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Bank robbed in Augusta
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Bank of Romney 

Surveillance footage shows the suspect armed and wearing a dark hoodie.

AUGUSTA — The Augusta branch of the Bank of Romney was robbed last Wednesday, resulting in an investigation led by West Virginia State Police.

The robbery occurred at approximately 12:25 p.m. Sept. 22 at the Augusta bank, when an armed male entered the building and demanded money. No employees or customers were injured during the incident.

Bank surveillance shows that the individual was wearing a dark hoodie and a mask, carrying a handgun. Two photos were released Thursday of the armed robber, and Sgt. J.R. Fletcher of the Romney Detachment said video footage was investigated as well.

“Every business around that location that had cameras was visited,” Fletcher explained. “There are no leads from any of those videos.”

One of the rumors Fletcher squashed was about the suspect’s vehicle.

“There are a number of rumors out there, but what we know for a fact is that he went running up into the woods,” Fletcher confirmed. “We’ve gotten calls about several different car models, everywhere from an SUV to a Jeep to a truck. Those are just Internet, Facebook rumors.”

Following the robbery, Augusta Elementary School was on lockdown to ensure student safety, said superintendent Jeff Pancione.  

Principal Brenda Omps posted on the school’s Facebook page at 1:51 p.m. that the school was in a “precautionary lockdown due to its proximity to the Bank of Romney.”

About 20 minutes later, she posted again that the lockdown had been lifted, assuring that all staff and students were safe.

Anyone with information can contact the WV State Police at 304-822-3561. The Hampshire County Sheriff’s Office can be reached at 304-822-3894 or leave an anonymous tip on the sheriff’s office website at www.hampshirecountysheriffwv.com.

Covid boosters now available
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A new, grim pattern has emerged with Covid in Hampshire County: case totals are steady, but hospitalizations and deaths have increased.

This past week the county has seen 4 Covid-related deaths, with 3 out of the 4 deceased having been only in their 50s. The total confirmed deaths related to the virus climbed to 43.

“Hospitalizations is the really bad thing right now,” said Tamitha Wilkins, health department director. “Not just here, but statewide. They’re in a bed crunch everywhere.”

Wilkins added that on Tuesday, the health department held their 1st clinic for booster shots of the Pfizer vaccine. Booster shots are now available for anyone 65 and older, and anyone aged 18-64 with underlying conditions or in an occupational or institutional setting that may encourage a booster (for example, first responders).

Clinic will be held on Oct. 12, Oct. 19 and Oct. 26 at the health department in Augusta, from 9 a.m. until noon by appointment only. Call the health department at 304-496-9640 to schedule an appointment for the booster shot.

Lead nurse Rhonda Dante shared some good news about the school system’s fight with the virus at Monday evening’s school board meeting.

“This weekend was a quiet weekend for us,” she said. “It was the quietest weekend since school started.”

Dante said that she even got to take some time for herself over the weekend and go for a hike, though the county isn’t out of the woods yet.

Although the narrative surrounding the virus is that “it doesn’t affect kids,” Dante cleared that up at Monday’s meeting.

“We’ve been finding that after Covid, the recovery with some of the cases, kids are struggling with energy and their heart rate,” Dante explained, saying that in some cases, kids are put on an inhaler to help them get through the recovery.

Dante reported a few numbers as well, saying that the average age of positive cases was 39, and the average number of cases per day is between 20 and 24.

The daily testing at the hospital (from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m.) is going strong, with between 30 and 70 people tested per day.

Dante also emphasized the importance of student masking, saying that it really does make a difference for them when it comes to quarantine procedures.

When it comes to quarantining students, Dante said she’s only looking at times when kids are unmasked.

“The biggest advantage is that it limits the number we have to quarantine,” she said simply. “I see the difference now from when we weren’t (masking up). I’m not seeing the spread in classrooms with the masks.”

Keeping the kids in the classroom is important, and masking helps minimize the number of students who have to quarantine.

The Health Department reported that face shields (the clear plastic face protection that fits around your head) are allowed to be worn in schools, but if a person wearing a face shield comes into contact with a positive individual, that person will have to quarantine. Masks are recommended as the best face protection for students. ❏

‘Our pool needs to be deeper’
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Staff shortages strain schools here, require ‘creative’ fixes

ROMNEY — It’s the refrain heard ‘round the county: “We need people.”

The school system-wide substitute staff shortage was a big topic at Monday evening’s school board meeting, with 2 service personnel even appearing in front of the board to share their experiences.

“We’re not the only ones in this boat,” said Pam Slocum, personnel director for Hampshire County Schools. “All of our regular positions are pretty much filled, which is uncommon, but we just have a shallow pool of subs that’s trickling out.”

While having a nearly-full staff of regular positions is good news, the lack of substitutes in classrooms, buses, kitchens and custodial crews has created challenges for the school system.

Take the transportation department, for example.

Transportation supervisor J.W. See has been driving a bus since the 2nd day of school, Slocum pointed out. There just aren’t enough people to help fill the gaps when needed.

Mark Shanholtz and Joe Bloom, custodians at Hampshire High School, appeared in front of the board to share their daily challenges with the board as well, personifying the struggle that the whole county, and state as a whole, is facing.

“We all know we need help up there,” Bloom said simply. “That school is 60 years old. We can’t make it look like a new school. (The school) has to do something.”

One of the issues Bloom described was trash pickup at Rannells Field, since trucks can’t drive on the new turf field.

Someone would have to walk across the field to empty the trash drums, then walk them back to the truck, which would be no easy feat without help.

Bloom said that while small-scale solutions like repairing the school’s side-by-side could help, the overwhelming issue is that there just aren’t enough people.

“I’ve been working at the high school for 3 years,” Bloom said. “I like working up there, but they have no idea how much work it takes, and time.”

Shanholtz reinforced Bloom’s point, bringing a printout of the daily duties of the school’s custodial staff so the board could see the breakdown.

Copies of the printout were made and distributed to the 4 present board members (Dee Dee Rinker was absent).

“They run us ragged some days,” Shanholtz admitted. “I just don’t know what we’re supposed to do.”

It’s a people problem, and board president Debbie Champ highlighted creativity as one of the top solutions to filling the positions, as well as looking outside of the county.

“Even if you’re not from here, come on over,” Champ said with a laugh. “I think we need to be a little more creative.”

Slocum said that she’d be open to hearing ideas about how to creatively get people into these Hampshire County positions. HHS principal Adam Feazell suggested the possibility of implementing a “service personnel” concentration at the high school to allow students to get their foot in the door with a service personnel career path.

Champ agreed that giving young people an opportunity to enter into service personnel careers within the school system could be a viable solution to expand the pool of potential employees in the county.

“We’ve got to get these kids and keep them here. It’s a good career for them. We have to get them before they go to a plant in Hardy County or Winchester. Let them know they could stay here,” Champ mused. “Our pool needs to be a little deeper.”

Valley Health restricts visitors, delays surgeries
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With the recent Covid surges, Valley Health facilities are being stretched beyond their capacity.

Last Friday, the health system, made up of 6 hospitals, including Hampshire Memorial on Sunrise Summit, added more restrictions in order to combat the influx of patients fighting the virus: they’ve added additional ICU capacity, curtailed hospital visiting and postponed elective and nonessential surgeries requiring post-operation beds.

Winchester opened an additional unit to accommodate the number of severely ill patients. It’s a numbers game, and Valley Health facilities are struggling to stay in the lead.

Visiting will also be restricted at these facilities; Valley Health has reported that over the last couple of weeks, they’ve seen an increase in disruptive visitor behavior, including refusal to mask up. Visitors will only be allowed for special circumstances, such as labor and delivery, pediatrics and the NICU.

Elective and nonessential surgeries requiring beds post-op will be postponed as well. There just isn’t enough room for everyone.

Outpatient surgeries and procedures that don’t require beds will continue, and this protocol doesn’t impact procedures for patients whose condition is emergent or urgent, as determined by their physician.

Out of the Covid patients the 6-hospital system is treating, about 85 percent of them are unvaccinated.

“The data and scientific evidence overwhelmingly points to the safety and efficacy of Covid-19 vaccination,” said Dr. Iyad Sabbagh, Chief Physician Executive. “I implore residents to get vaccinated…the Delta variant we are now confronting is more contagious than previous versions of this virus, and is spreading rapidly in our community.”

Sabbagh added that the most severely ill patients in the Valley Health system are folks who are unvaccinated. A problem that has arisen has been patients who are not being honest about their vaccination status, fearing that if they reveal that they haven’t been vaccinated, they won’t receive care.

Sabbagh squashed that line of thinking.

“Our job is to care for every individual who comes to us,” he asserted. “While we want the public to know that vaccination is the best way to stop the spread of Covid, we also want them to know that we’re here to care for them, regardless of their vaccination status. It is our mission as healthcare providers.”

Valley Health previously reported that 97 percent of their employees have either been vaccinated or granted religious or medical exemptions, and the system has been busy recruiting new staff to fill vacancies left by those who chose not to comply with the vaccination requirement.  

‘Our challenge is not staffing due to our Covid vaccine requirement,” commented Mark Nantz, president and CEO of Valley Health. “Our challenge is the sheer number of severely ill Covid patients presenting for care at our hospitals.”

Board: JJC's doors will be closed
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ROMNEY — With a 3 to 1 vote, the school board took the 1st step to closing John. J. Cornwell Elementary at Monday night’s meeting, beginning the formal closure process.

Several months ago, the board approved the gathering of data to support the closure of the school, which currently has a 21-student enrollment.

Personnel director Pam Slocum brought the data to the board Monday night, confirming that if the school closed, the employees at the school would be RIFed.

And the reasoning behind the closure?

Well, numbers, for one. Declining enrollment tops the list of reasons for the school’s closure, as well as restrictive state laws and policies governing special education class sizes, mandates for new/additional programs and curricular offerings and aging facilities.

Superintendent Jeff Pancione’s recommendation continued, saying, “it is necessary to downsize the system in an effort to continue quality educational programs for the students of Hampshire County and to remain in compliance with state and federal laws and regulations.

There were 4 board members present at Monday night’s meeting, with only Dee Dee Rinker absent.

Board vice president Ed Morgan made the motion to move forward with the 3 closure hearings: 1 at John J. Cornwell, 1 at Romney Elementary and 1 at Slanesville. Schools in Romney and Slanesville are involved because once John J. Cornwell is closed, the students will be split between them.

The board took a vote, resulting in 3 “yes” votes to move ahead with closure proceedings, and board president Debbie Champ being the only “no” vote.

“I think we got to this point over time because we moved students out of there, and that’s why we have the lower volume of students,” Champ said. “I think our small community schools bring such value to our students, and I hate to see a small school close, even though I know we’re going forward with consolidation in a few years.”

The 1st school hearing, held at John J. Cornwell, will be on Nov. 3 at 6 p.m. The written reasons and supporting data for the school closure is required by law to be available for public inspection for 30 days before the 1st hearing. ❏

CBES to see bigger gym in new plans
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ROMNEY — It seems like ages ago that the county passed a bond for 3 new elementary schools and a new gym at Capon Bridge Elementary, but with the plans for the CBES gym falling into place, it’s the 1st bond project to get underway.  

The original plan for the CBES gym placed its size at 45’x80’, making it just a few feet shy of regulation. Treasurer Denise Hott said that to expand the gym plan to be bigger would cost the board between $300,000 and $450,000 more.

It might sound like a daunting amount, but superintendent Jeff Pancione said that the board had options when it came to covering the extra costs, thanks to the flexibility afforded by the county’s ESSERF money (Covid-relief funds set aside for schools in the nation).

Superintendent Jeff Pancione said that CBES principal John Ferraro told him he was satisfied with the gym being smaller than regulation-sized, but members of the board were not.  

 “If we can come up with money to make it right without shorting anyone, we should,” said board member Bernie Hott. “We can’t decide to do it later if we don’t do it now.”

Board president Debbie Champ reinforced Hott’s point.

“When else has this board sat here and said that $400,000 isn’t a problem?” she asked. “(Expanding the size) gives us large facilities that the community can use.”

And finally, board member Matt Trimble highlighted the need to give back to the community.

“If we can, I’m all for not shorting anyone,” Trimble commented. “The county did a big favor by passing the bond, and we don’t want to short anyone.”

Board vice president Ed Morgan, however, said it didn’t quite sit well with him, knowingly spending so much money to expand the gym a few feet.

“I don’t know; personally, I find it a hard pill to swallow,” Morgan admitted. “I’m not really comfortable spending $400,000 (more), imagine what that could do at (schools like) the North Elementary.”

The gym project, with the original, smaller size, was planned to go out to bid by the end of this week, but with the expanded size, it’ll likely be delayed between 30 and 45 days.

The board discussed additional updates with the bond project as well:

• The smallest new school, North Elementary (in Slanesville), was planned to have a gym that was 40’x44’, and the board decided to discuss expanding the size of that gym as well, though that school’s construction is a little further down the line.

• The Central Elementary School plan was tweaked to have the main entrance of the building facing Route 50, not Ford Hill Road. The board continued the discussion about bus entrances and parent drop-off at the Augusta school, which is the largest, projected at 54,950 square feet.

• The board decided to make sure that there is extra parking at West Elementary School in Romney (at the site of the old hospital). If there’s room for additional parking, then extra spots should be added, Champ noted. “I would optimize that area as much as possible,” she said.

•    A bus-only access road to West Elementary on Veteran Boulevard was also discussed, with a gate that would be closed during the school day. An access road allows for safer entrance and exit from the property for buses, Pancione said. The board passed the right-of-way agreement with the Potomac Center and Sheltered Workshop to gain that access.