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Highlands schools had 20 new cases in a week

SEBRING — There was a total of 20 new virus cases in Highlands County K-12 schools last week, according data from the Florida Department of Health.

The previous week school report for Nov. 1-7 shows 19 new cases in Highlands County public schools and one new case at a private school.

Both Hill-Gustat Middle and Lake Country Elementary schools had four positive COVID-19 cases last week with both schools having three students and one teacher who were infected.

Lake Placid Elementary had three cases including two students and one staff member.

Both Lake Placid High and Memorial Elementary schools had two cases with both schools having two cases in students.

Sebring High, Avon Park High, Cracker Trail Elementary and Woodlawn Elementary schools all had one student case last week.

There was one student case last week at Parkview Prep Academy, a private Christian school in Avon Park, according to the Florida Department of Health.

South Florida State College had one new staff member case last week.

The School Board of Highlands County issued an COVID-19 update recently stating “While we have had some cases of COVID-19 in schools, our numbers remain relatively low.

“To make sure we continue to keep our students and staff safe, healthy, and in school, please remember the following protocols, which are based on guidance from the CDC, the Highlands County Health Department, and our Medical Task Force:

• Any student/staff having a temperature of 100.4 or higher will not be able to return to school until fever-free without the use of fever-reducing medication for 24 hours.

• If student/staff tests positive for COVID-19, with symptoms, they must remain home until at least 10 days have passed since symptoms first appeared. They may return once 10 days have passed and they have been fever free for at least 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medication.

• If student/staff tests positive for COVID-19, without symptoms, they must remain home until at least 10 days have passed since they were tested and they must have had no symptoms develop over that time.

• Any student/staff contacted by the Health Department as a result of contact tracing with an individual who has tested positive for COVID-19 must stay home for 14 days. They may return to school after 14 days if they have been symptom free for that time.

• Students who test positive or who are sent home to quarantine due to exposure will be provided a plan for learning while under quarantine.

“Concerning face coverings:

• All students and staff are required to wear face coverings on school buses.

• Middle and high school students and staff are required to wear face coverings in hallways during class transitions.

• Staff and students are encouraged to bring their own face coverings, but extras will be available if needed.”

Commissioners’ advice: Outgoing Board members reminisce, advise new members

SEBRING — The majority of the four of Highlands County commissioners leaving the board to new members think that the county has done well with road, fire service and garbage service improvements, as well as a balanced budget with only one tax increase.

At the same time, however, they warn the four new members set to take oaths this week that the job will require them listening to all the people in the county, as well as staying on top of costs, while trusting administrators and department heads to do their jobs.

“I hope the new commission won’t try to micromanage them,” Commissioner Ron Handley said. “So many times, we’ve stated we need to do this or that and we don’t know the background. Make decisions on what you’re given from the staff and the public.”

Former commissioner Bob Bullard often described the swearing-in ceremony for commissioners as “The swearing-in that precedes the ‘swearing at,’” given the levels of stress and responsibility.

Kevin Roberts will now serve in the District 1 seat. Kathleen “Kathy” G. Rapp is in District 2. Scott A. Kirouac won the District 3 seat, and Christopher Campbell is in District 5.

Commissioner Arlene Tuck is the only current incumbent, in District 4. All commissioners are elected at-large and serve the county at-large.

Those leaving the board include Jim Brooks, Don Elwell, Ron Handley and Greg Harris. The Highlands News-Sun asked what advice they would give to the newcomers and how well they think the county has done during their tenure of the last eight to 10 years.

All but Harris gave extensive statements, the highlights of which are printed here. Harris, who served 10 years, declined to speak at length and looks forward to less stress and more time with family.

At the Nov. 3 meeting, the last one for the outgoing commissioners, Harris said it had been an honor serving with his fellow commissioners.

“I believe we left the county in a little better shape than when we got here,” Harris said.

Brooks, who served eight years, remembers starting out in 2012 with decreased revenue from a recession, and having to keep programs going on a reduced budget.

Elwell, who served 10 years, said the county had just gotten out of that when Hurricane Irma in 2017 wiped out the county’s reserves. Fortunately, Elwell and Handley said, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was relatively quick about refunding most of the $15 million the county spent on debris removal and infrastructure repairs.

When asked what they saw as accomplishments for the county, Brooks, Elwell and Handley all were proud of the completion of Sebring Parkway Phase 3 “Panther Parkway” last year, and the start of Phases 2A and 2B this year. When done, sometime two or three years from now, it will finalize an idea that started in the 1960s of having a northern-route bypass around Sebring.

Handley, who served nine years, warned that new commissioners will want to keep an eye on costs. Panther Parkway had huge budgets and fights with the outside contractor that dragged out for years, until the two parted company and county Road and Bridge Department crews finished the job for far less.

Brooks thought bringing the Industrial Development Authority and Economic Development Commission under Development Services has been a “big plus.” The county managed to attract the NuCor steel plant to set up just outside the county, north of Avon Park, helping extend the city’s water and sewer lines and helping direct the county’s workforce to them.

Brooks also liked the shift in Development Services to a more customer-service basis, seeing how they can help instead of saying what they can’t do.

Commissioners also express pride with the county’s fire assessment, providing funds to hire full-time fire crews and build new fire stations, as well as relocating existing Emergency Medical Services stations. Handley pointed to the new Sun ‘N Lake Station 7 and Brooks, once the head of EMS, liked EMS Station 17 on Sebring Parkway. More stations are planned.

“[It’s] always good to have your stations located where you can get the best bang for your dollar,” Brooks said.

A new south-end station is in design stages, slated to go next door to AdventHealth Lake Placid. Handley has had issues with the costs and features proposed for that and other stations, however.

“I don’t think Highlands County is ready for that,” Handley said. “They asked for a Cadillac and I think we need something along the lines of a Chevrolet.”

Elwell has praised the fact that the assessment has allowed updates in the vehicle fleet and improved salary levels, to attract more personnel.

Commissioners started a curbside recycling program in 2017, “and then the worldwide recycling market tanked on us,” Brooks said.

Handley said new commissioners will want to keep vigilant but cautious with the garbage hauler honoring the contract. If the hauler leaves or they try to renegotiate, they won’t get the low price they have now, he said.

Commissioners also point to the advent of a new paving program, which should help give residents an avenue to get shell roads paved in growing subdivisions built before paved roads were required.

Also along the lines of roads, they hope that commissioners will push for good connection interchanges to any proposed new toll road to come out of the Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance (M-CORES) program. Handley said it will likely run along the Hardee-Highlands County line, which would affect the local economy tremendously.

They all say challenges in the future will lie in the budget, meeting the need for new capital improvements as well as overcoming revenue losses from the pandemic while still building up three months or more of operating cash in the county reserves.

Their general advice, aside from trusting their staff, is to consider all county residents’ views on a given issue.

“One thing that I’ve learned, there’s always some vocal people at the commission meeting,” Brooks said. “The thing I have to remember is there’s 105,000 people in the county. A lot of people, you never hear from.”

Elwell pointed to divisions in the community and the country that make discourse difficult today.

“Our nation — and county — are at a critical point right now. Intolerance, hatred and blind partisanship is higher today than at any time in recent history, possibly longer,” Elwell said, noting that a “toxic, hyper-critical environment of social media” aggravates the situation.

“Transparency and communication are key to your success,” Elwell said. “Similarly, the ability to honestly and sincerely listen to ALL (sic) of your constituents is a skill that you simply must possess in order to thrive as a county commissioner in today’s Highlands County.”

Sebring CRA takes ownership of Nan-Ces-O-Wee Hotel
  • Updated

SEBRING — The Sebring Community Redevelopment Board has accepted the donation of the Nan-Ces-O-Wee Hotel after the structure’s owner met a few stipulations requested by the board.

The owner of the long-time vacant building on North Ridgewood Drive, Tony Collins, was issued a notice from the City of Sebring on July 21, 2020 stating that the structure needed to be repaired or demolished.

He had filed a notice of demolition with the City and some demolition prep work was done more than a month ago, but the three-story building has not been demolished.

When Collins failed to demolish the building by the City’s Code Enforcement Board deadline of Nov. 2, the City of Sebring budgeted $275,000 to safely take the building down.

Collins had offered to give the building to the CRA in October, but there were issues with the building’s title that prevented the CRA from accepting the offer at that time. The title issue has since been resolved.

Last Monday, the CRA Board approved of the acceptance of the Nan-Ces-O-Wee Hotel by the CRA, and for the CRA to move forward with the demolition of it pending Collins being able to meet a few stipulations.

Collins needed to provide a properly executed original warranty deed into the CRA, written confirmation from all contractors that have performed work on the site within the last 90 days showing they have been paid in full for their work as of the date of acceptance, and evidence that the donation was approved by all owners of the donor.

CRA Executive Director Kristie Vazquez said Friday that Collins met the stipulations and the CRA has ownership of the building.

Sebring City Administrator Scott Noethlich said Friday the CRA will have essentially have the same demolition contract the City was considering with the BG Group (Delray Beach), he said. Also, BG Group will be doing the remainder of the abatement work.

The BG Group’s quote for the demolition was $186,165.

CRA Board Chairman David Leidel said recently, “When you look at how the CRA gauges success, the success was that piece of property would be renovated with a new set of apartments built there with multiple people living in them in the downtown area.”

County sees massive COVID-19 jump

Highlands County continues to trend the wrong direction in the fight against COVID-19, with the release of Sunday’s numbers by the Florida Department of Health showing a second-straight day with at least 60 new cases. An additional 67 cases were added to Highlands County, bringing the total to 3,231. Twenty-three of those cases come from non-residents, with eight of those occurring this month.

The death toll remained at 129 in Highlands County, but as of 3:15 p.m. Sunday there were 72 hospitalized with a primary diagnosis of COVID-19. That’s an increase of eight overnight and an increase of 18 in the past two days.

The median age of new cases was 66, making it two straight weeks with a median age over 50. The 75 to 84 age group saw the largest increase, while the 65 to 74 age group saw the second-highest number of new cases.

The positivity rate for new cases was 20.4%, the third straight day the county has seen greater than 20%. That’s more than double the 10% rate the state is aiming for and well above the 5% positivity rate the World Health Organization recommends before reopening a location.

Highlands County has seen 432 cases in long-term care facilities between residents and staff members. The latest FDOH Long-Term Care Facilities report, which was updated Saturday, shows 10 residents and nine staff members currently infected.

Highlands County wasn’t the only county in the Heartland to see ugly numbers, as DeSoto County increased 26 cases to 1,798 on a 22.03% positivity rate. There have been 33 deaths in the county.

Glades County saw four new cases on just 18 processed tests, yielding a 22.2% positivity rate. The county has seen a total of 637 cases, with 305 of those being tied to a correctional facility. There have been seven deaths.

Hardee County saw an increase of 13 cases, bringing the total to 1,698. There have been 22 deaths in the county.

Okeechobee County saw 11 new cases, but had a busy testing day, as 280 negative tests also came back. That resulted in a positivity rate of just 3.78. The county has seen 1,870 cases and had 43 deaths.

The state numbers weren’t pretty, as there were 10,105 new cases and an additional 29 resident deaths, bringing the total to 17,518. There have also been 215 non-resident deaths for a total of 17,733. The increase was the largest seen since July, but increased testing is partly responsible, as there were 121,155 negative test results and a positivty rate of 7.57% for the day.

Miami-Dade had an increase of more than 2,300 cases but also its busiest testing day of the past two weeks.

The United States continued its crawl towards the 11-million case barrier, with Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering showing a total of 10,997,987 cases as of 4 p.m. Sunday. There were an additional 1,308 deaths, bringing the total to 245,979.

Globally, the case count hit 54.25 million and there have been 1.31 million deaths.