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The Greater Huntington Symphonic Band and Jazz Band, directed by Matt Chaffins, will perform a Christmas concert on Saturday, Dec. 11, in the Ironton High School Auditorium, as part of the Ironton Council for the Arts 2021-2022 concert series.

Tri-State residents protest vaccine mandates

HUNTINGTON — As the president on Thursday announced a sweeping vaccine mandate for workers across sectors of American business, a group of Tri-State residents began gathering in front of Cabell Huntington Hospital.

Mountain Health Network announced two weeks ago all employees of Cabell Huntington, St. Mary’s Medical Center and HIMG must get vaccinated. If employees choose to not get vaccinated, they are submitted to surveillance testing one or two times a week.

About 80% of employees were vaccinated prior to Pfizer being FDA approved.

The group that gathered Thursday was not all hospital employees, but it was started by hospital employee Amber Robinson. A clerk for the pathology and psychology departments, Robinson started a Facebook group for dissenting employees to discuss the mandate as they faced discrimination and harassment in the workplace, she said.

Others in the community who do not support vaccine mandates joined the group, and the rally was formed.

“It grew really quickly,” Robinson said. “This is for the community, because any time someone wants to talk about it they are shut down.”

The rally started as support for hospital workers, but President Joe Biden’s announcement solidified what many said: It’s about more than doctors and nurses.

“Everyone should have the freedom of choice,” said retired Charleston nurse Karen Estep.

Biden’s order does not allow federal workers to opt out of getting a vaccine, but all businesses with more than 100 employees must either mandate vaccinations for all their workers or require them to take weekly coronavirus tests.

Robinson said she and others are concerned about the additional testing because of the chemical used to sterilize the tests. She says studies have only researched its impact on humans with testing once a week, not multiple times.

The chemical is ethylene oxide, which is commonly used to sterilize medical equipment in the United States.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration created strict standards for the use of ethylene oxide on medical devices after it was found that the gas could cause cancer with long-term and occupational exposure. In the U.S., health care facilities that use the gas are monitored by state health officials, according to the FDA.

But experts say there is no concern about the gas being left on COVID-19 tests, according to The Associated Press and other media reports.

Protesters on Thursday called for a special session to address these mandates, and Republican lawmakers in attendance agreed.

Del. Evan Worrell, R-Cabell, said he supports medical freedom and wishes the hospital would consider testing for antibodies and natural immunity as an alternative to weekly testing. He said a special session is being demanded by his constituents.

New Mountwest president focuses on opportunities

HUNTINGTON — Mountwest Community and Technical College’s new president says he wants to get the message out to the community that the school can help anyone looking for a career.

“The college does provide great service to the community, and we have great people doing great work, but we need to create more opportunities and can do so much more,” Josh Baker said Wednesday when he sat down for an interview with The Herald-Dispatch Editorial Board. “We are the great connector. We’re the pathway for wherever you need to go.”

Baker is from Seattle, Washington, and has more than eight years of higher education leadership experience. Prior to coming to Mountwest, Baker was the vice president at Pikes Peak Community College in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He holds a Ph.D. in community college leadership, as well as an M.S. and a B.A. from Brigham Young University.

“I interviewed at five different colleges in the spring, and this is the one where I walked away thinking, ‘This is where the real opportunity is,’” Baker said. “There are so many opportunities at Mountwest to grow and invest in a meaningful and impactful way.”

Baker says while West Virginia ranks dead last in college attainment, he would rather forget the past and focus on the future.

“I don’t want to be the guy that talks about all the problems,” he said. “Let’s get two or three wins every year and just make progress.”

Baker says identifying two to three accomplishments each year with the goal of serving the community is part of his strategic plan.

“Of course we want to grow our enrollment, but the real focus is serving the community,” he said. “If we serve the community, then the enrollment will follow.”

He said the college is doing that with a new program called “Jump Start” that offers dual credits for high school seniors in Cabell and Wayne counties who can earn between 12 and 24 college credits.

“We like this program because it gives high school students more confidence that they have a pathway to a career job,” Baker said.

Baker said there is a tendency for some to say that college isn’t for everyone.

“I think that’s dangerous because it can doom some people to a life of poverty,” he said. “You might get lucky and get on with one of our big employers locally and do great work, but for many others that is bad advice.”

He says college can be one year, two years or a trade, and it’s the best advice to give to high school students looking for training.

“We’re battling these image issues sometimes of people lumping all education into one category and not recognizing that really the message is you have to keep going after high school,” he said. “That can mean a million different things. You cannot stop there. The data nationwide is clear; that is a path to poverty most of the time. We have to get them into some kind of high-level training program.”

Baker said Mountwest competes with no-skill jobs that are paying $1,000 signing bonuses.

“They are making more money today, but they are jeopardizing their future,” he said. “My concern is they’re not looking five to 10 years down the road.”

Expanding the college and its course offerings are recommended in the college’s most recent 10-year facilities plan. Baker says one thing he really likes about the campus development plan is that it identifies needs.

“We are using our space well, and it’s also identifying we have opportunities to grow,” Baker said. “We need to grow some spaces to better serve our existing programs.”

The plan was accepted and approved by the college’s board of governors last month. This is the first campus development plan for Mountwest since its formation in 2010.

Baker says the plan establishes a framework for development and improvements that support the college’s mission, values and strategic initiative.

“This plan is just a guide,” Baker said. “It offers a variety of ways to get where we think we need to be in 10 years. We know there are needs, and we know there are opportunities. This plan offers us the flexibility we need to solve these issues.”

Baker said the plan identified that most of the space at the school is being used to capacity.

“It says here are four or five different things or options we could do, and honestly, today, we are not ready for that, but we need to roll out a few new programs to fill out the space the right way,” he said.

Baker says the school offers strong cyber and IT programs with the standard two-year degrees.

“In the future I believe we will need to provide a faster, more direct and more aligned training for individuals,” he said. “Sometimes these individuals will be right out of high school, some will have never had any college and some of them may have a master’s degree in a field that is changing. We need to be responsive to companies that may say, ‘We will take 30 people, and you need to teach them coding, and you have five weeks.’ We need to be able to say we have done that before and we’ll start tomorrow.”

Baker said the college partners with Marshall University and others to bring new programs to the region. In March, officials with Marshall University and Mountwest, along with the Robert C. Byrd Institute (RCBI), ceremonially broke ground at Huntington Tri-State Airport for their joint aviation maintenance technology program.

Baker says the region has a huge need for medical jobs, and the school is looking at ways to help fill those needs in the community.

“We can only train in the programs we have, and there are partners that have other programs, so we won’t enter that training space unless the hospitals say we want you in this space,” he said. “We are going to go where the hospitals invite us.”

Baker said he would also like to see more programming in the skilled trades.

“This is where I would love to go, so we are going to have to weigh out our options and see what the right investment is and what best serves the community in the skilled trades,” he said.

Baker said continuing great relationships with Marshall, local county school districts, employers and groups such as Coalfield Development will remain a priority for Mountwest.

“Coalfield Development is doing some great training, but we want to strengthen that partnership so that if they have students that want to keep going with their education, we are there to create those pathways to achieve their goals,” he said. “The same with Marshall, RCBI and others … we need to work together and send a strong message that West Virginia is educated and trained. It’s going to take all of us working together to get there.”

School district battling shortage of substitutes for second consecutive year

HUNTINGTON — Sixteen classrooms in Cabell County were without a teacher Thursday, and no substitute was there to take their place.

It’s a daily struggle, as one school official put it, to get the number of substitute employees the district needs on a daily basis into the school buildings to cover for employees who are absent from instruction that day.

Whether it’s due to a required quarantine, personal reasons or otherwise, the district is dealing with a shortage of substitute employees, sometimes being forced to operate while understaffed.

“We have close to 200 (substitutes) that have already taken jobs this year, so it’s a good number, but not all substitutes can work every day and some only work in certain buildings that are close to them,” said Tim Hardesty, deputy superintendent over operations and support.

There are approximately 100 other substitutes on the county’s list who have not taken jobs this year, some who Hardesty said are former teachers who have retired and are hesitant to re-enter school buildings as COVID-19 case numbers and quarantines surge across the region.

The result is classrooms that don’t get substitutes for that day, which isn’t an ideal situation for anyone involved. It’s one that isn’t impossible to manage, he said, but involves sacrifice from other teachers in the building.

“We have a system in place in all of our schools that we’ve done for years, which is teacher-for-teacher coverage,” Hardesty said. “What that means is a teacher can give up their planning period to go cover a classroom. That way none of the students miss instruction for that day.”

Those teachers who give up their planning period are compensated for it, he added, since they still need that time to prepare for instruction in their own classrooms, even if it means doing it on their own time.

Earlier this week, a substitute bus driver could not be found for a Tuesday morning run, which resulted in some students arriving to class late at Cabell Midland High School as one bus went back to cover that route after its usual run that morning.

The substitute list is for all positions, professional and service, including teachers, secretaries, custodians, cooks and bus drivers. The district is actively interviewing for these positions as it attempts to replenish a sub list from which it hired to fill full-time positions this school year using federal stimulus money.

“It’s a tough balance to have the right number of substitutes in place because you want to be able to offer enough work for them for it to be a viable income for them. If you have too many and they don’t get work, then they move on to something else or to another county,” Hardesty said.

Those interested in applying for substitute positions are able to do so through the district’s website by clicking on the “jobs” tab.