to a more restrictive plan.
Cox said she spoke with Yates, Director of Technology Amy Walker, Director of K-12 Curriculum/Federal Programs Julie Taylor and other ACS staff members about the potential of developing some policies and procedures around students being able to take devices home on a regular basis to become familiar with them.
Funds have been received by the school system to implement wi-fi hotspot locations throughout the county for students and families who do not have internet service at home to utilize.
Yates said Walker and others have been looking at additional spaces for these hotspots to be set up aside from local fire departments. Walker has also been exploring the option of using school buses, which would be parked at different locations within county limits.
The next topic of discussion was a metal cover to protect the Literacy Express, which is a $300,000 piece of equipment. Although it is not a safety issue, the BOE decided to pursue the metal cover to protect their investment in the bus.
Future plans for the Literacy Express and its continuation will be discussed when the BOE meets about the local budget.
According to Coldiron, Support Services did not have any capital requests.
The school system has previously discussed the purchase of an activity bus, which they revisited during this budget meeting. The cost of the 26 passenger bus would be $57,979. Coldiron said they have enough money to cover the purchase in their savings.
The other options were 14 passenger, 18 passenger and 72 passenger buses.
The BOE decided to move forward with the purchase of the 26 passenger activity bus.
Next on the list of budget items to be discussed was the request by Director of Maintenance Jerry Baker concerning some paving and water drainage issues at Ashe County High School. The board decided to move forward with these items due to safety concerns.
There was $96,000 left to allocate at the end of the meeting, which does not include money for the purchase of Chromebooks.
Prior to adjournment, the BOE talked about how much money they need to consider for masks and sanitation products amid the COVID-19 pandemic for any in-person instruction that may take place this school year.
Yates said there will be a meeting between Baker, assistant principals and custodians to discuss the bulk purchase of safety and cleaning supplies so every school will be using the same products.
Regarding masks, they have looked at both cloth and disposable masks. The main concern which was voiced by Yates was the washing of cloth masks daily by parents or students. One suggestion, made by Beckworth and Eldreth was the schools washing masks for students.
North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper is expected to announce the chosen plan for the reopening of the state’s schools by July 1. At this time, each school system will then determine whether or not it will be able to return to instruction under that plan.
Cox said the school system will need to be prepared for any of the three plans because at any time, the state could require schools to operate under a more restrictive plan.
Yates said schools can opt for either the plan announced by Cooper or a more restrictive plan. However, they cannot choose a less restrictive plan and if Cooper announces Plan C, it would be the only option under which schools can operate.
Regarding the results of the survey that was sent out to parents online about their child returning to school or remaining at home for instruction, Yates said it was about a 50/50 split.
“We feel like there’s enough numbers there that we’re going to have to be able to offer some options for those students,” Yates said.
Students will need to decide between the two options and stick with it if given the option to physically attend school or complete their instruction at home.
Teachers will not be responsible for teaching classes virtually and in-person. Yates said staff will need to be repurposed and there will be designated teachers that would teach remotely.
Prior to adjourning, the BOE voted to approve the metal cover for the Literary Express, the parking lot repairs at the high school, the lowering of the roof of the media center at the AELC and the purchase of the activity bus.
Coldiron said the approval of these expenses totaled $143,011.
JEFFERSON — Phyllis Yates has been involved with Ashe County Schools for more than 40 years and is retiring effective July 1. She has served in her current position as superintendent of schools since the 2015-16 school year.
A drive-through celebration sponsored by the Board of Education was held on June 25 from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. to allow the community to celebrate with Yates.
Current and previous students, staff, parents and members of the Ashe County community were invited to drive by and honk their horns or bid Yates farewell.
The route began at the intersections of Main Street and South Street and continued past Fletcher Memorial Church to 320 South Street before exiting left on Ivy Street.
Tents were set up in the parking lot in front of the Central Support Services office located at 320 South Street in Jefferson.
CSS staff along several members of Yates’ family were present to partake in this special ceremony and wave at the cars that drove by.
A school bus was parked within view with a large banner made by Callie Lewis, art teacher at Westwood Elementary School that read “Congratulations, Mrs. Yates!”
Yates said the ceremony filled her heart and the school system has been great and has been like family to her over the years.
“I’ve been very blessed and I’m honored to have had this job,” Yates said following the celebration.
WEST JEFFERSON — Those who love eating raw cookie dough but are hesitant to indulge in it due to health concerns can fear no more. Lolo’s Cookie Dough, a new business selling edible cookie dough has arrived in Ashe County and can be found in Simple Life Antiques located at 3 S Jefferson Avenue in West Jefferson.
A soft opening was held on June 26 from noon until 7 p.m. for people to stop in and try samples or purchase scoops of edible cookie dough.
Lora Jones, nicknamed “Lolo,” is 19 years old and is a full-time college student. In addition to her new business venture, Jones also works at Pretty n’ Pearls in downtown West Jefferson and said she has always been business-minded.
She added that she has been thinking about starting this type of business for a while, but was waiting on the right opportunity. She was able to secure the space after speaking with Auctioneer Gavin Woodie who agreed to allow her to set up a booth to sell her product in Simple Life Antiques.
Currently, Jones offers five flavors which are chocolate chip, cookies and cream, salted caramel, cake batter and unicorn (cotton candy). Toppings are also available and include M&M candies, Fruity Pebbles (which are Jones’ favorite cereal), sprinkles and both caramel and chocolate sauce.
Customers can also opt for a cone instead of a cup for their cookie dough to be served in.
Prices are $4.75 for one scoop, $8.50 for two scoops and $.40 for all toppings. If customers wish to quench their thirst, there are milk shots available for $.60 and water and soda for $1.
All of the products available at Lolo’s are vegan and gluten free.
After seeing recipes for edible cookie dough on Instagram, Jones said she immediately thought about how it would be a good fit for Ashe County.
“You cannot get this anywhere unless you drive at least two hours,” Jones said.
Jones said she loves people, but finds it hard for her to work “under somebody.” She has always known she wanted to open her own business but never knew what it would be.
“When it comes to owning your own business, there are no limits,” Jones said. “You can push it as far as you want to, you can lean back and just let it go. Just whatever you want to do. There’s a lot of freedom.”
Jones said if business does well, her plans are to eventually expand and add milkshakes and ice cream to the mix.
She said this couldn’t have been possible without the help of her family. Her grandmother, Ann, and her father, Jeff, were present on June 26 to show their support and help spread the word.
After the soft opening, Lolo’s was also open on June 27 and 28 before completely selling out of cookie dough on Sunday afternoon.
Lolo’s Edible Cookie Dough will reopen on Friday, July 3, from noon until 7 p.m. to allow locals and visitors to experience this unique business. A grand opening will be held onsite Saturday, July 4, and at this time Jones plans to give out samples and introduce new flavors.
For more information about Lolo’s Cookie Dough, products offered and hours of operation, visit the Facebook and Instagram pages @loloscookiedough.
ASHE COUNTY — The increase in North Carolina’s COVID-19 (novel coronavirus) numbers is showing no sign of stopping, jumping by more than 10,000 in seven days, as of presstime.
As of presstime, there are nine active cases in Ashe County, with a further 25 people being monitored.
After the first case confirmed in the county by AppHealthCare April 3, the number of confirmed cases grew to five by April 29. In the months that have followed, the number has increased rapidly, with 51 total now confirmed for Ashe.
The Ashe numbers include one death, AppHealthCare announced Wednesday, May 26. As of presstime, it is the only death linked to COVID-19 in Ashe, Alleghany or Watauga counties.
On June 30, there were 64,670 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in North Carolina, compared to 54,453 cases on June 23. This includes 1,343 dead, according to NCDHHS, an increase of just more than 100 from the same time the previous week. This includes 65 confirmed cases in Watauga County, 27 active, and 31 in Alleghany County, with just one active, according to AppHealthCare. Presumptive and confirmed positive cases are in all counties across the state.
According to NCDHHS, which keeps an updating list of congregate setting outbreaks, a facility in Ashe on Old Highway 16 in Grassy Creek is the source of 15 resident cases. The facility is listed as “other,” meaning it is not a nursing home, residential care facility or correctional facility, but can be a homeless shelter, migrant farm worker housing facility or other location with a multitude of people living there. NCDHHS lists the outbreak as no longer being active.
Organizations from the international to the local level are encouraging people who feel sick or are symptomatic to stay home and receive medical treatment.
In a series of executive orders beginning March 14, Gov. Roy Cooper closed schools, limited the size of gatherings, instituted a stay-at-home order, shut down non-essential businesses, limited the capacity of businesses still in operation and barred dining in at restaurants.
Cooper began the reopening process with an executive order that took effect Friday, May 8.
Under Phase 1, most businesses can open, retail stores can open at 50 percent capacity, parks and trails are encouraged to reopen, close-contact businesses (such as gyms, salons and movie theaters) will remain closed, restaurants will continue to be open for takeout and delivery only, and gatherings are still limited to 10 people, but gathering outdoors with friends is allowed.
The state entered Phase 2 on May 22, opening up more possibilities for businesses. Restaurants offering dine-in options, personal care businesses (including salons and barbers) and public pools are all allowed to have a maximum 50 percent capacity with distancing and cleaning requirements. Employees of personal care businesses will be required to wear face coverings.
Bars, indoor fitness facilities and indoor entertainment venues such as movie theaters and bowling alleys are still to remain closed. Cooper vetoed H.B. 594 Friday, June 19, which would have allowed gyms, health clubs and fitness centers to re-open.
Cooper announced June 24 that due to the increasing numbers, Phase 2 would continue for three more weeks. People must wear face coverings when in public places, indoors or outdoors, where physical distancing of six feet from other people who aren’t in the same household or residence isn’t possible. They will be required for all employees and customers of retail businesses and restaurants as well as workers in manufacturing, construction, meat processing and agriculture settings.
There are exceptions including people with medical conditions and children younger than 11, people who are at home and people who are walking or otherwise exercising outside when not within six feet of others, Cooper said.
Ashe County declared a state of emergency March 22. The county was followed by the towns of West Jefferson, Jefferson and Lansing.
An amendment to the county’s state of emergency declaration shortly after banned short-term rentals in the county, with the goal being a reduction in travel by non-residents. The amendment expired May 8, and was not extended.
The Ashe County Courthouse will remain open as usual, but residents are encouraged to take advantage of online resources or to call the needed office. The county also announced they would be limiting the number of visitors to 10 at a time.
The Ashe County Airport will remain open, but no public visitors are allowed. The landfill and convenience sites will remain open to the public.
West Jefferson Town Hall reopened Tuesday, June 2, following approval from the West Jefferson Board of Aldermen the night before.
At the Jefferson Board of Aldermen meeting March 16, the board voted unanimously to close Jefferson Town Hall to the public. Jefferson Town Hall has since reopened.
According to Lansing Town Clerk Marcy Little, Lansing Town Hall has been closed. She added it is being recommended people do things over the phone at (336) 384-3938 or via the drop box located out front. The town also closed the public restrooms in the Lansing Creeper Trail Park.
Meanwhile, meetings of local government boards including different boards of aldermen and the Ashe County Board of Commissioners have seen their meetings canceled or changed to being electronic.
On March 12, Ashe Memorial Hospital’s expanded visitor restrictions went into effect. The hospital asks that those who are not members of a patient’s immediate family refrain from visiting unless absolutely necessary, regardless of the visitor’s age or health status.
Local assisted living centers Margate Health and Rehabilitation Center and Forest Ridge Assisted Living have enforced visitation restrictions to protect residents from possible exposure to COVID-19.
Margate announced they are limiting visitation, making exceptions for cases involving significant issues, emergencies and terminally ill residents.
Forest Ridge Assisted Living announced that all visitation has been restricted, at any Ridge Care Senior Living’s assisted living and memory care communities in North Carolina, South Carolina, and West Virginia. Exceptions to these restrictions will only be made for extenuating circumstances and must be approved and scheduled by each community’s executive director. These restrictions will remain in place until further notice.
The N.C. State Parks announced Elk Knob State Park, Grandfather Mountain State Park, New River State Park and Mount Jefferson State Natural Area are closed as of March 27. Grandfather Mountain announced it would reopen in a limited capacity May 15, with all ticket sales moving online.
Also closing are recreation facilities at recreation sites in the National Forests in N.C. were temporarily shut down. The closures include picnic pavilions, shooting ranges and all restrooms.
These shutdowns are in addition to previous announcements about developed campgrounds, several large developed day use areas, visitor centers and Off-Highway Vehicle trail systems, which remain temporarily shut down.
The Ashe County Public Library re-opened Monday, June 15, with limited hours, services and building capacity. The Ashe County Public Library’s hours of operation will be Monday-Thursday from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. The first hour of service each day is currently being reserved for people most at risk of dying from COVID-19.
The library will still be offering curbside pickup options and there will be no in-person programs or meetings. For more information about Ashe County Public Library, visit the website at www.arlibrary.org/ashe or call (336) 846-2041.
The Ashe County Arts Council re-opened the Arts Center Thursday, June 25, while also unveiling the new exhibit, “Shadow of the Hills.” The Arts Council announced June 16 that the Ashe County Bluegrass and Old Time Fiddlers Convention and the 2020 Ashe County Studio Tour were cancelled. The Ashe County Little Theatre’s 2020 season has also been cancelled.
The Florence Thomas Art School announced it would be reopening June 2. The art school has announced plans for events, classes and workshops beginning in July.
Ashe County Parks and Recreation has suspended all sports leagues until further notice, refunds will be considered if leagues are eventually canceled. Ashe county Park reopened May 11, however all facilities including bathrooms, playgrounds, courts, skate park and shelters will remain closed.
In line with major sports leagues around the world, the North Carolina High School Athletic Association announced Thursday, March 12, it would suspend high school athletics until at least Monday, April 6. It was later decided to cancel the season entirely, following Cooper’s decision to cancel schools entirely April 24. The NCHSAA announced it would allow the start of summer activities on June 11. Ashe County High School Athletic Director David Koontz announced the school would begin off-season sessions July 6.
Family Central’s park office is closed but staff can be contacted at (336) 982-6185 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The gym and workout room at Family Central will be closed until further notice.
At the Ashe County Detention Center, new inmates are being quarantined for anywhere from 15 to 30 days upon arrival. Air filters have been added in between the Detention Center’s four pods, hopefully keeping any disease contained should it arrive.
Ashe County Sheriff’s Office deputies are now doing as much as they can remotely, and have also been instructed to avoid entering confined spaces, instead opting to conduct business outside. Sheriff Phil Howell said the ACSO still wants people to know they are in the community.
According to Ashe County Emergency Management Coordinator Patty Gambill, citizens can call (866) 462-3821 for more information.
Cooper declared April 24 that the spring semester would not resume, after one month of cancelled classes. Students were left to take classes only before the school year ended.
NCDHHS released health guidelines on June 8 as the first step to help North Carolina public schools find safe ways to open to in-person instruction for the 2020-21 academic year. Schools are asked to plan for reopening under three scenarios — Plan A, which calls for minimal social distancing; Plan B, which calls for moderate social distancing; or Plan C, which would result in remote learning only.
NCDHHS and the State Board of Education and Department of Public Instruction will announce by July 1 which of the three plans should be implemented for schools to most safely reopen. The remaining plans may be needed if the state’s COVID-19 metrics change over time.
For continued updates and more information regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, visit www.ashepostandtimes.com.
Bailey Little contributed reporting to this story.