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State guides schools into split schedule
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ROMNEY — It’s back to school for Hampshire County students, the board decided Friday.

The school board determined last week that students in grades K-8 would return to in-person classes on an A/B schedule starting yesterday, Jan. 19, with students at Hampshire High School remaining remote until the county is out of the Red Zone.

The decision, which passed 4-1, with board member Bernie Hott standing his ground against the idea of the A/B return to school, followed neatly along with the directives for “School Recovery” that were established by the state board.

“I think the right thing to do is follow state guidance,” said board president Debbie Champ.

The board added to the state’s motion, stating that this topic will be “constantly monitored” at every board meeting from now on.

Superintendent Jeff Pancione called the A/B return “transitional,” and, following his recommendation, the board determined that this week’s schedule would call for “group A” students on Tuesday, “group B” students today and remote learning on both Thursday and Friday, giving schools time to iron out some of the potential wrinkles.

With the main topic for discussion at the meeting being to either follow the state directives and get the kids back in school on Jan. 19, or choose to wait a little longer, the atmosphere in the central office Friday night was a tense one.

Champ added that she was uneasy with the options on the board’s plate.  

“Either way we go, I’m not comfortable,” she admitted. “I know our students need to be in school, but I don’t want to expose anyone.”

Board vice president Ed Morgan added bluntly, “I hate this conversation.”

While it seemed the board was stuck between a rock and a hard place, Morgan admitted that the state had most of the power in the situation, keeping the Hampshire County board’s options limited.

“The state, they have a lot of control,” he said.

Health Department Director Stephanie Shoemaker presented some of her thoughts to the board, along with Head School Nurse Rhonda Dante.

“We have absolutely no timeline,” Shoemaker said about vaccine distribution for county teachers. “We have no idea how long it’ll take.”

Dante commented on the A/B schedule for the students, saying “It’s a start; we have to start somewhere.”

The Health Department has held the school board’s hand throughout the pandemic, and Pancione commended Dante and Shoemaker.

“These ladies are amazing,” he said. “I just cannot say it enough.”

Here’s a little breakdown of what families need to know about the return to school in Hampshire County in the wake of the board’s decision:

While the DHHR color map was relied upon throughout this pandemic, elementary and middle schools are no longer using it for reference.

Students in grade K-8 are now using an A/B model. For the upcoming weeks, students in group A will attend in-person school on Monday and Tuesday, while group B will attend on Wednesday and Thursday.

Fridays will remain virtual for everyone.

For elementary parents: in order to determine if your child is in group A or B, parents should have received a call or notification last week with the proper information.

While the county is Red, high school instruction will be completely remote. In the case that the county is no longer Red, the high school will also be using the A/B system.

For middle and high school parents: group A students (attending Monday and Tuesday) have last names beginning with A-K. Group B students (Wednesday and Thursday) have last names beginning with L-Z.

Schools will work with families in order to resolve any conflicts with schedules of children to ensure students in the same household operate on the same schedule if desired. If you have a known conflict, you must contact your child’s school.

If your family still wishes to remain virtual, you must contact your local school to complete the “Virtual School Application.”

‘We’re going to get through this’
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Back-to-school discussion draws support, concern

In fact, it was quite the opposite.

The final vote ended 4-1, with board member Bernie Hott opposing the motion.

Casey Hite, a 1st grade teacher at Romney Elementary, made an appearance at the meeting to share her thoughts as both a teacher and a parent. Among her top concerns were class sizes and the fact that the guidelines in schools were “as broad as the sky.”

“For every upset and concerned parent out there, there’s an equally upset and concerned teacher,” Hite said, asking the board to “solely focus on safety” when they made their decision, adding, “That’s all that matters.”

Because elementary and middle schools now are on an A/B model for instruction, the DHHR color map isn’t relevant day to day for their schedule. This was a concern for Kim Poland, who spoke on behalf of school service personnel, echoing Hite’s sentiment about safety.

“The (DHHR) map was good enough before; it should be good enough now,” she added.

Curriculum director Patty Lipps, however, pointed out that remote learning hasn’t really been working for the families of Hampshire County.

“I think we follow the guidelines, we follow the protocols and I think we’re going to get through this to the other side,” Lipps said. “I think we need to listen to the parents.”

Head School Nurse Rhonda Dante and Health Department Director Stephanie Shoemaker both offered their 2 cents to the board about vaccination timelines and the case numbers in the county.

“The infection rate is declining,” said Shoemaker. “We’re not as red.”

Board member Dee Dee Rinker said she was still uneasy about the infection rate in the county.

“I’m concerned about watching our numbers,” she admitted. “Red is red to me; I have a hard time with that.”

Board president Debbie Champ also said she was feeling a little stuck with the choice to either follow the state directives and return in person, potentially posing a health risk, or to continue remote learning for the time being, when the feedback shows that it isn’t as effective as being brick-and-mortar.

“We’ve always tried to look out for both the students and the staff,” Champ said. “The problem is, now they’re on opposite sides.”

Board vice president Ed Morgan also added that maybe revisiting the state’s 6 Covid mitigation strategies in schools might alleviate a little bit of the uncertainty on the teachers’ part: consistent and correct use of masks, proper hand hygiene and coughing/sneezing etiquette, social distancing to the largest extent, eliminate large gatherings outside of classrooms and core groups, cleaning and disinfecting and contract tracing with local health departments. o

‘I took this on for better or for worse’
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Health Director has tirelessly led pandemic fight

“Prior to March we had regular conference calls with the state and Covid was kind of on the radar,” she recalls. “It went full force in March. It became almost daily conference calls and we really hit the ground running.”

Conditions deteriorated so fast that Gov. Jim Justice called off school on Friday, March 15 — 5 years almost to the day after Shoemaker was hired to run the Hampshire County Health Department.

“Happy 5-year anniversary,” she quipped earlier this month.

Stephanie Shoemaker has led her staff — and the entire county — through the worst health crisis of the last 100 years. With calm resolve she has tracked the disease’s spread, lobbied time and again for mask-wearing and social-distancing, and put a network of resources to work to combat the virus that has killed more than a score of Hampshire residents.

Now she’s heading a battalion of staff and volunteers vaccinating the most fragile and exposed against Covid-19, something she’s eager to tackle.

“We’re starting to get into our wheelhouse with immunizations and vaccinations,” she said. “That’s more what we’re prepared for.”

The pandemic’s quick rise in late winter and early spring might feel like it caught everyone off guard, but don’t be fooled. Shoemaker had been laying the groundwork for years.

“That’s part of the Health Department’s job, to plan for pandemics and diseases,” she explained. “There were some things that we did prepare for that proved to be very helpful in this pandemic.”

Regular meetings with the county’s office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management and Hampshire’s first responders formed partnerships.

“We knew who to go to for what,” she said. “That has been very helpful.”

But whatever level of planning happened, the pandemic’s spread “was our worst nightmare, for sure,” Shoemaker said. “Whoever saw it? I did not.”

In fact, she said, “I think I was even naïve enough to think we’ll give this a few months. I would have never guessed we’d be dragging on this long.”

Ten months later, everyone knows the lay of the land. Masks and social distancing are the norm, if not universal. Schools are struggling to keep educating students, mostly from afar.

And people are lining up for the 2 vaccines being administered.

“I’m just waiting for this vaccine to work its way through,” Shoemaker said. “We’re still shooting for the general population by March.”

But, she cautions, “Everything’s changing day by day.”

Ten months of pandemic have taken their toll here. That includes for Shoemaker and healthcare workers around the county as well as those who have contracted the virus.

“It’s 24/7. It really is,” she said.

And, “It’s the same way for the staff — daylight to sunset. People have your home phone number and call you in the evening.”

Everyone in healthcare, she says, has been working 12-hour days. Everyone is fatigued.

Long hours have taken their toll on family life for this mom of 2.

“My daughter is 9 and she begs, ‘Mom, can you take a day off?’ She wants to do this, go shopping, see the grandparents.”

On one level, Shoemaker said, her children understand that seeing the grandparents isn’t possible right now. But once the vaccine has done its job? 

“Every weekend we’re going to be traveling, visiting family.”

What keeps Shoemaker going, she says, is her commitment to the staff and to the job.

“I took this on for better or for worse,” she said. “We’re seeing it through,” extending credit to a hardworking staff that has each other’s back.

Leading the fight against a pandemic is a far cry from the first stops in the career of this graduate of WVU (psychology bachelor’s) and Kentucky (health administration master’s).

She came to the Hampshire County Health Department from the human resources office at ATK. Her only experience in healthcare before that was a stint at Heartland nursing home in Mineral County. Heartland has had one of the most deadly Covid-19 outbreaks in the state.

“I just feel awful for them,” she said.

But she’s optimistic about what lies ahead.

“I’m really hopeful the vaccine is going to work and by summer we can be getting past this,” Shoemaker said.

She sees masks and some distancing as part of the new normal, but she longs for the day when people will socialize again.

“I’d like to be able to see some people get together again,” she said. “That’s all I want — people to get together again.”

Festival launching to celebrate Cacapon
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CAPON BRIDGE — Plans for a new festival are under way in Capon Bridge as residents here look forward to the loosening of Covid-19 restrictions, hopefully by summer’s end.

The 2021 Cacapon Riverfest—an annual festival centered on the river—has been scheduled for Aug. 21 in Capon Bridge, with activities divided between the River House and the Capon Bridge Public Library.

Riverfest Food Director Lyz Frey describes it as “a plan of hope, for our community and the world and a way to come back together and break out of our isolation.”

 “We all look forward to the festival becoming a new tradition,” says Riverfest Director Brandy Dorsch. “We are excited by how much support and enthusiasm we are receiving already—not only from the Capon Bridge community, but also from our neighbors in surrounding areas.”

Much of the activity will take place outdoors. Plans include river floats and tubing, paddle races and bucket filling and rock skipping contests.

There will be an artisan’s fair at the Capon Bridge Public Library and live music on 2 stages, 1 at the River House and the other at the library.

Even an outdoor event with limited attendance will require some easing of Covid-19 restrictions, but the organizers are hopeful that the situation will improve enough over the next 7 months to allow the event to take place.

If not, Riverfest financial director Tim Reese said last week, “all bets are off.” He also pointed out Covid restrictions are not the only thing that could put a damper on outdoor festivities, adding: “Pray for a sunny day.”

Funding for the festival will come from Keep the Cacapon Clean and its sponsors—Friends of the Cacapon River, the Cacapon and Lost Rivers Land Trust, the Cacapon Institute and the Potomac Riverkeeper. The organizers will also seek grant funding from the West Virginia Conservation Agency Stream Partners Program, West Virginia Rivers, the state Department of Arts, Culture and History and West Virginia Fairs & Festivals.

The organizers also plan to sign up individual and business sponsors for the different activities. Reese said he is still working on the sponsorship packages they will offer.

Attendance will be restricted, given the small size of the event’s 2 venues, the River House and the public library. The organizing committee is discussing making the Riverfest a ticketed event to keep attendance down to a manageable level, says Reese.

They may limit the event to 500 tickets.

The day will kick off about 10 a.m. with a river parade. Dorsch said they hope that festival guests will design their own river floats and join in the fun.

The parade will float half a mile down the Cacapon, starting at the public boat launch site under construction about a quarter mile down Christian Church Road. It will end at the River House.

Live music will play all day at both the public library and the River House, and the committee is planning environmental presentations as well, along with art activities for children.

Festival guests can expect a full day of festivities — 12 hours — winding up at 10 p.m.

Half a dozen food trucks will offer food and drink (for both children and adults) throughout the afternoon, and there may be food in the morning too, if a couple of breakfast trucks can be found.

A former organizer of the Arlington, Va., Columbia Pike Food Truck Party, Frey hopes to “expand our horizons” with festival trucks offering foods not found locally, while avoiding competition with local businesses.

There will be no pizza or Mexican food trucks, given the proximity of Anthony’s and El Puente, and the plan is to work with Greg’s Restaurant, too — for example, seeing if he will offer a special for the day, Frey said.

The Riverfest is a project of the Keep the Cacapon Clean Initiative, a group of concerned citizens that formed during the public uproar over the Capon Bridge sewer plant’s pollution of the river.

Now that the pollution has been addressed and a sewer plant upgrade is underway, Keep the Cacapon Clean is switching its emphasis to offering educational and social events centered on the river, including monthly river clean-ups.

The Riverfest organizing committee has created a “Cacapon Riverfest 2021'' Facebook page to disseminate information on festival plans as they develop. There will eventually be a web site as well, at cacaponriverfest.com.

Frey describes the Riverfest plans as “an exercise in hope and joy,” to which Dorsch adds her hope that Hampshire County will find the festival’s celebration of the natural beauty of the Cacapon River “an amazing way to round off the summer with friends.”

Hopeful signs in Covid battle
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ROMNEY — For the 1st time since Thanksgiving week the number of active Covid-19 cases in Hampshire County has dipped below 100.

And for the 1st time since that week, the county made it through a week without recording a death from the virus.

And, on Tuesday, the county moved from red to orange status on the state’s 5-color map for the 1st time in 6 weeks.

The Health Department’s tally as of Monday afternoon was 99 active cases with 4 people hospitalized. Over the run of the pandemic, 1,320 Hampshire County residents have tested positive for the virus and 21 have died.

Hampshire’s status in orange was due to improving positivity rates among people tested. It dropped below 8% Monday and below 7% Tuesday.

If the trend continues, high school students could return to HHS next week, joining the pre-k-through-8th-grade students who were back in county classrooms starting this week.

Meanwhile, vaccinations continue to spread through the community.

“We are currently working on vaccinating our residents 70 years of age and older, plus the remaining first responders that want vaccinated,” Health Department Director Stephanie Shoemaker said on the agency’s Facebook page Monday morning. “Anyone in these 2 groups can put their name on our availability list.”

Register to be vaccinated by visiting www.hampshirecountyhealthdepartment.com or calling 304-496-9640.

Under a state plan rolled out last week, vaccines by health departments in the region are all being administered at the National Guard Armory just east of Moorefield off Corridor H. Turn off on Freedom Way.

Vaccine supply is an ongoing issue, Shoemaker said. The department is scheduling appointments as vaccine doses become available.

Testing continues at the Hampshire County Fairgrounds’ dining hall. The next round is from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday.