Tricia McManus has had a busy first week as interim superintendent of Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, culminating with a recommendation to pause the district's re-entry plan until Jan. 11.
McManus' recommendation was impassioned and balance as she acknowledged the concerns of teachers who fear contracting COVID-19 and the loss in learning for many of the district's children. The board endorsed her recommendation, with a 7-2 vote.
McManus replaces Angela Hairston, who resigned in October after 14 months on the job, at a time when the district was deciding when students can return safely to in-person learning.
Before starting as the district's deputy superintendent in June, McManus worked in Hillsborough County, Fla., for 30 years, first as a fourth-grade teacher then taking roles in leadership, including overseeing the county's equity program to close the achievement gap.
Q: You're new to the area, and you're now the face of the district during a turbulent time. What do you want people to know about you?
Answer: Every decision I make, first and foremost, I do what is in the best interest of children and students. It's completely driven by what is best for students, how is my decision going to impact every single one of them.
For kids to get quality education, they need to be surrounded by really great adults in the system. One of my favorite books is "If You Don't Feed the Teachers They Eat the Students!" That was my Bible when I was a principal. You have to make sure the staff feels excited by what they do. That's how I feel 31 years later.
It's a balance of serving adults so they can best serve students but always keeping students at the forefront of everything.
As I've advanced roles in my career, I've never forgotten where it started, and that was the classroom with kids.
I'm a person who likes to listen and am approachable, but I'm also a person who can be way in the weeds because I'm approachable.
Q: How have you gone about learning the district, the area and the district's history?
Answer: There's so much to learn after being in a district for 30 years that I knew backward and forwards. I've done a lot of listening. I've been in all kinds of meetings. I've done a lot of reading and researching about the history of the district, when Forsyth and Winston (schools) merged and some of the state initiatives and expectations. There are experts in the district that I have to capitalize on. And there's a lot of folks from the community that I will look to for expertise and guidance to fill in the blank space. The best way to learn is to be quiet and do a lot of listening.
I live in the community and have since June, on the outskirts of town. I'm trying to do a lot of visiting to schools, trying to get to schools every single week. I'm also meeting with different groups — the United Way, the Stratford Rotary Club — and I'll start reaching out to churches and pastors and infiltrate myself into the community as much as possible.
Q: Since the re-entry plan started in early October, COVID numbers are skyrocketing, and we're about to enter a crucial period with the holidays and cold weather. Is school a safe place for students and staff?
Answer: I do think it's a safe place to be. When I look at the number of COVID cases in the community, they've really gone up. We're meeting with the Forsyth County Department of Public Health, and we're paying close attention to the numbers. You can see why people are alarmed. We have mitigation strategies we've put in place, and if those are followed, we feel we can stop the spread in schools.
We know everyone in school is wearing a mask, with maybe the exception of students with very severe special needs. What I've seen in the schools is that they're following mitigation strategies. We are aware that if there's a lot of general spread that you run the risk of contracting the virus from family members. You can't ignore the community spread as we think about schools.
From what I've seen, every week, schools are implementing the mitigation strategies at a very high level. I always say there's room for improvement and if we're seeing a lax approach, we're addressing it through the area superintendent. We need to make sure people are practicing personal accountability out of school as well.
We look at the dashboard every day, and we meet about contact tracing. If we start to see spread, we are going to take action.
Look at the large number of people quarantining. When people report a case, we quarantine. We know that number is high, but the good news is that, though it creates the need to make readjustments in the school building, people are reporting and quarantining.
Back to the question, do I think schools are safe? Yes. Do I think we can ignore our community numbers? No. The more spread in the community, the more risk you run of having someone bringing the virus to school.
Q: You have a background in equity. As you look at Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, what are you seeing in terms of equity and where we can improve?
Answer: The first thing is we look at is student data, and looking at the data now, you see the achievement gaps.
You look at third-grade reading scores, which are a strong indicator of successful students. If you're not reading by third grade, what does that mean? If you look at third grade scores here, you see major gaps between white and Black and white and Hispanic students. Most of the under-achievement is in our Hispanic students.
If you look at all the data, you're going to see gaps between our racial demographic groups. The good news is that our district has adopted an equity policy and has invested in a person who is director of equity and access.
And then you dive deeper into what is causing these issues. Programming is one of the things. Do students have a chance to do advanced coursework or are we keeping kids in remediation as opposed to on grade level standards? You don't teach down. You teach on grade level and provide support.
We're moving in the right direction and now we need to look at all the training we're offering. Do we need to start with implicit bias training? What are the next steps in understanding our own personal biases?
You also have to look at discipline disparities. How are we addressing those?
We need to get clear on what it is going to take and not allow excuses for even one student to fall through the cracks. My major passion is making sure we are addressing issues of social justice, that we are addressing issues of any group of our students performing less than another group.
These systemic inequities did not just appear in 2020. They're historic and systemic.
The city of Winston-Salem will issue an emergency order next week that more strongly enforces Gov. Roy Cooper’s COVID-19 executive orders.
The move comes as the city and county experience a surge in the number of COVID-19 deaths and cases. Forsyth County has reported 2,031 new COVID-19 cases over the past 14 days.
The city order, officials said Friday, will not be a complete lockdown; instead it will give officials, including police, more power to enforce the statewide orders, which limit the size of gatherings and require people to wear marks.
Winston-Salem’s measure will be similar to one imposed Friday by Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan, Mayor Allen Joines said.
Vaughan's order directs Greensboro officials to enforce the regulations with fines and mandatory temporary shutdowns of businesses that are not in compliance.
“We’ve got to do something to get this under control,” Joines said.
City Manager Lee Garrity is drafting the local order, Joines said.
In addition to reducing indoor gatherings from a maximum of 25 to 10 people, the governor's ongoing order places capacity limits on restaurants, bars, theaters and other venues.
Vaughan's order requires businesses to clearly mark capacity limits at all entrances, post signs requiring face coverings over mouth and nose for access to an office or business, require all employees who interact with the public to wear face coverings and provide hand sanitizer.
Forsyth County health officials reported 146 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday along with three additional deaths from the virus.
Since the pandemic began, Forsyth has had 11,723 laboratory-confirmed cases, local health officials say. Of those cases, 9,585 people have recovered.
As of Friday, there have been 328,846 cases of the coronavirus in North Carolina with 4,979 deaths, state health officials said.
Joshua Swift, director of the Forsyth County Department of Public Health, attributed the increased cases to the weather.
"As the weather is getting colder, we are seeing more people doing their activities indoors," Swift said. "And more people are concerned and getting tested.
"I'm afraid we are in for a tough few months," Swift said.
The county will likely see another rise in cases after Thanksgiving, just as we saw a jump in cases after Halloween, Swift said.
Many people are following the health guidelines amid the pandemic, Swift said.
"Most people are wearing masks," Swift said. "Most people are washing their hands.
"But it's those few people who are not doing the right things and are hurting us and causing that spread," Swift said. "That's our concern."
Dr. David Priest sees another factor for the increasing cases of COVID-19 among local residents.
“We’ve had a breakdown in our social distancing practices,” said Priest, Novant Health’s senior vice president and its chief safety and quality officer. “That allowed things to spread more rapidly.”
Priest recommended that local residents stay home on Thanksgiving Day, continue to practice social distancing and wear masks.
“If we don’t do that, we anticipate even a higher surge in 10 to 14 days after Thanksgiving,” Priest said.
A man accused of stabbing a 75-year-old Winston-Salem man to death, dismembering him and dumping part of his body in another county is being sent to Central Regional Hospital for an evaluation to determine if he is mentally capable of standing trial.
Adrion Demare Whorley, 35, of Rockingham is facing charges of first-degree murder, armed robbery and concealing a death. He is accused of killing and dismembering John Douglas Agnew at Agnew's house between April 7, 2017, and April 10, 2017. Indictments also allege that Whorley used a knife to steal Agnew's car.
If convicted of first-degree murder, Whorley faces the possibility of getting the death penalty.
A hearing was held in Forsyth Superior Court Thursday morning based on a motion filed by Whorley's attorneys, Karen Gerber and J.D. Byers. The motion asked a Forsyth County judge to send Whorley to Central Regional Hospital for a full psychiatric evaluation to help determine whether Whorley is capable of proceeding to trial.
"We agree that this is the appropriate next step," Gerber said in court.
According to the motion, Dr. Moira Artiques, a forensic psychiatrist, examined Whorley and, based on her examination, she questioned his capacity to proceed to trial.
Assistant District Attorney James Dornfried did not object to the motion, and Judge David Hall of Forsyth Superior Court granted it. Whorley is tentatively scheduled to come back to court during the week of March 1, 2021.
The circumstances leading to the discovery of Agnew's remains started when his daughter, Melanie Agnew Simpson, found a strange note on her father's front door at his house on Timberline Drive. Winston-Salem police were called, and when officers arrived, they found Agnew's head, lower legs and arms inside a large black duffel bag that had a Walmart tag on the handle. The bag was in a downstairs bathroom.
A safe in the home had been pried open from the back. Simpson and other family members told police that the safe was usually kept in an upstairs bedroom and held Agnew's .45-caliber handgun.
Winston-Salem police also found a hacksaw, covered in blood, hair and body tissue in the kitchen sink. Investigators also found visible boot or shoe prints on the floor and fingerprint evidence that matched Whorley, according to a search warrant. The upstairs bathroom shower curtain was also missing.
The Randolph County Sheriff's Office found Agnew's torso in a wooded area off Canter Road in Randleman. The torso was wrapped in a transparent shower curtain, a search warrant said.
At a hearing in 2018, Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Martin said that Agnew was killed four months after Whorley had been released from prison on an assault conviction. Agnew had been among the people listed on Whorley's approved visitors' list in prison.
Martin said Whorley had been inside Agnew's house and that he dismembered Agnew's body after assaulting Agnew. Martin said investigators found cleaning agents, alleging that Whorley had attempted to cover up Agnew's death.
She said Whorley took Agnew's car and drove it to Randolph County, where Agnew's torso was found. Deputies with the Richmond County Sheriff's Office later found Agnew's car.
An autopsy report said Agnew was stabbed at least four times, including stab wounds in his neck and torso, and several of his fingers were amputated before he was dismembered.
No trial date has been set.