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Avery Schools to Approve Governor Roy Cooper’s Plan B for Schools to Begin the 2020-2021 Academic Year; Lees-McRae College to start In-Person Instruction on Aug. 17; and Avery High Renovations and Construction Project Continues with Expected Slight Finish Delay

By Tim Gardner

Avery County Schools Superintendent Dr. Daniel Brigman told the High Country Press Friday morning that the school system will use Plan B of North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper’s three mandated plans to reopen schools as a result of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Like many of the state’s public schools, Avery County Schools are set to start classes on August 17.

Dr. Brigman commented: “During our planning for reopening schools, we determined the need for a revision in our five full days of instruction to include one day for remote learning and deep cleaning of all our school’s facilities. We will have a Board of Education meeting on July 27 to approve our final plan for opening schools and its complete details will be released then.

“Of course, this can all change depending on what happens with COVID-19 and how and if the Governor adjusts or revises reopening plans.”

On July 1, the North Carolina Board of Education and Department of Public Instruction released operational plans for the upcoming 2020-21 school year. The DPI has released three plans ranging from normal class schedules with increased health monitoring and building cleaning to entirely at-home remote learning.

The plans consist of:

In Plan A: Minimal Social Distancing, safety precautions will be placed throughout schools with all students in attendance. Safety precautions could include changes such as frequent sanitation, one-way traffic in hallways, cafeterias limiting the number of individuals and covering meals, among other things.

Plan B: Moderate Social Distancing would consist of 50 percent occupancy throughout schools. However, this could either mean 50 percent of the headcount of a school’s population or 50 percent of the total occupancy of buildings. Either way, schools would stagger students in participation. 50 percent of students would be on campus one day, while the other 50 percent of students would remain home.

In Plan C: Remote Learning, campuses would be totally closed, and remote learning would continue throughout the school year.

On July 14, Governor Cooper announced his mandate for schools to open due to COVID-19, but it will be in a world where many students will only attend in-person classes every other day or every other week.

Governor Cooper ordered schools to use Plan B or Plan C, but will not permit them to use Plan A until further notice.

Dr. Brigman and other Avery Schools officials met this week concerning the intricacies of how this will look with the opening of schools. He added that the school system has asked for, and received, much input from teachers, other school staff and parents of students attending Avery County Schools about how best to carry out Governor Cooper’s mandates.

Governor Cooper announced that Kindergarten through Twelve (K-12) public schools will reopen under a “moderate social distancing” plan that limits how many people can be on campus, forcing many students to get a mix of in-person and remote instruction. The reopening plan requires daily temperature and health screening checks, maintaining at least 6 feet of social distancing and face coverings to be worn by all school employees and students.

“We know that school will look a lot different this year,” Governor Cooper said. “They have to in order to be safe and effective. The public health experts and the school leaders developed these safety rules to protect our students and teachers and their families.”

Governor Cooper said school districts can reopen with remote-only instruction if they determine that it’s best for students, parents and teachers. He warned that the state may switch to requiring all schools to use online-only instruction if COVID-19 cases spike and they can’t safely reopen under the new health guidelines.

Governor Cooper ordered schools closed five months ago to try to slow the spread of COVID-19. Students closed out last school year learning from home.

The General Assembly passed a law requiring school districts to open with in-person instruction for the first week of school. Governor Cooper said the state Department of Justice says he has the authority to allow schools to reopen on Plan C.

Governor Cooper eased back on the reopening rules under Plan B. Previously schools were limited to 50 percent capacity. But he added that schools must set capacity limits “necessary to ensure 6 feet distance can be maintained when students/staff will be stationary.”

But schools are still limited by rules that restrict them to one child per seat on a bus.

The new statewide plan could increase interest in online-only programs from families who don’t feel comfortable returning to school yet or who don’t want to deal with the rotating schedules. There also has been a surge of interest in North Carolina families to home-school their children for the new school year.

Dr. Brigman said Plans B and A could force Avery County Schools to put only 10 students on a bus and expand bus routes, which would result in Avery County needing at least 75 bus routes to address the students.

He stated: “Bussing is a question and a bit of concern. How do we bus kids and maintain social distancing? “But we’re blessed in Avery County to have smaller schools in terms of population, fewer students, so that helps ease that concern.”

Lees-McRae College’s Vice President for Planning and External Relations Blaine Hanson also revealed the college’s current plans for the upcoming semester. Lees-McRae College is planning for in-person instruction in the fall when the semester begins August 17.

In-person instruction will end by Thanksgiving, and by Thanksgiving, students will be asked to go back to their homes and conclude the semester remotely with final exams.

Classroom sizes there are being limited, and furniture is being moved to accommodate social distancing regulations. There may also be different meal times in the dining halls as well as limited transportation.

Work has continued at Avery County High School during the COVID-19 pandemic on a massive renovation and construction project. The school has always had a distinctive physical appearance and it will be enhanced even further with a spiffy and most modern main entrance as part of the 56,468 square-foot additions and 19,974-square-foot renovations project.

Dr. Brigman said that inclement weather has hindered the project’s completion date which will likely be in late 2020 or perhaps as late as late spring of 2021, instead of early fall this year.

Bids for the Avery High renovations and new construction project were opened April 23, 2019 at the Avery County Schools’ central office in Newland by Rob Johnson, of Boomerang Design of Charlotte, NC, the project’s architect Two previous bid openings were postponed to provide needed time for the contractor’s bidding on the project to get estimates and additional details needed from subcontractors.

Branch Builds, Inc. of Roanoke, VA and Charlotte submitted the lowest bid of $17,225,279.00, while Hickory Construction Company, Inc. of Hickory, NC gave a bid of $17,811,000.00. Both bids are for all aspects, including general work, alternates and contingencies involved in completing the construction and renovations, which consist of 56,468 square-foot additions and 19,974-square-foot renovations.

H&M Construction Company, Inc. of Asheville, NC had also planned to submit a bid for the project, but did not compile all its necessary monetary estimates to finish its bid, according to Avery County Schools officials.

The submitted bids were a whopping 17-plus percent lower than the project’s anticipated cost.

Dr. Brigman said the bids were “awesome and much lower than many may have anticipated.”

The project’s estimated cost had risen from $19.1 million to $23 million. Part of the estimated increase has been attributed to the need to replace equipment at the school, which included $20,000 for a new boiler.

Avery School officials and Johnson had been working to “develop contingency plans if the bids had come in much higher than the $23 million estimate.”

Dr. Brigman said the project will have “the absolute minimum necessities.” It includes utility improvements, new classrooms and offices and Americans with Disabilities Act compliance.

The renovations and new construction began shortly after the 2018-19 school year ended on June 7.

The project is a colossal, long-term financial commitment for the county, which had a recently-approved 2020-2021 budget of $30.3 million. Avery County Commissioners have expressed concerns that the high school, as well as the school system’s other facilities, would require more projects in the near future and further stretch the county financially to pay for them as well as potentially even more higher costs for the current high school project.

The county sought various public and private lenders to complete it. Dr. Brigman added that Avery County officials and the Board of Education will continue to pursue all available grant monies and any other funding that may be, or becomes available to help pay for the project.

The high school construction and renovation project was originally scheduled to proceed to bid after a vote by the Board of Commissioners during their May 7, 2018 regular monthly meeting. A specific reference was made then to a motion for an amount not to exceed $19.5 million compared to the initial estimate of $19.1 million after county attorney Michelle Poore said that a particular dollar value should be provided with the motion.

The commissioners permitted the project to proceed to bid and use $1.7 million in education lottery funds to pay for its initial phases.