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Schools want unarmed security employees who could defuse conflict without criminalizing kids

The school system in Forsyth County wants $1.6 million in local money to hire campus security associates whose duties would include preventing the criminalization of some students at a young age.

The request is part of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools proposed $616 million budget for 2020-21, of which $152 million would come from Forsyth County.

Superintendent Angela Hairston made her first budget presentation to the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners last week. The county took no action.

The school board has not voted on the proposed budget.

The $1.6 million request would be for 36 security associates and an executive director of school safety.

These associates, to be put in middle and high schools, would not replace the school resource officers currently in the schools.

The school system contracts with the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office, the Winston-Salem Police Department and the Kernersville Police Department to provide school resource officers, more commonly known as SROs, at its schools at a cost of about $4 million.

Besides defusing conflicts, the associates would make sure campuses are secure by doing such tasks as making sure doors are locked and monitoring video cameras.

Their roles would be different than SROs, who are armed and sworn to enforce laws. Hairston said she sees the unarmed associates as being on the front line of prevention.

“We must work to ensure that middle school behavior is not always criminalized,” Hairston told commissioners. “Law enforcement officers are official police officers. They must abide by their oath and their duties and responsibilities, but we need a security person between that SRO and that administrator to build relationships to ensure our campuses are safe.”

She likened the team of security associates to a fire department’s emphasis on prevention. Without prevention, she said, firefighters would be putting out fires all the time.

“We can, down the road, request more and more police officers, but our goal is to become more prevention-minded and to reduce the number of incidents so we don’t become a police state,” Hairston said, adding she is particularly interested in reducing negative interactions between middle schoolers and law enforcement.

Of the $1.6 million request for safety, $113,319 is earmarked for the salary and benefits of an executive director for safety and emergency preparedness, a new position.

That person would oversee the security associates and work on emergency preparation, an important role in the time of COVID-19, she said.

The duties would be different than those that fall under the current security director, Jonathan Wilson, according to school system spokesman Brent Campbell. Wilson’s job involves overseeing the SRO program, traffic and school security mapping and planning, he said.

“The idea is the current security director would continue managing those roles under the larger supervision of the proposed executive director,” Campbell said.

In response to a question from Commissioner Fleming El-Amin, Hairston said she has been in touch with Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough about his department offering some training to the security associates. The idea is to form a partnership between both groups.

SROs would continue to deal with more serious issues such as someone bringing a weapon on campus.

Elisabeth Motsinger, a member of the school board, said she is in favor of the new positions.

“The whole idea of a security associate is to be a non-police presence whose focus is on the safety of the building and the people in it,” she said.

“Safety has a lot of moving parts. Wouldn’t it be great if we had a person in charge of running fire drills, monitoring tips, training staff in security measures?”

The security associate would also deal with safety measures related to COVID-19 assuming schools reopen in the fall, Motsinger said.

A security associate might need to make sure that students are adhering to whatever safety policies might be put in place such as social distancing or mask-wearing.

“One of the things that is going to be really critical, if we are going to be ‘opening up’ schools and businesses is our willingness to follow protocol to keep us all safe,” she said.

Tracking COVID-19 workplace outbreaks proves to be challenge

When Tyson Foods announced Wednesday night it had 570 positive cases of COVID-19 among its Wilkesboro workforce, the size of the outbreak rippled across the state.

However, it’s proving challenging to determine whether it is the largest single outbreak in North Carolina to date. An outbreak is defined as two or more cases at any single site.

That’s because meat-packaging operations, such as Tyson’s chicken-processing facilities that have a combined 2,244 employees, are not required to report infectious-disease cases to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

Instead, those operations are accountable to the N.C. and U.S. Agriculture departments, which have not posted specific outbreaks data on their websites.

State Agriculture officials could not be immediately reached for comment about how they are tracking and reporting outbreaks.

The most relevant COVID-19 related announcement on the state Agriculture’s website is geared toward reassuring consumers about the meat supply at retail.

Meanwhile, there doesn’t appear to be an outbreak data clearinghouse either for non-agriculture employers, such as the 16 at Hanesbrands Inc.’s distribution center in Rural Hall and up to 10 at Ashley Furniture’s plant in Advance.

That was the case for the single COVID-19 case disclosed Tuesday by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. at its manufacturing plant in Tobaccoville. Reynolds also said March 30 it had two non-production employees to test positive.

N.C. Health News reported in early May there had been outbreaks at 15 meat and poultry processing plants in 11 counties: Bertie, Bladen, Chatham, Duplin, Lee, Lenoir, Robeson, Sampson, Wilkes, Union and Wilson. At that time, the combined case total was 604.

Since then, there has been an outbreak at a Wayne Farms chicken-processing plant in Dobson, along with the sharp increase at the Tyson plant in Wilkesboro.

Dr. Mandy Cohen, the state’s health secretary, said Thursday it’s evident that part of the surge in COVID-19 cases “is coming from some of our critical infrastructure businesses by the nature of that business.”

“These meat-processing plants are heavily regulated by the Department of Agriculture.

“As an industry, they are not required to report (outbreaks) to our department, but when it comes to our attention, our role from the Department of Public Health is to help them with various infection control methods.”

Cohen said DHHS has tried to emphasize where major outbreaks are occurring by reporting cases by Zip code, along with those in nursing homes and residential care facilities.

“We’re also helping to facilitate on-site or close to the plant testing, with Tyson being a good example of that of working with local health departments and the state,” Cohen said.

Contact tracing

Where the tracking and contract tracing seems to have gaps in when employees work in one county, but live in another.

At least 70 cases of COVID-19 are Forsyth County residents who either work at the Tyson plant or have come into close contact with someone who works there, according to the Forsyth Department of Public Health.

Wayne Farms is one of Surry’s largest private and manufacturing employers with at least 500 workers, according to the county Economic Development Partnership Inc.

Samantha Ange, Surry’s health director, said Wayne Farms employees with confirmed cases are self-isolating.

“We are working hand in hand with local health officials and in full conformance with CDC, OSHA and public health guidance,” Wayne Farms spokesman Frank Singleton said in a statement.

“With a very low percentage of our employee population testing positive for the virus, we believe these efforts have helped prevent the introduction and spread of the virus within our facility.”

Different counties

In the examples of the Ashley Furniture, Hanesbrands and Wayne Farms outbreaks, it’s unclear how wide the community spread may be since those facilities draw workers from several surrounding counties.

Hanesbrands said Wednesday that additional testing of employees at its Rural Hall distribution center found an additional 15 positive tests for a total of at least 16. Hanesbrands spokesman Matt Hall said the company had 164 distribution center employees tested.

Hall said of the 15 new cases, 10 were already in quarantine based on the first positive case that was disclosed May 15.

“We have begun contact tracing on the other five and have suspended operations for all employees of this shift,” Hall said. “It is important to note that of the 15 positive cases, only two showed symptoms.”

Ashley has more than 1,600 employees at its mammoth Advance facility. It has been actively recruiting for months to hire an additional 100, including holding several job fairs on site and participating in events in Forsyth.

Ashley Furniture spokesman Cole Bawek said Wednesday that “we have no reported cases where transmission is believed to have occurred while working at our facility.”

“Out of caution, we have nonetheless asked associates who may have previously come in close contact with these associates to quarantine at home.”

Suzanne Wright, Davie County’s health director, said Thursday that “since Ashley Furniture employs individuals from multiple counties, I can only confirm the one associated case that resides in Davie.”

“A member of Ashley Furniture’s leadership staff reported Thursday that a ‘handful’ can be defined as less than 10 employees.

“The staff member reported that there is no consistent pattern of cases in one particular department or area of Ashley, and all confirmed cases are associated with close contact transmission outside of Ashley.”

Joshua Swift, Forsyth’s health director, said Thursday he doesn’t know of any significant number of cases in the county related to Ashley.

Health directors for Davidson, Iredell, Rowan and Yadkin counties did not respond when asked about any potential Ashley case spillover into their counties.

Forsyth County reports 48 more COVID-19 cases, county total now above 800

The Forsyth County Department of Public Health announced 48 new cases of COVID-19 Thursday, pushing the county’s case total above 800. The new cases continue a weeks-long trend of sizable daily increases, with the county’s total now at 821.

Of those, 461 are active and 352 are considered recovered. Thursday is the seventh day in a row that active cases have outnumbered recovered cases by more than 100, although recoveries increased significantly in the most recent report.

The county’s coronavirus-related death toll remains at eight people.

Forsyth County is one of six North Carolina counties with at least 800 cases of the virus.

Similar to previous weeks, Dr. Christopher Ohl, Wake Forest Baptist Health’s leading infectious disease expert, reiterated how the area’s COVID-19 cases are disproportionately socioeconomically disadvantaged residents.

Across the state, more than 20,900 people have tested positive for the virus since the first case was discovered in March, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. At least 716 people in the state have died because of the virus.

On Monday, the Forsyth County Public Health Department reported 8,006 tests had been done in the county, a significant increase in tests — about 5,000 more — from the week prior. County Health Director Joshua Swift said that number is not reflective of the number of tests done between May 11 and May 17, but rather a more accurate number of tests completed throughout the COVID-19 crisis.

“We were working with each hospital system to get the total numbers of tests conducted,” Swift said. “We were working with both hospital systems to make sure we had an accurate count.”

At least 290,645 North Carolinians have been tested for the virus as of Thursday, almost 13,000 more people than on Wednesday. Not every negative test is reported to the state or county health departments, which caused the discrepancy in Forsyth’s testing numbers.

Dr. Mandy Cohen, the state’s health secretary, said DHHS “is watching all those numbers closely” in Forsyth and Mecklenburg counties when asked about the steady, continued increase in cases in both counties.

“We know in those areas you bump into people more often, and with eased restrictions, folks are moving around more,” Cohen said, “which means the virus is going to move around more.”

Cohen said those upticks in cases are why “we need to be cautious as we move into Phase 2 ... because the next activities are at higher risk going forward.”

In Davie County, Ashley Furniture Inc. has had “a handful of” COVID-19 cases among its Advance workforce, spokesman Cole Bawek said Wednesday.

“We have no reported cases where transmission is believed to have occurred while working at our facility,” Bawek said. “Out of caution, we have nonetheless asked associates who may have previously come in close contact with these associates to quarantine at home.”

Suzanne Wright, Davie County’s health director, said Thursday she can only confirm one of the cases is a Davie resident and that Ashley employs people from across the region.

“A member of Ashley Furniture’s leadership staff reported Thursday that a ‘handful’ can be defined as less than 10 employees,” Wright said. “The staff member reported that there is no consistent pattern of cases in one particular department or area of Ashley, and all confirmed cases are associated with close contact transmission outside of Ashley Furniture.”

Swift said Thursday he doesn’t know of any significant number of cases in Forsyth County related to Ashley.

In Wilkes County, a third person died from the virus, according to the health department there. This person was in their 90s and also had an underlying health condition. At least 456 people there have tested positive for the virus, many of which are linked to the Tyson plant outbreak.

Ohl lauded Gov. Roy Cooper’s decision to keep fitness centers closed for the foreseeable future, as gyms are likely hotspots for disease transfer. Ohl cited several studies at his Thursday press conference that showed the more air a person expels from their lungs, the more likely they are to transfer the virus if they have it.

Ohl did break with the governor on playgrounds, saying he thinks most should open. But he largely agreed with the state’s decision to move into the modified version of Phase 2, despite rising numbers of total cases.

“It’s a little bit ready or not, here we come,” Ohl said. He called Phase 2 the “major step” towards reopening, and said its success depends on citizen accountability.

“We as citizens, we as people, are going to have to follow some rules.”

On the topic of churches, Ohl said he wouldn’t advise congregants to sing, because like exercising indoors, singing will move large amounts of air and would make it easier for someone with the virus to transmit it. A federal court issued a temporary restraining order Saturday allowing churches to have indoor worship services after finding Cooper’s executive order placed restrictions on worshipers rights of Free Exercise under the First Amendment.

“Can church come back safely? Yes, it can, but it’s not going to look traditional,” Ohl said.

No jury trials in N.C. until August at the soonest, Chief Justice Cheri Beasley announces

North Carolina courts are opening in June, but it won’t be the same as before the COVID-19 shutdown, N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley said Thursday.

For one thing, there will be no jury trials at least until August, and most court hearings will be conducted remotely through videoconferencing.

“Until this pandemic passes, it cannot be business as usual for our court system,” Beasley said during a livestreamed news conference Thursday morning.

Like every other sector of society, the novel coronavirus and the respiratory disease it causes, COVID-19, has disrupted the court system. In North Carolina, more than 20,000 people have tested positive for COVID-19 and at least 716 people have died. Forsyth County has had more than 800 positive cases, with eight deaths.

Since early March, Beasley, who as chief justice is the head of the state’s court system, has issued several executive orders limiting court operations and continuing most District Court and Superior Court criminal and civil cases until June 1. Courts have held certain emergency hearings, such as bond motions for jail inmates. And some misdemeanor and felony pleas have been heard for jail inmates who are awaiting trial.

Starting June 1, court operations are going to ramp up but they will do so slowly. District Court courtrooms will no longer be crowded with people waiting for their cases to be heard. Court officials will provide 6-foot markers so that people can comply with social-distancing requirements. Some local courthouses in the state may require people to wear face masks. And hand sanitizers will be made available.

“Court is going to look different for awhile,” Beasley said in a news release. “Dockets will be smaller. Cases will be heard online. We’re going to have to socially distance in the courthouse.”

County court officials will determine exactly how different court hearings will be conducted, she said.

Todd Burke, senior resident judge of Forsyth Superior Court, said he had already stopped bringing jail inmates into the courthouse for hearings. Instead, the hearings are conducted in a courtroom that allows for videoconferencing. Inmates can talk from the jail to their attorneys through a phone in the courtroom.

Burke has asked the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts to make a Superior Court courtroom suitable for videoconferencing. He said he is planning for more Superior Court matters to be heard by the end of June.

“I’m not trying to rush this process,” he said. “I have to do these things in collaboration with the other stakeholders.”

Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill said his office has worked hard over the past several weeks to conduct hearings required by state law and to provide help and resources to crime victims.

“As we move forward towards the gradual reopening of the court system to the public, we will work closely with our partners in the Hall of Justice to try and ensure the safety of all who enter here,” he said Thursday. “I am anxious to resume normal court functions and operations to continue to maintain the highest levels of community safety without jeopardizing anyone’s health.”

Members of the grand jury, which considers indictments, are scheduled to meet for the first time since March on June 22, Burke said.

People coming to the courthouse will see some differences — chairs in common areas have either been removed or taped over. Courthouse security will make sure that people keepkeep 6 feet apart, he said.

“Additionally, we’re going to have masks available for the public,” Burke said. He is strongly encouraging people to wear face masks while they are in the courthouse.

“Quite frankly, I had suggested that people be given an ink pen, gloves and a mask and a ... bottle of hand sanitizer,” he said, noting that would require county money and there’s no guarantee people would use them.

Beasley’s latest order extends some filing deadlines to July 31, including for criminal matters. Other filings are due June 1.

She also encourages filing court documents by mail or using a physical drop box.

And she said things are always subject to change.

“It is important to remember that a rapid upward trend in infections could result in a cancellation of court dates,” Beasley said.