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Schools: ‘It’s time to mask’
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Students, staff must wear them beginning today

The joyful return to in-person learning several weeks ago has now been overshadowed by rising numbers in positive Covid-19 cases around the county, and Superintendent Jeff Pancione said that while this decision may not be a popular one, it’s a necessary one.

“It’s not an easy decision,” he said Tuesday morning. “But our focus is on students and education, and the goal is to continue in-person learning.”

After consulting with local health officials and head nurse Rhonda Dante, today marks a return to masked classrooms here in the county.

Pancione commented that while numbers have been increasing countywide, there is good news to focus on.

“Staff and students are in school,” he said, pointing out that in-person learning is already more well-received than virtual school. “We have tired of Covid, but it’s time to mask up for a while.” 

Beginning today, Hampshire County Schools will be following state Covid guidelines for schools with a universal mask policy.

The Covid transmission map is a good guide, Pancione said.

If the county is in Orange or Red, masks are required indoors and on buses.

If the county is in the lower stages of transmission (Green, Yellow or Gold), then masks are not required, but they are recommended.

In layman’s terms, that means that if masks were worn at the point of exposure to a person with Covid, students don’t have to quarantine.

Additionally, vaccinated students will also not have to quarantine.

Right now, there are several grades currently closed around the county due to Covid outbreaks: the entire 6th grade at Romney Middle, a 5th grade class and a kindergarten class at Capon Bridge Elementary and a 3rd grade class at Romney Elementary.

State guidance defines an outbreak in a school as multiple Covid cases within a specified core group (a classroom, extracurricular, sports team, etc.).

If a student has been quarantined, it means they also must refrain from extracurricular activities such as athletics or clubs. Vaccinated students do not need to quarantine if they are not showing any Covid symptoms.

Pancione added that when school started Aug. 23, he was hopeful, as was the rest of the community, that Hampshire was headed back to “normal” within the schools, but now, masks are a necessity in order to further the ultimate goal:

“The focus is on educating students,” Pancione said simply.

‘I watched the Towers collapse’

HHS grad saw tragedy unfold from 5th Avenue

As a member of HHS Class of 2000, she had gotten her diploma and was off to the Big Apple to begin her college career at NYU.

In September of 2001, she had just begun her sophomore year.

On Sept. 11, 2001, at 8:45 a.m., she woke up in her 5th Avenue dorm room to what she described in New York City as “total chaos.”

“I remember waking up a little late that morning to a growing chorus of emergency vehicle sirens,” Brabson recalled. “I had been working at the student newspaper until 2 a.m. the night before, and didn’t have a morning class, so I was sleeping in.”

Sleeping in is nothing out of the ordinary for an exhausted, busy college sophomore, but what Brabson woke up to was a living nightmare.

“Someone in the building must’ve told us a plane hit one of the Twin Towers,” she remembered. “When we stuck our heads out of our windows, we could see the tower smoking – about 3 miles away.”

She said that at that time, the Twin Towers were a visual marker for folks all throughout the city, and even into New Jersey, helping people to know which direction to go.

The bedlam outside of Brabson’s dorm still rings in her ears.

“People were honking horns, tons of fire trucks, police vehicles, ambulances were all blasting sirens and trying to get downtown,” she said. “I watched the Towers collapse from the street.”

Brabson described the horror before her eyes, an unforgettable sight and sound that sticks with her, even 20 years later.

“Everyone just stood in the middle of the street looking downtown. 5th Avenue had a full, unobstructed view,” she recounted. “When the Towers fell, we heard it before we could really see the 1st building sink from the skyline.”

She added, “I will never forget the sound. It was like a million people screaming all at once. Then, moments later, screaming again as the 2nd tower collapsed.”

She experienced the same small act of humanity that many did during the tragedy: finding or offering comfort to a stranger. Brabson recalled a stranger on the street standing next to her grabbing for her hand “because they didn’t know what else to do.”

Smoke rose to the sky. Classes were canceled at NYU.

Brabson, active in her school’s newspaper, rushed to help produce a special issue to make sure students were all informed.

Brabson, whose parents still live in Levels, couldn’t reach her mom to tell her she was OK because she was in surgery at the time.

The images that exist, moments in time captured by photographers at the time of the tragedy and during the aftermath, Brabson saw those moments, real-time.

“The city was crippled. I saw dust covered professionals trudging uptown to get home. People lined up at hospitals to give blood. Local hospitals had their exterior walls covered with missing persons posters,” she described. “The sirens continued for days, and everyone was incredibly somber and jumpy. It took a long time for the joy and energy to return. I grew up really fast after that.”

Not long after the Sept. 11 tragedy, Brabson returned to her home in Hampshire County for fall break, where she said the effects of the event were still being felt.

“Everyone was still shocked that it even happened, and feeling very patriotic,” she said.

Brabson moved to the city permanently after she graduated from college, and the Sept. 11 tragedy has never been too far from her mind.

“I’ve experienced a few other major emergencies or disasters, Hurricane Sandy and now Ida, too, bomb scares 2 blocks from my office, crane collapses, ambulances going everywhere to pick up Covid victims,” she explained. “And for all of those, it always gives me anxiety and makes me think of Sept. 11.”

Covid hitting the young hard
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Covid-19 is attacking Hampshire County’s youth like never before.

Of the 122 new cases reported here in the last 7 days, nearly a 3rd — 40 — of them were people age 20 or younger.

Thirteen cases alone were reported in children age 12 to 15. Nearly a dozen 5- to 11-year-olds are ill with the virus.

In comparison, only 31 cases were reported in people over age 60, generally considered the most vulnerable population, but also the most vaccinated.

Health Director Tamitha Wilkins on Tuesday pleaded with parents to take a child’s illness seriously.

“We really, really need families to understand that if they have any school-age children in their home that have been sent home because they’re sick or been tested, that family needs to quarantine and not be going out,” Wilkins said. “If they are home to quarantine, they need to stay home to quarantine even if they feel good.”

She said her department is advising students who have tested positive to not participate in extra-curricular activities.

“We cannot mandate that,” Wilkins acknowledged. “If they’re quarantined, that should mean everything.”

Cases reverse-correlate with vaccinations. The higher the percentage of an age group vaccinated, the fewer cases reported.

Hampshire County Health Department reported 88 active cases Monday with 7 people hospitalized from the disease that attacks the lower respiratory function.

The county has seen 15 to 20 new cases every day since Aug. 31, although that dropped to 7 Monday, Labor Day. Testing has increased to about 120 a day, spiking at 165 last Friday and 152 more Saturday.

And as cases and testing trend upward, vaccination numbers are pushing up also.

As of Monday, 38.7% of Hampshire County residents 12 or older have been fully vaccinated, one of the lowest rates in the state. At least 1 dose has been administered to 43.2% of the eligible residents.

Hampshire County’s oldest population, people age 71 or older, is the most vaccinated, but that total is still less than 2/3 of them, 65.2%.

The Health Department said Monday that 2 outbreaks have occurred, as defined by the state, but declined to identify where they are taking place.

Hampshire’s numbers parallel the state’s, where 39 of the 55 counties were red on the state’s 5-color tracking map Tuesday morning. Another 14 were orange, 1 was gold and Tucker was yellow.

“If you’re not vaccinated, you’re taking one hell of a chance,” Gov. Jim Justice said Friday. “I don’t know how many times we’re going to have to say it, but there is nothing in your life as important right now as getting vaccinated. Nothing.”

The number of West Virginians on ventilators hit 111 Friday, a high for the pandemic.

“We’re putting significant stress on our hospitals and our healthcare system, and we need to address this right now,” Retired Major General Jim Hoyer, now the director of the state’s Joint Interagency Task Force on COVID-19, said.

A plague upon 2021
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Cicadas, drought, swarms sow farm worries

Of course, there’s always the weather to fret over and deal with. This year has been no exception in Hampshire County, with a cold, wet spring followed by a dry, hot 1st 2 months of summer.

But 2021’s worries haven’t stopped there.

There were 17-year cicadas wreaking havoc with fruit trees that weren’t protected.

Swarms of black birds feasted on the sweet corn that we wanted to feast on ourselves.

And don’t forget the prospect of army worms — the sworn enemies of hay growers — and spotted lanternflies, both ravaging crops in neighboring counties.

“It’s been really tough, and for everybody all the way around,” extension agent Candace Delong says.

The big deal has been the hot, dry spell that began summer.

The National Weather Service says that between June 24, the 4th day of summer, and Aug. 18, Romney recorded just 2.48 inches of rain. A typical year sees 8.0 inches of rain over those 8 weeks.

“The biggest thing for me as a cattle farmer is the pasture for cattle,” says River Road farmer John Arnold. “That was getting pretty detrimental around the county.”

Delong said several farmers started feeding cattle hay earlier than usual as the pastures dried up.

Arnold grows corn too and his weather worries began long before the dry spell set in.

“Cold nights and days in late April and up into May hurt my corn crop a good bit,” he said.

His sweet corn, a county favorite, wasn’t ready for the 4th of July. Then the heat cut into his field corn that he uses and sells for cattle fodder.

Delong said corn and cattle weren’t the only crops affected. Peaches have been smaller and ripening later than usual.

“I had a lot of calls about tomatoes,” she noted. “They either didn’t ripen early or they were really late. Now they’re cracking,” she ticked off the maladies. “Heat causes a lot of blemishes. The tomatoes stress when there’s no water.”

Some downpours the last 2 weeks of August helped cut the short drought, but created their own tomato problems.

“This rain is probably going to cause the tomatoes to split,” Delong said.

Weather wasn’t Arnold’s only corn worry this summer.  He had to fend off swarms of black birds, as did, he says, Eli Cook’s Spring Valley Farms here in Hampshire and major corn grower Sam Williams in Hardy County.

“If you let them get started,” Arnold says, “they come in by the thousands.”

The birds feasted, and annoyed, until about Aug. 10, when Arnold said they were gone as quickly as they came.

Most orchardists, Delong says, were prepared for the emergence of cicadas in May, but a lot of folks who have a fruit tree or 2 in their yards weren’t.

Everyone became aware of the basic cycle this spring. The cicadas emerge from underground after 17 years, squeal incessantly until they mate and die.

What got glossed over was the females lay their eggs in the new growth of trees, diverting sap to their eggs and away from the fruit and leaves.

When the eggs hatch, the larvae drop to the ground, burrow down and begin their 17-year underground cycle.  

“A lot of our commercial growers were prepared,” Delong said. They sprayed or covered trees.

More damage came to homeowners and small growers, she said. She called the insects a big problem for very young trees.

 The lousy thing about the cicadas is that there’s more than one brood, so the coast isn’t clear until 2038.

This area will also experience Brood 14, which is due back in 2025. We’re on the fringe of Brood 1 (2029), Brood 2 (2030), Brood 5 (2033), Brood 8 (2036) and Brood 9 (2037).

There are 13-year cicadas too. Brood 19 emerges again in 2024 and we’re on the edge of it.

Those are far-away worries compared to army worms and spotted lanternflies.

“Army worms … come in in huge numbers and demolish the hayfield in a short amount of time,” Delong says. They have hit a couple of fields in Grant County already.

The spotted lanternfly is an invasive plant hopper native to China. They prefer to feed on the invasive Tree of Heaven, but also feed on grapes, apples, hops, walnuts and hardwood trees.

They have been in the Winchester area for a couple of years and were sighted in Mineral County last year. A colony is living around Frankfort High School.

Delong was in on a sighting at Capon Bridge this summer. A vendor found one in the parking lot of the farmers market there.

Delong said the Department of Agriculture is investigating whether it is part of a sustained population or just “hitched a ride” in from Frederick County, Va.

A quarantine on Winchester and Frederick County prohibits transporting plant materials, trees, firewood, RVs, grills, mowers, Christmas trees, landscaping items and children’s playhouses.

 “It’s been a pretty trying year,” Arnold sums up.

And it’s only September.

Arts fest buzzing this weekend
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ROMNEY — Clear your schedules this weekend: arts, entertainment and fun for the whole family makes its way to Romney for the 3rd annual Hampshire Highlands Arts and Music Festival on Saturday.

There will be food. There will be music. There will be an opportunity for young festivalgoers to learn a little bit about the environmental impact of pollinators (that’s the festival’s theme this year), and even with Covid-19 numbers rising in the county, the outdoor festival promises a time that’s safe and fun for all.

“We know (Covid) has been increasing somewhat in Hampshire County, but it hasn’t exploded here like it has in other places,” said Joanne Snead with the Arts Council. “Almost all of (the festival) is outside. It should be a fun day, and hopefully the weather is good.”

The entertainment lineup alone is enough to warrant a visit to the lawn outside Taggart Hall in Romney, the venue for this year’s event.

The Hampshire Ukulele Club will kick off the musical acts at 10 a.m., followed by the Honeybee Community Chorus. Jan and Neil Gillies will showcase their musical versatility with the guitar and hammered dulcimer at 1 p.m., and Madison Wrye, winner of last year’s open mic competition, will perform after.

Throughout the day Saturday, there won’t be a shortage of activity, that’s for sure.

There will be dance exhibitions by Expressions in Romney, and there will be a “pollination station” where the Potomac Highland Beekeepers will exhibit their live bees.

It’ll be an interactive arts experience Saturday, and for the adults, the Co-op will be holding a Beer and Wine Garden fundraiser, complete with red and white wines, several beer varieties and bratwurst and sausages.

There will truly be something for everyone’s taste buds, Snead said.