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HIGH SPRINGS ‒ The High Springs City Commission has approved the purchase of a parts warehouse storage shed. The 12 x 30-ft. storage shed will be used for Public Works such as water, sewer, streets and cemetery. The storage shed is being obtained from Buildings and More, Lake City, for $5,850.

At the Aug. 27 Commission meeting, City Manager Joel DeCoursey, Jr. and Finance Director Jennifer Stull said the existing structure had become a safety hazard.

Although Commissioner Scott Jamison said he had no doubt the structure was needed, he didn’t understand why this item wasn’t included in the current year’s budget. In response it seems the employees were making do with the existing structure until they couldn’t do so any longer.

Stull explained that there was more than $12,000 in contingency funds in the Water Department budget, which she had planned to use for this purpose. However, Jamison said he would prefer to see the money come out of capital outlay and for the City to use the contingency fund as a last resort.

Commissioners unanimously approved the purchase. The storage shed will be located behind the Public Works office.

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HIGH SPRINGS ‒ The High Springs City Commission has set its meetings dates for the remainder of the year.

During the Aug. 27 City Commission meeting, alternate dates for the September, November and December City Commission meetings were approved. This was considered in order to accommodate the first and second budget hearings in September and holidays in November and December.

Commissioners will hold a regular City Commission meeting on Sept. 10, which will also address the first budget hearing. On Sept. 21, Commissioners will hold a Commission meeting, which takes the place of the Sept. 24 meeting, and addresses the second budget hearing.

City Hall will be closed on Nov. 11 for Veterans Day, but the Commission will hold its annual Reorganization Meeting on Nov. 12. On Nov. 24, Commissioners will meet in a regular City Commission meeting, which will take the place of the Nov. 26 meeting to avoid the Thanksgiving Holiday.

The last Commissioners meeting of the calendar year will take place on Dec. 10. All meeting times remain at 6:30 p.m.

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ALACHUA COUNTY ‒ On Monday Aug. 31, schools in Alachua County reopened for in-person classes for the first time since mid-March. Due to COVID-19, the last semester of the 2019-20 school year was taught virtually online as educators scrambled to rethink teaching delivery.

The Class of 2020 graduated in the spring with limited graduation ceremonies and proms and many of the other activities traditionally associated with the transition from school to adulthood. For students with more years to go, there is an uncertainty of whether there will be a return to traditional in class education.

This year, back to school has taken on new meaning as the School Board of Alachua County (SBAC) is offering several options that have been approved by the Florida Department of Education (FLDOE). In addition to brick and mortar teaching, the SBAC offers the new Alachua Digital Academy.

Through the Academy, students will receive live lessons provided by teachers from their school of enrollment. The model allows them to interact with their classmates online, and their daily schedule mirrors the regular school schedule. Students are provided with devices if they don’t have them, and the district will work with families to obtain Internet access. Digital Academy students also have access to free meals and other programs and services.

A third instructional option for local families is the Alachua eSchool, which allows students to learn material and complete coursework on their own schedule and pace without live lessons. The eSchool has been in existence for eight years and during the last school year served about 3,000 full and part-time students.

In July, the SBAC asked parents to vote on which method they preferred. Of those who responded, about 41 percent selected the traditional in-person model, 41 percent selected the Digital Academy and 18 percent chose the eSchool. The SBAC is offering all three options and is working to balance safety and health concerns while maintaining effective in-class teaching for bricks and mortar learning. This ‘traditional’ model includes significant health and safety protocols, including but not limited to mandatory masks, intensive cleaning/sanitizing, and strategies to promote as much social distancing as possible.

The district has also been working closely with the Alachua County Health Department and experts from the University of Florida on COVID-related safety protocols, including the steps the district will take if a student or staff member tests positive.

There have been concerns about whether schools could reopen safely and not become a mega breeding ground for COVID infections. Some teachers and staff felt they would be risking their own safety and that of their students if the reopening was done to soon. Teachers in Florida, along with the Florida Education Association (FEA), sued the State to block an emergency order requiring schools to open with in-person instruction. They say, with the high number of coronavirus cases in Florida, the order violates a provision in the Florida Constitution requiring the state to ensure schools are operated safely.

It is especially concerning for the teachers as they deal with multiple classes daily, exposing them to more than just one classroom. In some places, including Alachua County, teachers have organized protests, stating their disagreement and concern about reopening. Initially a judge ruled in the FEA's favor, but then the State asked to move the trial to Tallahassee, which effectively delayed any action to limit the school year opening until after the school's opening date and the mandated in-person classes.

Some other states that have reopened have seen a surge in cases. In Canton, Georgia, the Cherokee County School District reopened on Aug. 3. Within two weeks nearly 1,200 students and staff members in the district had already been ordered to quarantine. Two high schools in that county closed until at least Aug. 31. Several colleges, including the University of North Carolina, are offering only online learning.

For many families, remote learning from home is difficult. Parents with younger students have had to miss work or even lose jobs due to the need to homeschool and babysit children. Some low-income families have trouble gaining access to online learning despite efforts by the school system to provide computers and internet access.

Another factor affecting low-income families is the meals program. For some students the lunch they get at school may be their only or biggest meal. Throughout the end of the last school year and all through the summer, the SBAC made a monumental effort to provide meals to every student. Since the end of March, the district has distributed more than 2.3 million meals to students across Alachua County.

For many older students the isolation and lack of social contact is a major factor in wanting to return to school. But risks remain and only time will tell both if reopening was safe and effective and whether the state and federal governments are providing accurate information for the schools and parents to make an informed choice on which method to choose.

The SBAC has tried to make the school as safe as possible with strict regulations on mandatory masks for students and staff as well maintaining social distancing, temperature checks and removing anyone who shows symptoms.

At Santa Fe High School, 71 percent of the students have chosen the brick and mortar option, higher than the average. Principal Dr. Timothy Wright says they have set up traffic flow patterns so all students move in one direction with northbound students using the main front walkway and southbound students using the back walkway.

“Each teacher has a temperature gauge to test students as they enter the classroom and chairs are distanced six feet apart.” Said Wright. “For lunch time, we are serving boxed lunches and have put markers on seats to maintain the social distance as well as set up tables outside. In the more narrow interior walkways, we have signs directing students to walk to their right to keep lines from intermingling from different directions.”

At Irby Elementary, Principal Tanya Floyd said they have about 50 percent of their students returning for in-class learning. While the rules for social distancing and masks are the same as other schools, Floyd said that they are also trying to make it less about regulations and more about learning to help calm the fears of the younger students. “We are trying to put more emphasis on colorful signs and making mask wearing part of the education process rather than regulations.”

While the schools are trying to do as much as possible to safeguard staff and students, they are also emphasizing that parents also have a responsibility in the process. The SBAC website has a list of procedures parents should follow every day before sending their children to school.

Parents are asked to do a temperature check each morning and if it is 100.4 or above the student should not go to school. Other signs to look for are chills, new cough or shortness of breath, unusual fatigue, muscle or body aches, new onset of severe headaches, especially with a fever, new loss of sense of taste or smell, sore throat, non-allergy congestion or runny nose, diarrhea, vomiting or abdominal pain.

Students who have had significant exposure (within six feet for at least 15 minutes) with someone who has COVID-19 may return to school 14 days after their exposure as long as they have no fever or other symptoms or they have a documented negative test result on the ninth day after their exposure.

Students who have tested positive for COVID-19 may return to school when they have gone 24 hours without a fever (and without the use of fever-reducing medicines), their symptoms have improved and it has been at least 10 days since the test was administered. More information can be found at the SBAC website at https://www.sbac.edu/

The SBAC believes the reopening can work as long as the schools, parents, health officials and the State government work together to maintain the necessary safeguards and provide accurate information. Whether the reopening will work or be a breeding ground for a surge of cases will only be determined by what happens within the next two weeks, which is the average time for an infected person to show symptoms.

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HIGH SPRINGS ‒ Two ordinances to amend the City of High Springs’ official zoning map were heard on second reading and approved in quasi-judicial public hearings during the Aug. 27 City Commission meeting.

The first to be considered was Ordinance 2020-07/Z 20-01 submitted by Jarrod Ryan Hingson and Crystal Courtney Hingson. Their application requested the City amend the Land Development Code’s Official Zoning Map from “IND” Industrial to R-1 Residential on 20.06 acres. According to the City, water is available on the property but sewer access is not. This application received unanimous approval by the Commission on first reading on Aug. 13. Although Commissioners Gloria James and Nancy Lavin were not in attendance at the Aug. 27 meeting, Commissioner Scott Jamison said he felt comfortable voting for this item since all five commissioners unanimously approved it on first reading.

The second amendment under consideration was Ordinance 2020-09/Z 20-03 submitted by Woodland III Ltd. The application requested the City amend the Land Development Code’s Official Zoning Map from “IND” Industrial to C-3 Commercial of 32.98 acres of land bordering the road known as Railroad Avenue in High Springs.

During the Aug. 13 meeting, Fire Chief Bruce Gillingham said that this property was heard and approved in 2006. The item was submitted to the Department of Community Affairs, but got tabled and swept up with Industrial-Commercial (Mixed Use) C3 zoning. This zoning request is consistent with the property to the north of it.

Dennis Lee appeared on behalf of Woodland III Ltd., but no questions were asked of him by Commissioners or staff. Although Gillingham did not testify during this public hearing, he stated previously that there was sewer access on Railroad Avenue.

Both items received second and final unanimous approval.

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ALACHUA ‒ A local biotech company, Ology Bioservices Inc., has been awarded a contract by the U.S. Army Contracting Command at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland to produce COVID-19 vaccines once it is developed. The contract ceiling value is $106.3 million, of which $53.1 million was obligated at the time of award and the rest to come once a vaccine has been approved and production begins.

Ology Bioservices will manage the reservation of production capacity of approximately 186,840,000 doses of critical vaccines and therapeutics for COVID-19. This work is in support of the Operation Warp Speed response to the ongoing pandemic.

Operation Warp Speed (OWS) is a government program that aims to deliver 300 million doses of a safe, effective vaccine for COVID-19 by January 2021, as part of a broader strategy to accelerate the development, manufacturing, and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics.

Protocols for the demonstration of safety and efficacy are being aligned, which will allow the trials to proceed more quickly, and the protocols for the trials will be overseen by the federal government, as opposed to traditional public-private partnerships, in which pharmaceutical companies decide on their own protocols.

Rather than eliminating steps from traditional development timelines, steps will proceed simultaneously, such as starting manufacturing of the vaccine at industrial scale well before the demonstration of vaccine efficacy and safety as happens normally.

“Along with producing vaccines and monoclonal antibodies to eventually combat the spread of COVID-19, the team at Ology Bioservices is very proud to support the fill and finishing network as needed by Operation Warp Speed,” said Peter H. Khoury, Ph.D., President and Chief Executive Officer of Ology Bioservices.

While the program will initiate once a vaccine is developed, most research for a vaccine is still in initial Phase 1 of 3 for clinical trials, and the January 2021 date for production is still uncertain. Vaccines typically require years of research and testing before reaching clinical tests, but scientists are racing to produce by next year under the government push for Operation Warp Speed.

Researchers are testing 36 vaccines in clinical trials on humans, and at least 90 preclinical vaccines are being tested in animals. Typically, the longest phase, is stage 3, because it involves waiting for up to a month to make sure it is permanently effective and not temporary. Many medical experts are concerned that rushing the Phase 3 trials could result in a vaccine that is not effective long term.

Last week, FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn alarmed experts when he suggested the regulatory body could approve a vaccine before Phase 3 trials are complete. Many medical experts feel that approving a vaccine before Phase 3 trials are complete is not only unprecedented, but it’s also potentially unsafe. Experts have warned the Phase 3 process cannot be condensed because of the length of time needed to observe the effects of the inoculation’s safety and durability, which are governed by regulation. By getting the $53.1 million award now, Ology Bioservices can get prepared to begin immediate production once the vaccine is approved.

Ology Bioservices was founded as Nanotherapeutics in 1999 as an integrated biopharmaceutical company with a focus on development and manufacturing, as well as having expertise in preclinical and clinical development, formulation optimization, and of biopharmaceutical products, medical devices and to develop new drug delivery technologies and increase the efficacy of existing drugs.

Much of their research is funded by the Department of Defense (DoD) to come up with vaccines and countermeasures for epidemics like Malaria and Ebola as well as possible chemical and biological weapons that could be used against military troops.

In March 2013, the DoD awarded Nanotherapeutics, a contract to provide all the core services necessary to establish a Medical Countermeasures Advanced Development and Manufacturing (MCM ADM) facility dedicated to meet the specific needs of the DoD. The 10-year, $400 million-plus contract provided funding for the construction of a 183,000-square foot facility in Alachua as well as continued research and production.

In addition to government and DOD contracts, Ology Bio has also expanded into the commercial field with a grant from the Global Health Innovative Technology (GHIT) Fund to develop a vaccine candidate for combating Malaria. The DoD has also awarded an $8.4 million contract to Ology to manufacture an anti-Ebola monoclonal antibody.

In July 2020 they received a biologics contract development and manufacturing organization (CDMO), from the Department of Defense (DOD), through the Joint Science and Technology Office of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), for three biomanufacturing contracts with a combined value of more than $16 million. To date the company has been granted over $500 million in government contracts not including the new contract for COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing. The rest of the COVID award will be issued once a vaccine has been established and production can begin.

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ALACHUA COUNTY ‒ One of the biggest challenges school systems faced when schools were closed due to the pandemic was continuation of the food programs that many low-income families depend on to guarantee a least one good meal per school day for their children.

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is a federally assisted meal program operating in public and nonprofit private schools and residential childcare institutions. It provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children each school day. The program was established under the National School Lunch Act, signed by President Harry Truman in 1946. When it started, about 7.1 million children participated in the NSLP in its first year. Since then, the program has reached millions of children nationwide and as of 2016 it fed over 30.4 million children.

While funding was still available, the closing of schools in March 2020 effectively stopped distribution of the meals to students. Educators had to improvise to continue getting these meals to those students who relied on them.

While the NSLP is a nationally funded program, the needs of each state and school district are different, and administration and operation of the program is left up to the states and the individual school districts.

The School Board of Alachua County (SBAC) made a massive effort during the spring and summer of 2020 to get meals to students as well as including enough meals for the weekends. Each school set up drive-through services for brown bag lunches with sealed packages to ensure no contact. They also set up other community locations using school buses where parents could come collect meals as well as written lessons for students who did not have internet capability. Since the end of March 2020, the district distributed more than 2.3 million meals to students across Alachua County.

When the school reopening date was postponed by two weeks until Aug. 31, the SBAC extended the program providing meals at 17 locations on different campuses. In previous years the meals would be available at the schools during class time.

This school year there are three different learning methods with in-class return, the digital learning option, and the eSchool program where a student does not attend school, but rather receives the lessons as an assignment and works at their own pace with no interaction with the school.

Due to the nature of eSchool, students involved in that have never been eligible for the meal program due to federal guidelines.

However, the digital classroom is a new innovation for students who would normally attend school in person but have chosen not to attend due to the pandemic and health concerns. While the students returning to in-class learning can receive their meals at school, this presented a problem for families that chose the digital classroom.

Starting Sept. 1, SBAC Food and Nutrition Services started meal distribution for Digital Academy Students that can be picked up at various locations countywide in the schools. Families of Digital Academy students can pick up meals Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11-1 at the 17 locations. Students will be provided two breakfasts and two lunches on Tuesdays and three breakfasts and three lunches on Thursdays, which will cover meals for school days.

Students registered at a school that qualifies for the national Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) program will receive free meals and may pick up meals from one of the 17 locations.

Those attending a non-CEP school (Buchholz, Hidden Oak, Meadowbrook, PK Yonge, Resilience, or Healthy Learning) must pick up meals at Buchholz or PK Yonge. For non-CEP schools, meal pricing will be based on the student’s meal status of free, reduced or paid.

“We consider the curbside meal pickup option a great opportunity for children to stay connected to their schools and to have access to healthy meals at a great value,” said Director of Food & Nutrition Services Maria Eunice. “We would like to encourage all families with children enrolled in Digital Academy to take part in this program.”

Pickup for students participating in the Digital learning program at CEP school locations include Terrwilliger, Westwood, Sidney Lanier, Santa Fe High School, Rawlings, Newberry High School, Norton Elementary, High Springs Community School, Kanapaha Middle, Lincoln Middle, Fort Clarke Middle, Gainesville High, Hawthorne, Archer Community School and Eastside High. More information can be found at the SBAC website https://www.sbac.edu/  

More information on pricing for non-CEP schools is available on the Food and Nutrition Services website at yourchoicefresh.com.

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HIGH SPRINGS ‒ City Manager Joel DeCoursey, Jr. has tendered his resignation effective Nov. 30.

In his letter of resignation, he said, “Thank you for giving me the opportunity to work in this position for the last year. I have truly been blessed and I thoroughly enjoyed working here, as well as, serving the citizens of this great community. I enjoyed the many opportunities you have given me. This is a wonderful team to work with. However, I have committed to one year of service and I have fulfilled my obligation. It is time for a new set of eyes to lead the city into the future.”

DeCoursey was sworn in as interim city manager on Aug. 29, 2019, to replace outgoing City Manager Ed Booth. Contract negotiations between the city attorney and DeCoursey began and the employment agreement was approved during the Sept. 12, 2019, City Commission meeting.

DeCoursey previously served as the Chief of Police for the City of High Springs for nearly four years. He served two separate stints with the City of Alachua prior to that. He served as a police officer for Alachua from December 1988 – August 1990. In early 2008, while employed by the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office (ASO), he was assigned to the position of Interim Chief of Police. He eventually resigned his position with ASO to become Chief of Police with the City of Alachua on July 31, 2008. He served in that capacity until he resigned on June 25, 2015.

Commissioners and the city attorney thanked DeCoursey for his service to the City, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, and wished him well in his new endeavors.

Commissioners subsequently approved an advertisement for a new city manager at the Aug. 27 meeting. The first advertisement is scheduled to appear in a Florida League of Cities publication. The requirements for the position are the same as previously advertised when Booth left the position.

Applications may be obtained online at highsprings.us. Applications, a cover letter and resume’ must be returned to City Clerk Jenny Parham at 23718 W. US Highway 27, High Springs, FL 32643 or emailed to jparham@highsprings.us by 4:30 p.m., Oct. 8.

Commissioner Scott Jamison commented that the Commission needs to consider how to handle the fact that a new City Manager would likely not want to start until the first of the year, thereby leaving the City without a manager for two months. “This isn’t something we need to discuss tonight, but it is something we should consider in the near future,” he said.

Briefly, applicant requirements include a Bachelor’s Degree with five years of municipal government experience with an educational emphasis in public administration. An equivalent combination of training and experience may be considered. Professional managerial or governmental financial experience may be substituted on a year-for-year basis for the education and experience requirements.

The starting salary is $90,000 - $100,000 annually with benefits, which include a vehicle allowance and retirement benefits through the Florida Retirement System, insurance coverage and relocation costs of up to $4,000. The successful applicant must ultimately reside in the City of High Springs.

Application screening will begin on Oct. 12. The top five finalists will be selected on Oct. 22 and interviews will be conducted via Zoom on Oct. 27.

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