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COVID-19 is guiding graduation planning

ROMNEY — With board affirmation Monday night, the graduation planning is heating up for the July 18 date at Wapacoma.

With large increases in positive COVID-19 cases popping up in surrounding states and counties, there has been concern over whether or not the July 18 date would be thrown to the wind and a fall ceremony would be in the works.

At Monday night’s school board meeting, President Debbie Champ was adamant about the event occurring this month.

“The 18th is graduation,” she stated. “The health department said that yes, it can proceed, as long as we follow the guidelines.”

Champ pointed out that right now, the board’s central office has been making calls to 2020 seniors and their families to attempt to determine how many seniors would be in attendance, and by extension, how many family members.

“We will review the governor’s most recent guidelines and follow that,” said Superintendent Jeff Pancione. Champ expressed that if everyone who attended the event socially distanced from others, then attendance numbers shouldn’t be an issue.

“What I don’t want is to limit attendance if I can,” Champ said.

The board also touched on other senior events occurring that weekend: the prom at Bigg Riggs on July 17 and the senior picnic on July 19.

“Neither of these events are school-sanctioned,” Champ said firmly. “There may be some HHS staff members volunteering at these events, but they are not school-sponsored.” 

Champ added that the folks who were planning the prom and the picnic have been in communication with the Hampshire County Health Department to make sure that they follow all of guidelines set in place for public gatherings.

The exact time of the graduation ceremony on July 18 has not yet been determined, but there’s much to think about and account for until then to ensure that the event runs as smoothly and as safely as possible for 2020 graduates and their families.

The prom event will be held from 7 until 11 p.m. at the Bigg Riggs barn in Augusta, and the picnic time has also not yet been determined, though the planning has started and is moving forward smartly, taking into consideration lighting, weather and, of course, the pandemic.

“It’s still on, graduation is still on, we have begun the planning process,” Pancione said. “We will continue to update everyone as we go.”


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Masks on, West Virginia

Justice orders coverings indoors

CHARLESTON — Face masks are now mandatory apparel in West Virginia.

Gov. Jim Justice instituted the order for indoor spaces Monday after the state reported record numbers of new coronavirus cases over the weekend.

The Republican’s executive order, which went into effect at midnight Tuesday, requires everyone over the age of 9 to wear face coverings inside buildings when social distancing isn’t possible.

“I’m telling you, West Virginia, if we don’t do that and do this now we’re going to be in a world of hurt,” he said, adding that “it’s not much of an inconvenience.”

New confirmed virus cases in the state have risen sharply in the last 2 weeks, with state health officials recording 118 infections Saturday and 76 on Sunday, both figures topping previous daily highs since the outbreak began.

Tuesday’s totals showed another 105 cases reported Monday.

Justice and his health officials have been urging West Virginians to wear masks as cases ticked and more churches resumed services. Still, the governor had stopped short of issuing a mask order, saying it would be politically divisive and difficult to enforce. On Monday, he said he could wait no longer.

“West Virginia, look around,” Justice said. “Everywhere around us is breaking loose and our numbers are showing our numbers to be moving in a significantly wrong way. We have got to move and we have got to move now.”

The order comes after Justice forced the resignation of the leader of the state’s public health bureau, Cathy Slemp, over what Justice described as an over-reporting of virus cases. The state health department later said local health officials had failed to move cases from an active category to a recovered category in the state’s virus database, and that state officials didn’t conduct sufficient checks on what local health departments were reporting.

Slemp, in a resignation letter, asked officials to “stay true to the science.”

At least 95 people in West Virginia have died from the virus and around 3,440 have tested positive, according to state health data.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up within weeks. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the virus can cause severe symptoms and be fatal. The vast majority of people recover.


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‘Either we’re in or we’re out’

Connectivity issues and minimal state guidance fuel debate over school’s start

ROMNEY — With the start of school a “constantly moving target,” Superintendent Jeff Pancione recommended full-time, 5-days-a-week school once August 19 rolls around, though all reentry plans are subject to change pending further state guidance.

At Monday night’s school board meeting, Pancione reiterated the possible plans regarding the start of school during a global pandemic in simple terms: full-time school, part-time school, and full remote learning.

“I recommend we go 5 days a week, unless something changes,” Pancione advised. “If they’re there for 4 days, why not be there for 5? We can front-load the instruction, all up front, in case in a month or so they have to close the in-person schools.”

The part-time learning, which was discussed at length during the June 29 school board meeting, detailed that instructional time would be split between in-person and remote learning, and Pancione and the board agreed Monday night that not much would be gained from this split.

Does full-time learning mean that the school day will go about the same as always?

Certainly not, Pancione explained, adding that practices will be in place to minimize potential exposure by staff and students and attempt to eliminate close contact.

Some possibilities for this model would be that all assemblies be virtual, the return of students to school could be staggered and that cafeterias could be closed for full capacity.

“If we go for 5 days, some people won’t be happy. If we don’t go for 5 days, some people won’t be happy,” Pancione remarked. “Either we’re in or we’re out.”

Board President Debbie Champ supported this full-time instruction model, though she was skeptical that students would even see the inside of a classroom come Aug. 19.

“My gut tells me we aren’t going to school this fall,” Champ said. “We need to be fully prepared to go virtual.”

The one element that is needed to go fully virtual is currently one of Hampshire County’s weaknesses: connectivity. Lack of reliable Internet is arguably one of the biggest issues that face the county during the conversation of virtual school. 

After the initial closing of schools in March, when Hampshire County students switched from in-person to online learning, between 80 and 90 percent of students said they had connectivity at their homes.

What the schools found out, Pancione said, was that it was spotty and unreliable Internet. He suggested that, at this point, close to 50 percent of students in the county are underserved by their Internet.

Because Hampshire County has not yet received official state guidance regarding the return to school, there are many unanswered logistical questions.

Champ asked if there is a way to find out which students would be considered high-risk for COVID-19, and if there was a way they could participate in remote learning without the impersonal element.

“I don’t want the kids to just be sent packets, like, ‘here, do this,’” Champ said.

Vice President Ed Morgan had another thought about the remote learning that occurred this spring, saying, “This spring, I think some kids probably got grades they didn’t deserve.” He added that there needed to be an element of responsibility and accountability when students complete remote schoolwork.

With the parent surveys that Pancione has started sending out, community members can voice their opinions about whether or not they feel comfortable sending their children to school in-person, and those survey responses can help guide the board moving forward to the start of school next month.

Board member Bernie Hott also suggested that surveys be sent out to teachers as well, so their voices can also be heard.

“It’s just not a good situation for anyone,” Hott commented. “We’re caught between a brick and a hard place.”

Later this week, Pancione said he will share these possible plans with the principals, and a finalized plan for the start of school will be presented to the board July 15 and the parents shortly after.

Without state directives, nothing can be set in stone. With the board, the staff and the families in the county all holding their breath to see exactly what the new landscape for Hampshire County education will look like, Hott summed it up at Monday night’s meeting: “This sure is a mess.” 


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Material girls

Neighbors sew up a tribute, fill a need, help a good cause

Back on April 4, Jo Jones got a request for a facemask.

It was still the early, panicked days of the COVID-19 outbreak and the ask dovetailed into 2 of her interests. The retired doctor is also a seamstress.

Three months later, Jones and neighbor Kathleen O’Brien have 736 masks being worn coast to coast, $5,465 raised for charity and fond memories of a departed friend who helped make the impromptu cottage industry a success.

The departed friend was another neighbor, Joy Markley. When she passed on 2 years ago, her husband, Robert, was left with all the material and supplies from her passion, quilting.

“We were getting low on material and he volunteered her material,” O’Brien said. “It gave us joy.”

Jones echoed the thought.

“She was the most aptly named person,” Jones said. “That’s why we feel this is kind of a fun way to say thank you back to her.”

Jones found a design she liked on the Internet for that 1st request and it came in 4 sizes — “little kid, medium kid, medium adult and large adult.”

She made the 1st one and then made more for friends and neighbors. That’s when O’Brien got involved.

“I gave her a call to see if she needed any help,” O’Brien said.

Jones was happy to do all the sewing, but O’Brien stepped in with cutting and organizing.

And there was plenty to do.

“There’s a lot involved in these,” O’Brien explained. “They’re more contoured to the face. The inside is flannel; the outside is material.”

Different sizes meant more than one set of cutting. Since they were 2-sided the women had to pin them, sew them, iron them and repin them, O’Brien said. Jo’s husband, Mark, made the nose bridges. 

Even with Joy’s material, some improvisation was involved.

“I was making elastic out of athletic knits until I could get elastic from China,” Jones said. “It’s like World War 2; we have to make ’em ourselves.”

Requests came in — from friends, from neighbors, from friends of friends, from churches, doctors, nurses, police officers.

 “We worked over 2 months, probably 7 days a week,” O’Brien said. “The amazing thing is it started out by request on Jo’s Facebook page.”

They were so busy, they wore out Jones’s sewing machine. Her sister gave her an old one.

“I was doing 9 hours a day at one point,” Jones said. “I hurt my hands and my neck. It was like working in a sweatshop.”

Yet, the masks didn’t carry a price tag. They asked for donations to Samaritan’s Purse.

As production ramped up nationally, Jones and O’Brien’s effort wound down.

“You can get them anywhere now,” Jones noted. “Occasionally someone will twist my arm.”

Today, Jones and O’Brien have the satisfaction of an unexpected job well done — and the memories of Joy Markley that it keeps alive.

“Joy would be so happy knowing her material would be keeping people healthy,” O’Brien said. o


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‘Anyone would have done it’

River rescue a matter of right place, right time

“I like to think anyone would have done it,” Sheriff John Alkire says, looking back on the unexpected events of June 6.

“If I wouldn’t have jumped in first, he would have gone in,” he said of his brother-in-law, Scott Staley. “It’s just the way it worked out.”

But Alkire was first into the South Branch that evening after he and his extended family heard cries of help coming from the river.

Bobbing up and down in the middle of the river was Romney resident Clinton Bowman.

Alkire dived in and swam to the man, guiding them downstream to firm footing.

But Bowman wasn’t alone. His girlfriend, Teresa Ohler, and her 2 best friends, Stephanie White and Selena White, had been on the 6-person inflatable round raft with him when it capsized.

Over the next minutes, Alkire, Staley and their family helped each of them get back on dry land.

“I didn’t even know who they were,” Stephanie said afterward. “I am super grateful to them. I don’t know had they not been there what would have happened to us.”

What ended as near tragedy began as a great expedition on a bright day with a quickly moving river after rains the day before.

Stephanie White went from her home in Kitzmiller, Md., on the North Branch, to Morgantown to buy the ill-fated raft. Then she and Selena, from nearby Oakland, headed to Romney for a day on the river with Clinton and Teresa.

They put in across from Hampshire Park and were going to float to the Romney Bridge. But the river was running quickly enough that they decided to keep going to a camp that Teresa’s family had near the John Blue Bridge.  

“It was so nice we were just going to keep on floating,” Stephanie said. “We knew there were other places we could get out.”

Clinton said they considered getting out at Hanging Rock, but kept going, passing beneath the train trestle.

“Right before the river splits, you can go left or right,” Clinton recalled. “We went right and we probably should have gone left.”

The river was flowing hard and they took to their paddles.

“We couldn’t control that,” Stephanie said. “Our raft was sucked underneath of the abutment.”

It hit a tree stuck against a barrier,” Clinton said, instantly making the raft go flat.

“Stephanie and her friend were up front and grabbed a tree,” he said. “It threw my girlfriend and I off the back.”

The current held him under the flipped-over tube for maybe a minute.

“It took a lot of my energy away, bobbing up and down and I’m a decent swimmer,” Clinton said.

Clinton and Teresa were swept by the camp where Alkire and his family were.

Stephanie said that as the raft came loose from the log she jumped back in to try to catch up to the others.

One by one each of the floaters was helped to land, minus some shoes and other belongings.

A waterproof pack with cellphones ended up at a campsite across the river. Downriver they found a couple of their shoes.

The foursome made their way to Bowman’s Sunrise Summit home and Alkire and the Staleys wound up their day by the river.

“We were in the right place at the right time,” Alkire said. “That’s essentially what it was. Anyone would have done that.”

Bowman says they’ll go back on the river again, but maybe on a day it’s running slower.

“Next time that it’s up, we’ll probably be smarter and take a couple of life jackets” Clint said. “We can all swim, but if you hit one of those rock barriers head on, it don’t matter how good a swimmer you are.”