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Call of home led superintendent to resign

Whatever Angela Hairston wanted to accomplish in her first year as superintendent of Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools was pushed to the back burner seven months into her tenure.

The COVID-19 pandemic created a historic disruption to the local education system, leaving Hairston and her team scrambling to come up with solutions. Those solutions — whether to return to in-person learning, install a hybrid model or go fully remote — had supporters and critics. 

Pleasing everyone, or even a majority, proved impossible. 

On Thursday, Hairston unexpectedly resigned from the school district after 14 months to take a job as superintendent of Danville City Schools, which has about 50,000 fewer students than WS/FCS. Her last day will be Nov. 13.

Though the call to return to her hometown was strong, Hairston alluded to the mounting pressure that superintendents across the country face as they weigh the risks and benefits of keeping children out of school.

Among local parents, Hairston said, one-third wanted to return full-time school, one-third wanted a hybrid model and one-third wanted to be fully remote. The local district has begun the hybrid model, with thousands of elementary-aged children returning to school buildings next month. But there are many detractors who say returning to school as COVID cases are rising is unsafe for children and teachers.

Hairston was asked to respond to a tweet from Guilford County Superintendent Sharon Contreras. On Friday morning, Contreras linked to a story about Hairston's resignation and wrote: "This is such a loss for children. The toxic & hostile work environments that female superintendents endure in NC and across the US must be investigated & addressed. Silence = Complicity."

"This prolonged change in our lives causes emotional reactions," Hairston said at a news conference on Friday. "It's prolonged. It's not a weekend. It's not a hurricane. It's not flu season. And prolonged change causes stress. Unfortunately across the nation, superintendents become the sponge if you will, the target for so many emotions... and we unfortunately smile sometimes, and say it's not about us, and it's often times about the position we represent. So I encourage people across the nation, across North Carolina to understand, it's tough on us, too."

The Danville job opened in June. It appealed to Hairston for several reasons. She's from the area, began her teaching career there, and her husband is on the Danville police force. Her parents also live in Danville.

"It would be nice to take my parents out to lunch," she said.

Hairston was the second woman and first African-American to lead the local district. 

Deciding to leave as the district moves into hybrid learning was a struggle, she said.

"But knowing the opportunity was there, and that there was a timeline associated with it, I had to make a choice," Hairston said.

Board chairwoman Malishai Woodbury said the board would move quickly to name an interim superintendent, then launch a national search for a permanent replacement. Community stakeholders will be involved in the search.

"We do not plan to rush this process. We want to be deliberate and take our time to find a pool of diverse and qualified candidates," she said.

Tricia McManus, the deputy superintendent, is the likely candidate to step into the interim role. The school board has called a meeting for Monday morning to discuss personnel issues. The meeting is closed to the public.

On Tuesday, the school board's COVID-19 special committee will meet to discuss reopening, including the metrics that will guide the district. 

Board member Deanna Kaplan said Hairston's resignation was a surprise. She praised Hairston for filling several key positions. 

"We're going to pull together as a board and find a capable and excellent interim superintendent to guide us," Kaplan said. "She has an excellent team in place, and we're going to move forward together."

Woodbury said Hairston made an impact in her short tenure, securing funding for new textbooks, creating a new equity committee, buying property for a new Ashley Elementary School and starting an outreach team to connect with students who failed to log into online classes last spring. 

"I want to assure families as we move forward toward a safe reopening, we will have a strong leadership team in this district that is committed to carrying out a reentry plan safely," Woodbury said.

Dana Caudill Jones said though she was surprised by the announcement she understands that Hairston had a rare opportunity to work in her hometown. 

"I will say she worked extremely hard the year she was here and really stepped in and filled in a lot of gaps we had in the district. And she leaves us with a strong leadership team and a strong strategic plan, which we did not have," Caudill Jones said.

Photos: Angela Hairston resigns as superintendent of WS/FCS

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Lexington removed a Confederate statue to ease conflicts but tensions remain

After 141 days of protesting, LaQuisha Johnson watched as workers dismantled the Confederate statue in Lexington and removed it from the square at the Old Davidson County Courthouse late Thursday.

“We were so happy,” Johnson said in a phone interview Friday afternoon. “I feel very proud of what we’d done out there.”

PHOTOS: Supporters, critics argue at site of former Confederate monument in Lexington

The statue was moved from its site in uptown Lexington in the early morning because city officials wanted to prevent any potential interference with the statue's move outside city limits, The Dispatch of Lexington reported.

The removal came barely 24 hours after a judge dissolved a restraining order preventing the move.

Supporters of the Confederate monument voiced their disappointment on social media. Others targeted the city of Lexington, protesters, the Daughters of the Confederacy and even local businesses, suggesting political motivations behind the move and proposing retaliation.

On Friday, people from both sides again showed up at the site.

The statue’s contentious history dates to shortly after it was erected in 1905. In the 1920s and '30s, it served as a site for Klu Klux Klan ceremonies and in recent protests has drawn heavily-armed people publicly affiliated with white supremacy groups, according to a complaint filed by the city.

Watch now: The Confederate statue in Winston-Salem came down in March 2019.

The city recently fought in court for the statue’s removal because of safety concerns, citing tension between protesters and counterprotesters. However, Davidson County officials did not agree and filed a restraining order last week to prevent the city from taking down the statue.

But the county said it had no legal recourse after the city and the statue’s owner, the Robert E. Lee Chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy No. 324, came to an agreement to have the statue relocated to somewhere outside of the city limits.

Debra Barta, president of the Daughters of the Confederacy No. 324, said in Thursday's hearing on the restraining order that the group wished it could keep the statue where it was, The Dispatch reported.

"But it is not practical in today's political climate," she said.

"Our goal has always been the preservation of the memorial," Barta said during the hearing, "and I fear for its safety, the safety of the citizens, and the safety of the community. People should not have to live in fear. Folks should not be intimidated by others on one side or the other."

Though Johnson is relieved to see the empty slab where the statue once stood, she noted just how volatile protesting became over the last several months.

"My life was in danger," she said. "Everyone's life was in danger that stood out there."

While she and a few others with Unity for Change, the group that took part in the protests, were celebrating the statue's removal on Friday, a woman upset that the statue was gone got into an argument with them and accused them of trying to start a race war, Johnson alleged.

She said she hopes that even if people still disagree with her opinions and with the removal, they will at least agree to disagree at this point.

"We would like for the city to come together. To stop with the separation. Stop with the negativity," Johnson said. "... It doesn't have to be a bunch of madness."

PHOTOS: Supporters, critics argue at site of former Confederate monument in Lexington

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NC reports more new COVID-19 cases Friday than the state has seen since the onset of the pandemic

North Carolina reported a record number of new COVID-19 cases for the second consecutive day Friday.

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services reported there were 2,684 cases statewide. That's on top of 2,532 new cases on Wednesday. 

The total statewide case count since mid-March stands at 241,623. As of Monday, nearly 89% of those infected are considered recovered.

Meanwhile, the state crossed the 3,900 mark in virus-related deaths with 36 additional deaths reported for a total of 3,910.

For Forsyth County, there were 81 new cases — the highest daily total since 85 were reported for Oct. 1. DHHS also reported 74 cases on Thursday, 71 on Wednesday and 60 on Tuesday.

The overall Forsyth case count is at 7,968. There were no additional deaths after four were reported Thursday. The county has recorded 110 total COVID-19-related deaths.

Since mid-March, Gov. Roy Cooper's administration has been monitoring five public health data points: number of hospitalizations; number of hospital beds, ICU beds and ventilators available; number of positive cases; percentage of positive cases; and number of individuals coming to hospital emergency rooms with COVID-19 symptoms.

Dr. Mandy Cohen, the state's health secretary, said Tuesday that she and Cooper do not have "a magic number or any one metric that we look at when we make these (restrictions) decisions. These metrics are all interrelated."

Perhaps the most concerning of the statewide trends is the fluctuating positive test rate, which has been as low as 4.6% on Sept. 24 and as high as 7.9% on Oct. 4. There was a 6.3% positive rate out of Wednesday's 33,504 tests in North Carolina.

Cohen has said she prefers a 5% positive test rate when evaluating whether to ease COVID-19 restrictions.

Statewide COVID-19-related hospitalizations were at 1,148 on Friday, up eight from Thursday. Hospitalizations reached a nine-week high of 1,152 on Tuesday.

Dr. Christopher Ohl, an infectious disease expert at Wake Forest Baptist Health, said Thursday that community spread continues to be the main driver of the uptick in COVID-19 cases and deaths.

Ohl said he remains as concerned about smaller scale social gatherings as large political, sports, entertainment gatherings and protests.

"Household-based social gatherings, whether on vacation, family get-togethers," Ohl said.

"They seem innocuous, but the concern is that as two household bubbles come together, COVID could be hiding in one of those bubbles, and infections are occurring that way."

Since Phase 2.5 of reopening began Sept. 4 in North Carolina, the total case count has jumped 37.4% from 175,815 to 241,623 as of noon Friday. The death toll has increased 35.3% from 2,889 to 3,910.

Gov. Roy Cooper added his voice Thursday to those cautioning that many key COVID-19 metrics in the state are “going in the wrong direction.”

Like Cohen, Cooper said he does not want to go backward and tighten socioeconomic restrictions.

But he cautioned that the combination of the pandemic, the arrival of the 2020-21 flu season, and lax adhering to social distancing guidelines could push the numbers high enough to force his hand.

Latest numbers

Total Forsyth residents considered recovered as of 1 p.m. Friday: 7,048 out of 7,968, or about 88.4%.

Active Forsyth County cases reported as of 1 p.m. Friday: 810.

Percentage of Forsyth tests returning positive results, as of Wednesday (latest day available): 4.6% out of about 1,450 tests. The percent dropped to as low as 2.5% in the past three weeks.

Total N.C. residents considered recovered as of 4 p.m. Monday (latest available): 206,471, or 88.7%.

Total COVID-19 patients hospitalized in the Triad region as of Friday: 236, third highest of any region in the state. The Triad region, for the purposes of state COVID-19 reporting, includes Forsyth, Guilford, Alexander, Alleghany, Ashe, Caldwell, Davie, Davidson, Iredell, Randolph, Rockingham, Rowan, Stokes, Surry, Watauga, Wilkes and Yadkin counties.

DHHS said 97% of hospitals submitted their COVID-19 data Friday by the daily 7:30 a.m. deadline. The Triad region had a 100% reporting rate.

DHHS reported there were 37,159 tests Thursday, raising the overall total to 3.53 million.

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How many thousands showed up to vote in Forsyth County on the first day of early voting?

Almost 23,000 people — almost 9% of the county's registered voters — have cast ballots during the first two days of early voting for the 2020 General Election.

Add in some 25,000 absentee ballots mailed in and processed so far, and the total rises to 48,000 people, or almost 18% of the registered voters.

Tim Tsujii, the elections director in Forsyth County, said the second day of early voting on Friday went smoothly.

With 17 early-voting sites to choose from, 11,717 people cast ballots on Thursday and 11,194 did so on Friday.

The voting place at Harper Hill Commons Shopping Center was the most popular place to vote on both days, with more than 1,100 people casting their ballots there on each day.

Kernersville's Paddington Library wasn't far behind on Friday, as almost 950 people cast ballots there. 

During early voting, people can both register and vote, and some 200 people did so each day.

Early voting continues every day through Saturday, Oct. 31.

The first day of early voting in Forsyth County easily smashed the previous records, as 11,717 residents went to one of 17 voting locations to cast ballots in the 2020 General Election.

In 2018, 5,523 voters cast their ballots during the first day of early voting, and that was a great increase over the 1,566 voting early on the first day in 2016, or the 1,701 voting on the first day in 2012.

The numbers are not strictly comparable because the number of early-voting sites has varied from election to election. In 2012 and 2016, early voting on the first day was only at the central elections office in downtown Winston-Salem. In 2018, there were 11 sites on the first day, six fewer than on Thursday.

Still, Tsujii said the big turnout on the first day was no surprise.

"The first-day excitement of early voting certainly contributed to the high turnout we experienced yesterday," Tsujii said on Friday. "We typically expect a large turnout on the first day of early voting."

The N.C. State Board of Elections said that as of 1:30 p.m. on Friday, North Carolina voters had cast 570,019 ballots by mail. As of 5:30 p.m. Friday, 570,070 people had cast ballots in person during early voting.

With more than two weeks remaining until Election Day on Nov. 3, more than 15% of the state's voters had cast their ballots by Friday afternoon.

Compared with 2016, the state has 4% more early voting sites and will have an 80% increase in hours for early voting.

Forsyth County Democrats have cast more than 50% of the ballots cast in early voting so far, more than double the number of Republican and unaffiliated voters who have gone to the polls.

Democrats have also accounted for more than half of the absentee ballots processed. Democrats make up about 39% of the county's registered voters.

Photos: Lines are long on the first day of early voting in Forsyth County