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Franklin County board votes to require mask exemption documentation

ROCKY MOUNT — The Franklin County School Board voted 7-1 Monday night to require documentation for mask exemptions.

The decision reverses a unanimous Aug. 9 vote that required masks for all students and staff, but explicitly stated that the school system would not require any paperwork for those seeking religious or medical exemptions. That vote was a compromise after an attempt to impose a mask mandate that strictly followed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines failed 4-4.

Within the first two weeks of the new school year, at least 1,225 students had mask exemptions — about 20% of the student body — as opposed to 15 students during the previous school year. Hundreds of students have been placed in quarantine in recent weeks, some more than once, causing many missed days of school, staff said Monday.

The time and effort devoted to contact tracing is “leaving little room for teaching and learning, especially at the high school and middle school levels, and at those elementary schools where we’re seeing a peak,” Superintendent Bernice Cobbs said.

Teachers and staff are overwhelmed trying to track and teach students who are being quarantined and missing in-person class, Cobbs said. “It has been a disruption to the learning environment. Our staff is burning both ends of the candles.”

The school system needs to do everything it can to keep schools open, because it’s better for pupils to be in school in person, especially if they are going to make up for education missed during the previous school year, when schools were physically shut down, she said.

“Some of our students already have missed 16 or more days of in-person learning, and we know the power of in-person learning, of students interacting with their teachers, on a day to day basis,” she said. “So therefore I am very concerned about the learning gap.”

The forms Cobbs presented were modeled on those used by other school systems, and were reviewed by the school system’s interim attorney, Micah Schwartz with Virginia law firm McGuireWoods. The school board’s previous attorney, Stephen Maddy, resigned suddenly Sept 2.

Staff will use the information filled out on the forms to determine what accommodations can and should be made for students with approved exemptions, said Assistant Superintendent Sue Rogers.

Of the two board members who have expressed the most sympathy toward critics of mask mandates during the months the debate has raged, Blackwater District Representative Arlet Greer signaled a change of heart before the vote on Cobbs’ recommendation took place.

During visits she made in the past week to schools in the district, “the students that I talked to, they want to stay in school. The teachers want to teach in person, and the administrators desire to have the school day to instruct the students rather than spending so much time doing contact tracing,” Greer said.

“I’m not saying that I agree with the efficacy of masks,” she said, adding that she said she hoped parents would see the issue her way. “Our whole goal here is to keep our children in school and educate them, and my pride will allow me to say that in order to make that happen ... let’s try another avenue, let’s see if it will work.” She said she hoped the board would revisit the mask issue once conditions improve.

Boone District Representative Donna Cosmato specifically objected to the religious exemption forms, arguing that those who do not want to wear masks because of a sincerely held religious belief should not have to explain why in detail, and went on to cast the sole vote in opposition to Cobbs’ proposal.

Board member-at-large Penny Blue highlighted a letter from the Virginia Department of Health that urged the Franklin County school district to immediately require masks for all students and to make additional accommodations for those with exemptions in order to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Blue cited the letter in arguing that the original proposal Cobbs proffered to the board allowed too much time for households to turn in the exemption forms, potentially risking further spread.

“We got a letter from the health department, telling us that we have to do something different from a health perspective and from a legal perspective,” she said. “Another three weeks, people still coming to school, not wearing masks, and these teachers are overworked, it’s just not sustainable.”

Greer countered that parents needed that additional time to schedule doctor appointments. Blue’s proposal to tighten the schedule passed 6-2, with Greer and Cosmato voting no.

Students without approved forms will be required to wear masks starting Sept. 30.

Also during Monday’s meeting, Rogers told the board that students in quarantine have the ability to come back to school sooner if they can show negative test results for COVID-19, but the tests are not affordable for some families, so the school district is looking to set up a system that would offer tests at each school building, with the test results sent to parents.

Before the proposed change to mask exemptions was considered, the board heard from health experts, including Dr. Justin Price, who treats COVID-19 patients.

“I’m kind of the COVID doctor at Roanoke Memorial, so this is all I’ve done for a year and a half. I’ve seen more COVID than anybody else on this side of the state, at least sick people,” he said.

Price used statistics and studies to discuss the risks of children requiring hospitalization because of COVID-19. While he said the available statistics don’t show much difference for students in terms of making masks required or optional, requiring them for staff has been shown to have definitive benefits. He emphasized improving ventilation systems in schools, and especially stressed that kids are most at risk in communities with low vaccination rates.

“Get vaccinated. Especially adults,” he said.

In Franklin County, 41% of the population has received the vaccine, with a vaccinated adult population of 48%, about 20% lower than the overall state percentage, Price said.

“The fact that we have a low adult immunization rate puts our kids three times as likely to require hospitalization” than in the states with the highest vaccination rates, he said.

During a public comment session at the meeting’s start that lasted more than an hour, eight teachers painted a dire picture of the situation in the school system, describing more than 1,000 students in quarantine, more than 50 staff members sick with COVID-19 and those who aren’t sick falling behind as they fill in for their absent colleagues. All demanded that the board reverse course on its masking policy.

A number of the other speakers evoked Christianity and patriotism as they expressed anger at the board for casting any doubt on the motives of those parents and students who have requested mask exemptions. One speaker asserted that a law passed by both houses of the General Assembly and signed by the governor wasn’t actually a law and claimed the school board had the power to override it.

Every speaker who denounced mask-wearing and critical race theory received applause from their allies.

Weather Journal: It may not have seemed like it, but it was Roanoke's third hottest summer on record

Summer can be a season, a type of weather or a state of mind.

Summer weather has returned to the Roanoke and New River valleys in mid-September after some cooler mornings and less humid days to start

the month.

Summer as a state of mind is either comforting or exasperating as this relapse occurs, depending on your personal inclination for seasons.

Summer the season continues on the astronomical calendar for another week, ending next Wednesday with the autumnal equinox, but it ended on the meteorological calendar two weeks ago, with the end of August.

Which means we can look back at this summer’s weather statistics while summer continues — and try to unravel a mystery.

Fueled primarily by intense heat in the western third of the U.S., and persistent warmth relative to normal through the northern tier of the nation into the Northeast, summer 2021 is the nation’s hottest summer on record, barely beating out the Dust Bowl year of 1936, in preliminary data.

Locally, it was not the hottest summer on record — but it tied for third, with last summer.

Roanoke averaged 77.6 degrees from June 1 to Aug. 31, matching the summer average temperature of 2020, only trailing 2010 (78.2 degrees) and 2011 (78 degrees).

This may seem a bit perplexing at first, considering that this summer did not have any particularly extreme heat locally, Roanoke rising to no higher than 96 degrees, nor did it have a lengthy streak of heat remotely similar to last summer’s record 29 straight days of highs in the 90s. Our longest 90s streak was nine days, in late August.

By contrast, 2012, the summer of the derecho with four days over 100 and a run of 97+ for 10 of 11 days from June 28-July 8, was 1.3 degrees cooler as a whole and 14 spots farther down the list of hot summers than this one.

Part of the reason this summer ranked so highly for warmth is the theme we have discussed here repeatedly, the overwhelming trend toward warmer summer nights.

Based solely on the average of daily low temperatures, this was Roanoke’s sixth warmest summer on record, with an average low temperature of 67.1 degrees.

All of the 11 warmest summers by average low temperature, 14 of the 15 warmest and 16 of the 20 warmest have occurred since 2000, topped by 68.1 degrees in 2010. That is obviously anomalous, considering the local weather database goes back 109 years to 1912. Twenty percent of the period of record accounts for 75% of the 20 warmest summers by average low temperature.

Again, plowing well-tilled soil, both higher dew points related to advection from oceans warmed by climate change and urban heat island warming related to increased concrete and asphalt around the city’s airport weather station likely play a role in consistently warmer nights.

But a sixth-warmest summer based on low temperatures doesn’t get us to a third-hottest summer based on average temperature.

Based on average daily high temperature, 2021 ranked 15th hottest at Roanoke, at 88.1 degrees. That is a little more than half a degree warmer than last summer, even with its record 90+ streak, and the third warmest since 2000, trailing 2011 (88.7) and 2010 (88.4).

Unlike with nighttime temperatures, there has really been no local trend toward hotter summer days in recent years. 2011 ranks ninth, with seven of the eight hottest summers based on average daily high temperatures occurring in the 1920s through 1950s.

A reminder that we’re talking Roanoke here, not nationally or globally. Our summer nights are obviously and overwhelmingly getting warmer. Our summer days are not. The data is clear, locally. It differs elsewhere.

This summer had 42 days at or above 90, considerably more than the 109-year average of 28, but fewer than the last two summers (45 each), which are tied for 11th since 1912 and the most since 1987. Again, summers in the 1920s through 1950s dominate the top 10 list for most 90-degree days, topped by 54 in 1930. (These are figures for meteorological summer only, June 1 to Aug. 31, not annually — there are usually some additional 90-degree days in spring and fall.)

For 2021, a sixth-warmest summer for low temperatures, a 15th-warmest summer for high temperatures, with fewer 90-degree days than the last two summers still don’t seem to add up for this summer to end up tied for third warmest locally in 109 years.

So where is the hidden heat this summer to boost it so high on the list?

Or, perhaps, it just lost its cool somewhere.

Checking a statistic not often looked at in reviewing summer reveals something remarkable. There were only four days between June 1 and Aug. 31 with a high temperature below 80 degrees at Roanoke. Only 1987 with two and 1925 with three have had fewer.

The secret to this being such a highly rated warm summer locally wasn’t in extreme high temperatures, long runs of 90s, or even in especially warm overnight lows compared to recent years.

It was simply because the atmospheric pattern did not allow for many Canadian cold fronts to sweep out the heat, nor did those cool, damp wedge patterns, pushing in from the northeast and trapped against the Appalachians, develop as they have in some other summers. The unusually hot temperatures across the northern U.S. are a big clue as to why — high pressure up there blocked a lot of cooler pushes toward us.

After some days in the 90s, our high temperatures would retreat only back to the lower-mid 80s, mostly — not enough 70s highs to pull the average temperature down.

There were few cool breaks this summer. And, once again, we find ourselves awaiting the next such cool break as summer pushes toward fall on the calendar. The weather pattern of dominant high pressure over much of the central and eastern U.S. suggests we may be waiting a while.

Weather Journal appears on Wednesday.

Contact Kevin Myatt at Follow him on Twitter @kevinmyattwx.

Book: Officer feared Trump would go to war with China

WASHINGTON — Fearful of Donald Trump’s actions in his final weeks as president, the United States’ top military officer twice assured his Chinese counterpart that the two nations would not go to war, according to a forthcoming book.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley told Gen. Li Zuocheng of the People’s Liberation Army that the United States would not strike. One call took place on Oct. 30, 2020, four days before the election that defeated Trump. The second call was on Jan. 8, just two days after the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by supporters of the outgoing chief executive.

Milley went so far as to promise Li that he would warn his counterpart in the event of a U.S. attack, according to the book “Peril,” written by Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa.

“General Li, I want to assure you that the American government is stable and everything is going to be okay,” Milley told him in the first call, according to the book. “We are not going to attack or conduct any kinetic operations against you.”

“If we’re going to attack, I’m going to call you ahead of time. It’s not going to be a surprise,” Milley reportedly said.

The Associated Press obtained a copy of the book prior to its release next week. Details from the book were first reported by The Washington Post on Tuesday.

Trump, interviewed by phone on Newsmax Tuesday, said Milley’s calls to the Chinese could amount to treason.

“If it is actually true, which is hard to believe, that he would have called China and done these things and was willing to advise them of an attack, or in advance of an attack, that’s treason,” said Trump. “For him to say that I was going to attack China is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”

The second call was meant to placate Chinese fears about the events of Jan. 6. But the book reports that Li wasn’t as easily assuaged, even after Milley promised him: “We are 100 percent steady. Everything’s fine. But democracy can be sloppy sometimes.”

Milley believed the president suffered a mental decline after the election, agreeing with a view shared by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a phone call they had Jan. 8, according to officials.

Pelosi previously said she spoke to Milley that day about “available precautions” to prevent Trump from initiating military action or ordering a nuclear launch, and she told colleagues she was given unspecified assurances that there were longstanding safeguards in place.

Milley, according to the book, called the admiral overseeing the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, the military unit responsible for Asia and the Pacific region, and recommended postponing upcoming military exercises. He also asked senior officers to swear an “oath” that Milley had to be involved if Trump gave an order to launch nuclear weapons, according to the book.

Milley was appointed by Trump in 2018 and later drew the president’s wrath when he expressed regret for participating in a June 2020 photo op with Trump after federal law enforcement cleared a park near the White House of peaceful protesters so Trump could stand at a nearby damaged church.

In response to the book, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., sent President Joe Biden a letter Tuesday urging him to fire Milley, saying the general worked to “actively undermine the sitting Commander in Chief of the United States Armed Forces and contemplated a treasonous leak of classified information to the Chinese Communist Party in advance of a potential armed conflict with the People’s Republic of China (PRC).”

Milley’s second warning to Beijing came after Trump fired Secretary of Defense Mike Esper and filled several top positions with interim officeholders loyal to him.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said he had no concerns that Milley might have exceeded his authority, telling reporters that Democratic lawmakers “were circumspect in our language but many of us made it clear that we were counting on him to avoid the disaster which we knew could happen at any moment.”

A spokesperson for the Joint Staff declined to comment.

The book also offers new insights into Trump’s efforts to hold on to power despite losing the election to Biden.

Trump refused to concede and offered false claims that the election was stolen. He repeatedly pressed his vice president, Mike Pence, to refuse to certify the election results at the Capitol on Jan. 6, the event that was later interrupted by the mob.

Pence, the book writes, called Dan Quayle, a former vice president and fellow Indiana Republican, to see if there was any way he could acquiesce to Trump’s request. Quayle said absolutely not.

“Mike, you have no flexibility on this. None. Zero. Forget it. Put it away,” Quayle said, according to the book.

Pence ultimately agreed. He defied Trump to affirm Joe Biden’s victory.

Trump was not pleased.

“I don’t want to be your friend anymore if you don’t do this,” Trump replied, according to the book, later telling his vice president: “You’ve betrayed us. I made you. You were nothing.”

Democrats revise voting rights bill

WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats unveiled a pared back elections bill Tuesday in hopes of kick-starting their stalled push to counteract new laws in Republican states that could make it more difficult to cast a ballot.

But the new compromise legislation is likely doomed to fail in the 50-50 Senate, facing the same lockstep Republican opposition that scuttled their previous attempts to pass an even more sweeping bill. The GOP blasted the earlier measure as “unnecessary” and a “partisan power grab.”

Republican-controlled legislatures enacted restrictions over the past year in the name of election security that will make it harder to vote and could make the administration of the elections more subject to partisan interference. Texas, which already has some of the country’s strictest voting rules, recently adopted a law that will further limit the ability to cast a ballot, empower party poll watchers and create new criminal penalties for those who run afoul of the rules — even if inadvertently.

The spate of new voting laws — many inspired by former President Donald Trump’s false claims of a stolen election — ratcheted up pressure on Democrats in Congress to pass legislation that could counteract the GOP push. Trump’s claims of election fraud were widely rejected in the courts, by state officials who certified the results and by his own attorney general.

“We have seen unprecedented attacks on our democracy in states across the country. These attacks demand an immediate federal response,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., the lead sponsor of the new bill.

The revised legislation was negotiated for weeks by a group of Democratic senators and includes many of the same provisions as the previous bill, known as the For the People Act.

It would establish national rules for running elections, limit partisanship in the drawing of congressional districts and force the disclosure of many anonymous donors who spend big to influence elections, according to a summary obtained by The Associated Press.

But it also includes a number of changes sought by West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, the chamber’s most conservative Democrat. That includes provisions that would limit, but not prohibit, state voter ID requirements, as well as the elimination of a proposed overhaul of the Federal Election Commission, which was intended to alleviate partisan gridlock at the election watchdog agency.

The new measure also dumps language that would have created a public financing system for federal elections. It would instead establish a more limited financing system for House candidates that states could opt to participate in.

Other provisions are aimed at alleviating concerns from local elections officials, who worried that that original bill would have been too difficult to implement. Some new additions are aimed at insulating nonpartisan election officials, who may be subject to greater partisan pressure under some of the new state laws.

White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday that the administration was “encouraged by the momentum” and said President Joe Biden would “continue to work with Congress” to pass the bill.

Despite the changes, Republicans are expected to uniformly oppose the measure, which they say amounts to a federal takeover of elections. That leaves Democrats well short of the 60 votes needed to advance the bill unless they change the Senate’s filibuster rules, which Manchin and other moderates have ruled out.

Manchin has said Congress shouldn’t pass voting legislation unless it is bipartisan. He shopped the revised bill to some Republican senators in recent weeks, seeking their support. But there are no indications of any signing on.

Manchin told reporters Tuesday that the new bill “makes more sense, it’s more practical, more reasonable,” but said he “didn’t have anything to say” about making changes to the filibuster.

“Now we have to sit down and work with our Republican colleagues,” he said.

“I’m headed to do that right now,” Klobuchar said before walking on to the Senate floor.

But moments later, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell threw cold water on the bill, calling it “a solution in search of a problem” that “we will not be supporting.”

“Let me say for the umpteenth time,” the Kentucky Republican said. “There is no rational basis for the federal government taking over how we conduct elections.”