Join our publisher Mike McCool as he takes a walk down Main Street in Front Royal, talking to people as they enjoy the Main Street experience.
At the end of May, the Town of Front Royal announced a plan to assist downtown businesses allowing them to expand their services, displays, and seating areas onto the sidewalks and Main Street.
There has been some discussion on opening the street back to traffic, but speaking with people this Saturday night, it seems that keeping it closed for a while longer may be a good idea.
School district considering backup health insurance plan
Warren County Public Schools (WCPS) is poised to start a new health insurance provider search as a backup plan to a potential contract flop between regional medical provider Valley Health and insurance giant Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield.
“Both parties continue to work toward a solution, but at this point, a resolution may not be inevitable prior to the contract expiration on December 31,” WCPS Personnel Director George “Bucky” Smith told Warren County School Board members during their Wednesday, October 21 work session. “The longer the two parties take to find a solution, the more difficult it becomes to wait and see.”
Winchester, Va.-based Valley Health and Anthem are locked in ongoing negotiations over costs associated with renewing their contract. The Warren County School Board, the Front Royal Town Council, and the Warren County Board of Supervisors are closely monitoring the situation as thousands of area school- and government-employed residents carry Anthem health insurance and receive services at Valley Health facilities.
In fact, the Town Council on October 19 voted 5-0 to pass a resolution urging Valley Health and Anthem to continue negotiating toward an acceptable contract. The council’s resolution states that if the contract lapses, then roughly 40,000 people in the Valley Health regional healthcare region, including those who use Warren Memorial Hospital in town, could be impacted.
At the same time, Valley Health is currently building a new Warren Memorial Hospital off Leach Run Parkway in Front Royal, supported by a Town and County-approved, $60-million loan through the County-Town Economic Development Authority.
On Wednesday, Smith and Ed White, a consultant and senior vice president at McGriff Insurance Services Inc., detailed the current situation for School Board members to spur some proactiveness by the board should contract negotiations fail.
White said that McGriff and WCPS staff — who have been in discussions with representatives at both Anthem and Valley Health — have devised a preliminary plan, which he and Smith presented to the School Board.
If accepted, the plan timeline would direct WCPS to submit a notice of termination for the Local Choice program on October 29; to gather Census and Claims data November 1-6; to publish a request for proposals (RFPs) November 6-8 toward finding companies interested in providing insurance coverage to WCPS employees; to evaluate the RFPs on November 30; to receive presentations from the RFP finalists and to select a new provider December 2-5; to hold local meetings with WCPS employees on enrollment and begin the enrollment process December 9-13, and to submit data to the selected insurance provider December 18-26.
Health insurance ID cards then would be delivered on January 15, 2021, with new insurance coverage scheduled to begin on February 1, 2021, according to the plan timeline.
School Board Chairman Arnold Williams, Jr. asked what other carriers Valley Health currently takes and White said that in addition to Anthem, the major providers are Aetna, Cigna, and United, among some smaller Medicare supplement companies, for example.
In reviewing the plan details, Williams noted that if a WCPS employee opted to stay with Anthem, then the closest facilities they would be able to go to if the Anthem-Valley Health contract lapsed, would be Warrenton, Va., or Haymarket, Va. White answered yes, but said that Anthem would make allowances for emergencies.
“I wish I knew the numbers; I wish I knew the difference between Anthem and Valley Health, how far apart are they” in dollars, Williams said. “We didn’t cause this problem. We’re just the poor folks trying to have health insurance for all of our employees.”
Williams also said that he felt like the school division was “being forced to have to do something and I don’t know what the right decision is.”
Nevertheless, Smith asked the board for “some guidance, some sense of direction” on what to do about the situation going forward. “Is it fair to ask that we start an RFP to at least find out what else is out there,” he asked School Board members. “We have to have a plan B. We need to be able to have something else to fall back on. If not now, when?”
Williams said he did not “have a problem with a resolution” being introduced during the board’s Wednesday night meeting, while WCPS Superintendent Christopher Ballenger asked if a termination letter should be drawn up as recommended in the McGriff plan.
The School Board members — Williams, Vice Chairwoman Catherine Bower, and members James Wells, Kristen Pence, and Ralph Rinaldi — all seemed agreeable to Ballenger’s idea. Wells summed it up by saying that while he hoped Anthem and Valley Health would make a decision soon that benefits the population they serve, he thinks the School Board “still has to move forward.”
When Williams asked board members about taking action regarding a termination letter, Smith interjected and told board members that their discussion was the start of a process and that the board was not bound to end WCPS’s relationship with Anthem. The discussion, he said, was more about putting a plan B in place.
“And we are in control of when and if we need to send a letter,” Smith said.
The Warren County School Board’s next regular meeting is on Wednesday, November 4.
Random drug testing slated for WCPS students
Random drug testing is on the horizon for students attending Warren County Public Schools (WCPS).
WCPS Superintendent Christopher Ballenger detailed the formation of a new drug testing committee to the Warren County School Board during its October 21 work session and solicited membership by two board members.
Over the last several decades, Ballenger said that WCPS has implemented numerous programs to help raise student awareness about the dangers of alcohol and illegal drug use, as well as to provide incentives for them to avoid using such substances.
“The programs provide information to help our students understand the immediate and long-term impacts of alcohol and drug abuse,” said Ballenger.
Nevertheless, “even with this intervention, drug and alcohol incidents persist,” he said.
As a supplement to such educational initiatives, Ballenger said that many Virginia public school divisions have gone further and implemented random student drug testing “as a condition of student participation in specific privileges offered at school.”
The WCPS drug testing committee will involve parents, business leaders, school administrators, and board members, said Ballenger, who requested that two Warren County School Board members serve on the committee.
School Board members Catherine Bower and Ralph Rinaldi volunteered to serve on the committee, and a motion was made to accept their membership by School Board member James Wells, with a second by Kristen Pence. The motion carried with yeas from all members, including School Board Chairman Arnold Williams Jr., and members Kristen J Pence, Wells, Bower, and Rinaldi.
Ballenger said he is working to gather other committee members now and plans soon to hold a meeting, either virtual or in-person, to discuss the process of review, development, and implementation of a drug-testing policy for WCPS students.
WCPS Assistant Superintendent Melody Sheppard already has compiled the drug-testing policies of seven other school districts, said Ballenger, “so, we will, as a group, review those policies and look at what would be in the best interest of Warren County Public Schools and look at what would best suit our needs.”
The superintendent said the committee will work to implement a random student drug testing policy to start during the 2021-2022 school year.
Early morning explosion reported in Linden
On Friday, October 23, 2020, at approximately 3:44 AM, the Warren County Fire and Rescue Services and Warren County Sheriff’s Office responded to an explosion at a single-family home on Northern Spy Drive, in Linden, Virginia.
Firefighters and Warren County Deputies arrived on the scene to find the home destroyed by an apparent explosion. Firefighters determined that a middle-aged male, now found deceased, had occupied the home. The name of the deceased is withheld pending notification of family.
WCSO Deputies assisted Fire Marshal, Gerry R. Maiatico in securing the scene, and the cause of the explosion is currently under investigation by the Warren County Fire Marshal’s Office. The Warren County Sheriff’s Office Major Crimes Division and Front Royal Police Department Criminal Investigations Unit joined the Warren County Fire Investigators in a joint investigation. Explosives trained Canine (K-9) were requested. The Medical Examiner’s Office has been notified and the exact cause of death has not been confirmed as of 8:00 AM.
The cause of the explosion is still under investigation and anyone having additional information regarding this incident is asked to contact Fire Marshal Gerry Maiatico at 540-636-3830 or WCSO Investigator Jeremy Seabright at 540-635-4128.
Federal dollars approved to super-digitize Warren County Public Schools
The Warren County School Board on Wednesday, October 21 took several actions to help bring Warren County Public Schools (WCPS) further into the Digital Age.
The School Board unanimously approved a total of roughly $559,459 from its share of federally allocated pandemic-relief funds to be allocated to WCPS for advanced-technology temperature scanners and a new camera system for school system buses and cars, increased bandwidth and mobile hotspots for high-speed internet access, and new digital math and science textbooks.
WCPS Transportation Director Aaron Mitchell requested $68,171.82 to purchase 50 new intelligent temperature sensing systems from Gatekeeper Systems Inc., that use infrared health monitoring panels to scan temperatures on a person’s forehead, not a wrist or arm like the competitors’ products, he said.
The cost also covers the installation of the 50 panels in bus stairwells, allowing for contactless operation using artificial intelligence for fast measurements of each rider within two feet.
The funds will come from federal dollars allocated to each state’s education department and then distributed to school districts under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, one of the economic-relief packages authorized by Congress in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
WCPS has received three different CARES Act funding allotments through the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) and each comes with varying stipulations, according to Robert Ballentine, WCPS finance director, and clerk of the School Board.
“The total amount is $1,970,364.29,” he wrote the Royal Examiner in an email today. “In addition to this amount, we have received $300,000 in CARES funding from the County for the purchase of tablets for our students. The $1,970,364.29 total includes $916,598.00, which just recently and unexpectedly was given to us by VDOE and must be spent and paid for by December 30, 2020.”
During the meeting, Mitchell also requested $120,255.99 in CARES Act funds for the transportation department to purchase 45 bus camera systems and 15 car camera systems, also from Gatekeeper to replace the current WCPS video system purchased in 2013.
“The current three-camera system is having repeated hard drive and viewing failures,” Mitchell explained to School Board members during their Wednesday meeting and work session. “The proposed system has five cameras and can be expanded to include additional technologies in the future.”
The Gatekeeper system also will allow for accurate data to be collected for contact tracing in case there’s a COVID-19 outbreak that occurs in a school system vehicle, said Mitchell, adding that the camera system will allow WCPS to determine where students are sitting and if mitigation strategies are in place.
“The viewing capabilities are far superior to our current abilities allowing for improved documentation of events that may occur on the bus,” Mitchell said. “This request also includes upgrading the camera systems in the County cars used for student transport.”
Warren County School Board Chairman Arnold Williams Jr., Vice Chairwoman Catherine Bower, and members James Wells, Kristen Pence, and Ralph Rinaldi voted to approve both requests.
School Board members also voted 5-0 to approve two requests from WCPS Technology Director Timothy Grant. The first is a $38,400 contract with Shenandoah Telecommunications Company (Shentel) that will allow WCPS to increase network bandwidth to 10 Gigabits per second (Gbps). Shentel currently provides internet access to WCPS at 1 Gbps. “Due to the current need of virtual learning for teachers and students, as well as the need to filter the internet through our network, we need to increase our bandwidth,” Grant said.
The second request from Grant that received board approval was $92,349.45 for the technology department to purchase mobile hotspots from two separate mobile carriers — AT&T and T-Mobile — that will provide high-speed internet to students homes that do not currently have it. “It is recommended students should have 15 Mbps per student in any given household in order to effectively participate in online learning,” Grant said.
Next up on its action agenda was a request from WCPS Director of Secondary Instruction Alan Fox, who proposed the School Board approved $240,282.04 for WCPS to buy digital textbooks for Math 6, 7, 8, Algebra I, Algebra II, Geometry, Calculus, Science 6, Physical Science, Anatomy, and Physiology.
“We would like to provide digital textbook access and additional textbooks for our students,” Fox said. “Due to mitigation strategies, our former standard operating procedure of having classroom sets of textbooks is no longer an option.”
Fox said WCPS also has textbooks that do not have the digital access component, requiring the school district to buy additional textbooks. “Warren County Schools believes in equitable access to learning for all students and this will help us to ensure equity within the county,” he said.
The School Board voted 5-0 to authorize the purchase and in its final related action item, unanimously approved a request by Lisa Rudacille, WCPS director of elementary instruction, to accept a list of members to the proposed 2020 Math Textbook Review Committee.
“Because teachers’ instruction has had to change so drastically in recent months due to the impact of Covid-19, and the switch to hybrid and virtual instruction, it is the desire of our central office instructional staff and elementary administrators to review our adopted math textbook series prior to the normal adoption cycle to ensure our teachers have access to the most appropriate materials for math instruction for both in-person and virtual students,” Rudacille said. “According to our textbook adoption policy, the School Board must approve a committee to review potential textbooks.”
During the School Board’s work session portion of its meeting, members heard from WCPS elementary school students and principals, who reported on the start of the 2020-2021 school year during a pandemic. High school and middle school principals and students made their reports during the board’s October 7 meeting.
At A.S. Rhodes Elementary School, for example, Principal Lori Layman said there are two teachers who provide virtual specials four days a week for art, music, and Fun Fridays, which have included science experiments and virtual field trips. The teachers work virtually, and their classes are shown to students attending school in person and remotely, she said.
“I think our students are enjoying it,” Layman said, “because our teachers, in about a 30-minute break, are able to have the kids do something that is fun, enjoyable and adds a little bit of normalcy to their day.”
The student explained that each day students get a 20-minute movement break. Goodwin called it a good way to get the kids outside and moving to exercise their bodies and brains since students are sitting a lot more due to COVID-19 health restrictions. He added that the teachers have been creative in incorporating PE requirements into the movement breaks.
Ressie Jeffries Elementary School Principal Nina Helmick also brought a 4th-grade student to the School Board meeting. The principal said that one of the hurdles that students have had to overcome, particularly the little ones, is to get them to social distance.
The student, who wore a green t-shirt emblazoned with a large white paw print of their school mascot, the Jaguar, said such symbols are placed around the school so students know where to go when they get off the bus or are headed to a classroom, and they’re placed six-feet apart to designate the correct amount of social distancing.
Nikki Taubenberger, principal at Hilda J. Barbour Elementary School, brought a 5th-grader with her to talk about what it’s like to spend his last year of elementary school at a middle school, which is where all WCPS 5th graders attend classes during the pandemic to allow more space at the lower-grade schools.
D.J. shared the pros and cons of his situation with the School Board members, telling them the middle school cafeteria food “is a little bit better,” but “missing out on traditional 5th-grade activities” at his elementary school is kind of a bummer.
Leslie Fox Keyser Elementary School Principal Danelle Sperling had a slide presentation showing what a typical day is like for virtual students, who account for 40 percent of this year’s student population at the school. All teachers are using the Schoology learning platform for instruction, she said, showing examples of what the online classes look like, how instruction might be presented, and how students are engaged in course instruction.
Sperling also brought along Anthony, a 3rd-grade virtual student, who ran through the timeline of attending school online, which he said he likes.
“It sounds like you have to be pretty disciplined to do each step in your day,” School Board member Wells said to Anthony. “Do you find that hard to do or is that something that has become routine for you?”
“It’s something that has become routine for me,” the student answered.
Watch this exclusive Royal Examiner video to catch the meeting in its entirety.
Governor Northam signs new laws to support COVID-19 response, reform policing
Governor Ralph Northam on October 21, 2020, announced he has signed 16 new laws and proposed changes to five bills that will support the Commonwealth’s ongoing COVID-19 response and advance criminal justice reform.
“I am proud to sign new laws that strengthen our COVID-19 response efforts and make our criminal system more equitable,” said Governor Northam. “I am grateful to legislators for their hard work this session, and look forward to signing more critically important legislation in the coming days.”
Governor Northam signed the following laws to support COVID-19 response and recovery efforts:
• House Bill 5093 (Delegate Watts) and Senate Bill 5117 (Senator Deeds) allow a $500 civil penalty for violations of a Governor’s Executive Order, instead of the Class 1 misdemeanor currently dictated by Virginia Code.
• House Bill 5047 (Delegate Murphy) strengthens Virginia’s anti-price gouging laws during declared states of emergency.
• Senate Bill 5039 (Senator Marsden) establishes a formal program for the purchase and distribution of personal protective equipment during a public health threat.
• House Bill 5087 (Delegate Tran) extends the date by which the Virginia Employment Commission is required to establish and implement a short-time compensation program and removes the program’s sunset clause.
• Senate Bill 5083 (Senator McClellan) requires Virginia school boards to publicly post their plans and strategies for mitigating the spread of COVID-19.
• Senate Bill 5017 (Senator Boysko) grants the Commonwealth the ability to establish and enforce health standards at local correctional facilities used by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or other federal agencies.
Governor Northam signed the following laws to reform criminal justice and policing:
• House Bill 5098 (Delegate Askew) increases the penalty for falsely summoning or giving false reports to law enforcement officers due to an individual’s race, religious conviction, gender, disability, gender identity, sexual orientation, color, or national origin.
• House Bill 5072 (Delegate Lopez) and Senate Bill 5024 (Senator Lucas) allow the Attorney General to open investigations related to a suspected “pattern or practice” of misconduct among law enforcement officers.
• House Bill 5062 (Delegate Mullin) and Senate Bill 5033https://lis.virginia.gov/cgi-bin/legp604.exe?ses=202&typ=bil&val=SB5033 (Senator Surovell) restore the practice of requiring judges to dismiss charges when both parties (prosecution and defense) agree.
Governor Northam proposed changes to the following bills:
• House Bill 5046 (Delegate D. Adams) and Senate Bill 5080 (Senator Barker) expand Medicaid coverage of telemedicine care. Governor Northam added an emergency clause to make this legislation effective immediately upon passage.
• House Bill 5115 (Delegate Price) expands eviction protections for Virginians who experienced a loss of wages due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Governor Northam added an emergency clause to make this legislation effective immediately upon passage.
• House Bill 5058 (Delegate Hope) and Senate Bill 5029 (Senator Lucas) prohibit law enforcement from initiating traffic stops in certain instances. Governor Northam amended this legislation to ensure law enforcement can initiate a traffic stop when an individual is driving at night without the use of both headlights and/or without the use of both brake lights.
Bespoke Beauty Loft opens new salon in Winchester on October 22nd
Bespoke Beauty Loft announced the grand opening of its new salon in Winchester, Virginia on October 22, 2020.
Bespoke Beauty Loft is opening its new doors in spite of challenges and obstacles created by the global pandemic. Shutdown orders prohibited salon owner Taylor Waldrep from taking client appointments for several months, and the pandemic significantly delayed the new space completion date. However, Waldrep’s commitment to serving her community of clients remotely brought her through those uncertain months to achieve this milestone.
“I realized very quickly that achieving my goal of a new salon space would require perseverance and dedication to my mission,” Waldrep said. “I believe that my clients deserve to have the confidence that comes from beautiful hair – even when they were asked to stay at home. We simply found a way to help them achieve that in spite of everything.”
During the closure, Waldrep offered Facebook lives so she could answer as many questions as possible about maintaining hair color and cuts while the salon was closed. She even personally delivered hair products that her clients purchased online and over the phone (following Virginia safety and sanitation guidelines). Many clients also purchased gift cards during the shutdown.
Bespoke Beauty Loft offers a welcoming atmosphere and warm, friendly service to make clients feel at home. Now, the salon is excited to open its new doors and offer inclusive services to current and new clients. The salon boasts a stylish and inviting mid-century modern design that emphasizes aesthetic touches while ensuring client safety and sanitation per Virginia state guidelines. It provides services such as cuts, coloring, and smoothing and conditioning treatments. Maintenance packages are also available to ensure clients’ hair color remains fresh and vibrant.
“Bespoke Beauty Loft fulfills my lifelong dream of having a space focused on creativity and growth. I’m delighted to help each and every client achieve their hair goals,” said Waldrep. “In a time that has been challenging for all of us, I believe people can refresh their hearts and spirits through self-care and warm relationships. That’s the type of environment I aspire to create at Bespoke Beauty Loft every day.”
New Bespoke Beauty Loft clients can schedule a complimentary consultation with a member of the Bespoke stylist team to discuss their hair goals and share inspiration photos. Appointments can be requested by calling the salon at (540) 508-2406.