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County readies for online learning

SEBRING – A week ago, Governor Ron DeSantis mandated schools be closed to students until April 15. The School Board of Highlands County complied and extended its scheduled spring break. Faculty, on the other hand, did return to their schools in order to switch their curriculums to a virtual format.

During this coronavirus pandemic, information is constantly being updated. Beginning March 30, students, with the exception of those in kindergarten through second grade, will take their classes online via Chromebooks provided by the School Board at no charge.

According to the School Boards’s website, students in grades 6-12 should already have Chromebooks to work from. Students in grades 3-5 will now also be provided Chromebooks. Students in kindergarten through second will receive paperwork packets from their classroom teacher.

The School Board has 140 hotspots in the county and they have asked for more. The School Board is working with internet providers to deliver free internet to students who don’t have internet, according to the website.

Parents can be just as involved in their students’ lives as they were when students were in the brick and mortar classrooms. The Instructional Continuity Plan is located on the school’s site and has resources to the “Standard Curriculum for Core Content” with student and teacher progress monitoring.

“We want parents to be at ease as much as possible,” School Board Administrator John Varady said. “It will look different, but the first class quality instruction will continue. These are unprecedented times across America and for everyone.”

Students should have been contacted by their homeroom teachers by Wednesday. If you didn’t get a call, call the student’s school. Paper packets for students in kindergarten through second grade were being picked up starting Wednesday and are sorted by grade level at your child’s school. The hours for these pickups are from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. to coincide with the grab and go free lunches offered by the School Board. Chromebook pickup started Wednesday. See the chart for a list of times and days if you haven’t picked them up already.

Devoted teachers and administration staff had the unprecedented job of changing everything they normally teach and started handing out the packets and Chromebooks on Wednesday.

“Today, Fred Wild Elementary Staff with Principal Moesching in the lead, handed out more than 100 bags of Chromebooks for students in grade three through fifth. All grades received a package of study guides, supplies, and/or necessary items for individual needs for our students,” said William Medina, MIS Tech 2. “The morning started with a virtual meeting; our expectation was high and everyone worked together as a team. We would like to thank AdventHealth for providing the bags; they were of great help in distributing the Chromebooks, the charger and the extra supplies. As a team we were able to do much on our first wave, since we plan to have several more days to go to insure each of our students get the supplies, the work and the support they need to face the challenge we currently face.”

Varady reminds parents that the free grab and go lunches are available at the schools. Parents can go to any school between the hours of 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Students do not have to go to their home schools. Use the drive through/curbside or walk up service.

Links to the Instructional Continuity Program can be found on The School Board of Highlands County website at sites.google.com/highlands.k12.fl.us/sbhc/instructional-continuity-plan

Fifth case of coronavirus confirmed in county

SEBRING — The number of cases of COVID-19 in Highlands County has increased to five, according to the Florida Department of Health update at about 6:30 p.m. Wednesday. Due to HIPAA laws, there is very little information made available to the public.

What we do know is the person is a female and has not been hospitalized. The Highlands County Board of County Commission confirmed the five cases as well as the FDOH.

Before Wednesday, there were three women and one male. Wednesday evening, Florida’s COVID-19 Data and Surveillance Dashboard from the Florida Health Department states there are now four women and one male. The dashboard also shows only one hospitalization.

The state numbers climbed 510 cases from the last update Tuesday, bringing the state’s total cases to 1,977 as of the Wednesday evening update.

As of Wednesday evening, the state’s numbers show:

• Total cases – 1,977, of which 1,867 are Florida residents and the other 110 are non-residents who were tested and are isolated in Florida

• Florida deaths – 23

• Monitoring – 1,665

FDOH reports a total of 23,723 people tested in Florida:

• Pending tests – 1,581

• Total negative – 20,165

The state COVID-19 24/7 question line is 866-779-6121. Please do not call law enforcement with coronavirus questions or to report people out in public. There is no curfew or quarantine in place.

Gov. Ron DeSantis said in a Wednesday press conference that he is still not issuing a stay-at-home order. However, he did reiterate those 65 years old or older, stay at home as much as possible for the next two weeks, especially if they have an underlying condition that would make them more susceptible to contracting the virus.

President Donald Trump approved DeSantis’ Major Disaster Declaration on Wednesday. The declaration allows FEMA to provide federal emergency aid to the state to supplement local, state and tribe recovery from areas hit hard by the coronavirus retroactive from Jan. 20, according to a FEMA press release.

Under this plan, funds for crisis counseling would be available to those in the state. The federal funds would be available to state, tribes and certain nonprofits.

The Florida Department of Health is urging people to stay home when sick, avoid gatherings of 10 or more people and use social distancing. Also, they advise on washing hands with soap and water for 20 seconds often. If soap and water are unavailable, the second best practice is to use a hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol. Avoid touching your face, including eyes, nose and mouth.

The FDOH is still asking the public to call ahead to their primary doctor’s office if they feel they have COVID-19 symptoms. If someone does not have a primary care physician, they should call the DOH of Highlands County at 863-386-6040 or Central Florida Health Care at 863-452-3000. While waiting on test results, patients are urged to self-monitor their symptoms and self-isolate themselves.

In a Wednesday press release, the FDOH cleared up some myths and facts regarding the coronavirus. The release said hot baths do not prevent coronavirus. According to the FDOH, the coronavirus cannot be spread through mosquito bites. The release also said “spraying alcohol or chlorine” will not kill any viruses that have already entered the body.

The World Health Organization has a page devoted to finding truths called “Myth busters” and can be found at who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public/myth-busters.

County budget OK, for now; can manage with surplus unless virus hits hard

SEBRING — Highlands County has a healthy surplus heading into Fiscal Year 2020-21, at least for now.

What’s uncertain, according to the county’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB), is what kind of hit novel coronavirus will have on the county, both in emergency response and in lost revenue.

When OMB Manager David Nitz recently briefed the Board of County Commission on the county’s finances, he said county department directors and constitutional officers have been asked to submit their budgets to him by April 3, the end of next week. Budget review between the OMB and county administration are set for May 4-15, with public workshops to follow in July and August. Formal budget hearings and final votes will take place Sept. 3 and 15.

The county could start this year’s budget process with a little more than $16 million in reserves, Nitz said. The unassigned fund balance at the start of this fiscal year was $17.1 million, minus $4.98 million that commissioners approved to put into the budget, leaving $12.2 million — enough for a little more than two months of operations at $5.69 million per month — if needed.

As of March 17, Nitz said, the amount that the county will end up using will be approximately $1 million, with $4 million going back to reserves.

Highlands County also received this fiscal year an additional $504,781 reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, for costs incurred from Hurricane Irma in 2017, bringing the reserves up to $16.6 million.

That’s good, he said, because $16.6 million would pay for almost three months of operation, if needed.

His main concern is whether or not the county will end up spending that in the coming months as novel coronavirus takes its toll not only on local individuals’ health, but also on the local economy and the county’s tax base.

In Fiscal Year 2019-20, Nitz said, the estimated tax revenue should come out to $41.6 million.

Preliminary reports on improved property values forecast a 1% property tax increase of $415,654 — substantially less than the 3.5% average budget increase commissioners requested of their department directors and the county’s constitutional officers for this past year.

Nitz said the “Save Our Homes” property tax caps to protect residential taxpayers from sharp tax increases have also held down revenue for local governments.

Commission Chair Ron Handley, a general contractor, said costs to build new homes have gone “way up,” and Nitz agreed that people building new homes would contribute a higher share than those who’ve owned their homes longer.

Often, local governments must make up tax shortages with special assessments, as the county has done with fire and garbage assessments.

Currently, the property tax/millage rate is 8.55. The most it can be, by state law, is 10. That leaves 1.45 mills — a revenue increase of $7.1 million, Nitz said — before Highlands hits that ceiling.

Commissioners said in budget hearings all last summer that they wanted to hold the rate or lower it. They held it at 8.55 and negotiated with constitutional officers on budget increases.

While the county commission approves constitutional officers’ budgets, each constitutional officer sets his or her own budget. The largest is usually the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office; the smallest, the Supervisor of Elections Office — except during presidential election years.

Nitz gave commissioners a preliminary forecast of a $72.1 million general fund budget — the part commissioners directly oversee that does not include constitutional officers.

Out of that, Nitz expects the County Commission would have to allocate $1.82 million to grant programs, $110,000 to capital purchases/improvements, $1.33 million in transfers to other funds and $481,500 in reserves for contingency.

That would leave $68.3 million in the overall general fund, Nitz said.

Commissioner Arlene Tuck, last week, said it was a good time to ask county department heads to hold all spending. The virus pandemic stands to reduce sales, gasoline and infrastructure taxes.

“I think we really need to consider putting a halt on spending right now until we kind of get to a point where those [taxes] go back up,” Tuck said. If not, she said, the county may be looking for money in a month.

Commissioner Don Elwell didn’t think a “freeze” was wise, but did think directors should consider each expense carefully.

“I know travel budgets are about to drop, considerably, because nobody’s going anywhere,” Elwell said.

LPAA donated $26,256 for Lake Placid Athletics

This story sponsored by Joe’s Lawn and Tree Service, 863-441-4454.

LAKE PLACID — Over the last 12 months the Lake Placid Athletic Association (LPAA) has been hard at work to raise money for Lake Placid Middle and High Schools. With the help and support of local businesses and community the LPAA has raised an incredible $26,256 with $18,956 going to the high school and $7,300 going to the middle school athletics.

The LPAA has three fundraisers throughout the year.

“We have three fundraisers a year and one of the things we do is run the concession stand for the high school football games,” said Laura Teal, president of the LPAA. “We buy food to sell and all the money goes back into the athletic association and we donate it. We have an annual dinner that is held in January. It is a prime rib dinner and dance for $50 per person with a raffle and silent auction. The items are donated from business and individuals in the community.”

A huge part of the LPAA’s success is because of community support.

“We really want to give credit to the people that support us which are the business that donate and the individuals,” Teal said. “We just had a golf tournament to raise money. We raise money several different ways at the tournament. The first way we raise money is with the teams, each player pays $100 to play and a portion covers the golf, a lunch and to cover cost. We also have hole sponsors ranging from $50 to $100 to be a hole sponsor. We also have corporate sponsors such as Bill Jarrett who has been a sponsor for several years. We have other corporations in the community who have supported us for years. The other way we make money is raffle tickets and mulligan tickets. We do give out money to the top finishers and this year they donated the money back to us.”

The LPAA has had great success with its three events for several years.

“We have had these three events for several years,” Teal added. “We would always like to have more teams at the golf tournament and to have more people attend our dinner but it is up to the board members and the coaches to help us sell tickets, get more teams or get prizes.”

Teams at Lake Placid High and Middle Schools have benefited greatly from the LPAA’s donations. The LPAA does not just hand the money over, they make sure it is being put to good use.

“Whoever is requesting a donation has to fill out a form,” Teal said. “The form asks what is the money for? We also ask how much money they have in their account, what other fundraising are they doing, how many athletes are on the team? What we primarily donate for is equipment, uniforms and occasionally we will donate for a training camp. What we try to do is look at the amount we are donating, how many of the athletes will it benefit and what is the long-term benefit? Like when we donate to football, most of the time it is to recondition helmets which is very expensive or uniforms which obviously they are going to use for four or five years hopefully. What we do not donate for is transportation, lodging or food. Say a team wants to have a banquet, we do not donate money to something like that. We try to get the most benefit out of the money we donate and we want to benefit the greatest number of athletes we can.”

The LPAA could not do what they do without the support of the community and businesses.

“We want to thank all the people and businesses that support us,” Teal said. “We could not do it without them.”

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