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Family of Crystal Bennett honored with surprise Ribbon Ceremony in downtown WJ

WEST JEFFERSON — On the afternoon of Saturday, Jan. 30, a Ribbon Ceremony was held in downtown West Jefferson in honor of Crystal Bennett who passed away from COVID-19 on Jan. 13.

The event was a surprise for the DePalma/Bennett family. Despite the winter air, several members of the community congregated at intersections with signs to show their love and support.

Close friends of the family and several local business owners helped plan the drive-through event including Gary Brown of Boondocks Brewing and Boondocks Brew Haus, Jared and Becky Pike, Kaitlin Carpenter of Third Day Market, Craft Bistro, Tiffany Shatley of Sweet & Savory Bakery & Deli, Sweets and Spirits Bakery Cafe, Burgers Y’all, Home Slice, Mo’s Boots, Renegade Graphics, The Tavern, The Peppered Pantry, Havana Cafe, LifeStore Bank and Insurance, Ramblin Poppy, Sisters on Main, The Farmhouse Juice & Wellness, The Tartan Woolly, New River Brewing Taproom and Eatery and High Country Seafood.

Several solid purple and purple/teal bows adorned street poles and doors of businesses for the event in honor of Bennett, which were made and donated by Four Gals and A Florist.

At 2 p.m. the West Jefferson Police Department blocked off traffic at the intersections as the family drove through downtown following close family friend and Bobby D’s manager Alicia Miller. Miller, along with Jonah Taylor, Amanda Lewis and Cassidy Osborne helped plan the surprise event.

Building Bridges and tearing them down in Ashe County

ASHE COUNTY — Known for its low-water bridges, Ashe County has become a center-point for mountainous and river bridges across the area.

Locals and tourists can find themselves crossing a bridge at least once a day depending on their destination, but it isn’t hard to see that some have been deteriorating over time.

Communications Officer for the Western Mountains Area David Uchiyama has expressed hope for the reconstruction and renovations for the bridges in the county.

“The new bridges will be built to modern standards and replace bridges which have older components and weight restrictions,” said Uchiyama. “If a bridge is found to have safety issues or structural concerns, NCDOT immediately takes action.

“Depending on the severity of the issue, the department may post a weight limit on the bridge, make immediate repairs or close the bridge completely until repairs can be made. Traffic will not be allowed on a bridge that is unsafe.”

There are plans being created for later this year involving the demolishing and re-building of some of the main bridges in the county.

Coming up in May, the bridge on Hartzog Ford Road over the South Fork of the New River will be replaced. This low-water bridge was built in 1968 and has a handful of cars driving over it everyday. When rainy weather ensues, the bridge often floods, trapping people on either side of the bridge. The budget for the replacement contract is $950,000. This project was put in to play about three years ago and according to Uchiyama; it will take 12 months to complete along with the other projects.

In June, a bridge built in 1969 standing on Hampton Road over Little Horse Creek is scheduled to have a replacement costing $1.5 million. The programming for the project has been in the works for four years.

Estimating a $1.1 million budget, the bridge on Teaberry Road holding up over Big Horse Creek is set to receive a replacement contract in October, which was planned within the last two years.

Finally, to round the year out, Garvey Bridge over the North Fork of the New River, planned four years ago, is scheduled to be replaced in November for an estimated $1.8 million.

Many of these bridges are being worn out day by day as cars and trucks travel across them. With winter in full force, the bridges are taking more wear and tear through the snow and ice. Two main bridges in the county from Smethport to Warrensville have created worry throughout the community.

According to the Department of Transportation, these two bridges, built in 1949 over Buffalo Creek are not scheduled to be repaired until 2024. This major rehabilitation project is set to take a while due to planning in detail and hopes for state of the art technology. D.O.T’s main goal is to create a longer lasting and more sturdy bridge, officials said.

BOE meets for February, ACS to return to school under Plan B beginning Feb. 8

JEFFERSON — The Ashe County Board of Education met in regular session on Monday, Feb. 1, at 6 p.m. at the administrative offices annex of Ashe County Schools. At the meeting, the board voted unanimously for students to return to school under Plan B on Monday, Feb. 8.

Plan B is a hybrid model of remote learning three days each week with two days of in-person instruction. Under Plan A, all students would report to school buildings 5 days a week, at one time, with “minimal social distancing” in place. Also under Plan A, schools would still be required to complete daily temperature checks and attestation of symptoms of all students, staff and visitors who enter buildings or buses.

Under Plan B, ACS has used a staggered schedule since August 2020 for students consisting of two groups, with one group of students attending in-person instruction on Mondays and Tuesdays while the other group attends Thursdays and Fridays. All students who have been attending school under Plan B have remote instruction on Wednesdays, which are used for deep cleaning of all school facilities.

ACS has previously operated under Plan A for grades K-5 and Plan B for grades 6-12.

At the next regularly scheduled board meeting on March 1, the BOE will reassess the decision.

The decision was made for ACS to operate remotely until Feb. 1 during an emergency meeting of the board on Jan. 14 due to the rise in COVID-19 spread in Ashe.

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

A live stream of the meeting was provided on Facebook, where over 700 people participated and contributed to the discussion with over 900 comments.

The recording of the meeting can be accessed by visiting the ACS Facebook page @Ashe County Public Schools.

There were several parents who joined the Zoom via audio to voice their concerns and advocate for students to return to face-to-face instruction due to complications from remote learning.

Hiliary Finley is an employee at Ashe Pediatrics and has two sons enrolled in ACS. She shared that her first grader is really struggling to learn via Zoom and her children’s grandmother has to take care of them three days a week while she is at work. According to Finley, at Ashe Pediatrics, they have noticed a decrease in the positivity rate in the county in comparison to the rate when the BOE previously met.

“If it wasn’t for my boss being very understanding, and her being able to allow my children to come to work, I wouldn’t have a job right now,” Finley said. “Unfortunately it is taking me away from my duties in being able to do my job the way that I need to do my job because I’m trying to teach my kids while I am working.”

She added that she feels her children are not grasping the material they are being presented with at school or getting the attention or help that they really need.

Melanie Hamm said she appreciates the hard work by ACS and the extra safety measures they have enforced because it has been very effective. However, she said that she is concerned about students’ ability to learn properly.

“Remote learning really puts our kids at a disadvantage,” Hamm said.

She elaborated by saying that it is “really wearing” for kids to be behind a computer screen five days a week, not just for Zoom meetings but also while completing their homework assignments.

“Socially it is hurting our kids, they need to be around people,” Hamm said. “With school going completely remote they don’t get to see anyone and then Ashe County has also taken away all of the sports for K-6, so they are not getting to play in the sports so they are not seeing kids there either.”

Tony Combs said his stepson, who is in kindergarten, moved to Ashe County and only attended one semester of school in-person.

“He has not been able to make any friends since then, hasn’t been able to see anyone from his school since then,” Combs said. “He likes to play basketball, he can’t play sports because they are shut down. He does not do well in first grade over this Zoom and online learning.”

He added children are not even learning how to write because they are having to use a mouse to write their answers on homework.

“That is not learning, they need to be put back into class,” Combs said.

After much discussion and hearing input from parents who advocated for face-to-face instruction, Eldreth made the motion that ACS return to instruction under Plan B. The decision to operate under Plan A would not allow for proper social distancing of students and employees. Simmons seconded the motion.

Eldreth added that once vaccines are administered to teachers and staff, she would like to revisit the decision and possibly consider implementation of Plan A for elementary school students.

McClure said that he personally was in favor of Plan A, for K-5 students only, if possible because he feels like they need to get students back in school. One supporting factor he mentioned was that there has not been any documented spread of the virus within the schools.

During the discussion, Simmons added that she would like to consider a transition plan.

“I would like to start with B and transition to A, following the data,” Simmons said.

After some additional concerns were made, Eldreth amended her motion to include the creation of a criteria by the BOE prior to the meeting on March 1, which will be used to determine whether they will remain in Plan B or transition to Plan A.

Also at the meeting, an update on the plans for the new middle school was provided by Architect Larry Greene.

Greene said that a total of 215 design development drawings were submitted on Jan. 22. This included architectural, civil, electrical, mechanical, plumbing and structural drawings.

Director of Maintenance Jerry Baker provided an anticipated timeline for the Construction Manager at Risk process.

According to Baker, the request for qualifications would be posted on Feb. 2 and on Monday, Feb. 15 the statement of qualifications would be made due. Baker said that March 3 is the anticipated date to begin conducting interviews.

Prior to entering a closed session, Cox voiced her appreciation for ACS staff, parents and families.

“Our teachers have done a tremendous job in pivoting, we’ve done that a lot this school year and our families the same,” Cox said. “So I just want to reach out and say ‘thank you’ and thank you to all of you for your continued support for the school system and continued advocacy too. We need you now more than ever, our children need you now more than ever, and we appreciate the positive words of encouragement that you can give to our teachers and that you can give to our students. And really help all of us to grow through this time and get through it together.”

She also announced that DIAL screening dates are set for March. Parents will be able to call the Ashe Early Learning Center to schedule an appointment. The contact for DIAL Screening will be Director of Exceptional Children’s and Pre-K Programs Terry Richardson.

February is CTE month and there is public awareness campaign to celebrate the value of Career and Technical Education.

“We want our students to be able to take those hands-on classes that are going to provide them a valuable skill,” Cox said. “We’re thankful for our partnership with Wilkes Community College that allows our students a continuation of that skill as well.”

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Christmas in July canceled for 2021

WEST JEFFERSON — In light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which looks to continue for the next few months, the Christmas in July Festival Board of Directors announced on Feb 2 the decision to cancel the 2021 Christmas in July Festival.

The festival was scheduled to be held July 2-3, in downtown West Jefferson. While the board was hopeful the event could be held in 2021 after being cancelled in 2020, it was apparent holding an event of this size would still not be feasible.

The board based this decision on several factors which includes the following: the governor’s current guidelines restricting outdoor gatherings, which includes festivals, and the very high probability these restrictive guidelines will still be in place by early July; the unknown amount of citizens who will be vaccinated by summer as well as number of cases still present; and most importantly, the health and safety of Ashe County residents, festival patrons, vendors, musicians and volunteers.

“The Christmas in July Festival is one of the best festivals in this part of the state,” said Christmas in July Festival President John Smyre. “While we are disappointed that we are unable to hold the festival this year, the festival board understands the importance of complying with the governor’s and CDC guidelines for large outdoor events in order to help end the pandemic.

“While we know Christmas in July is an important annual summer tradition, we want to ensure we are holding an event when it is safe for the benefit of everyone involved. We are hopeful the festival will be back in full swing for 2022.”

The board is optimistic this family-friendly festival tradition will return in 2022 and hopes visitors will mark their calendar for July 1-2, 2022. Visit the festival’s website at www.christmasinjuly.info for updates.