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News Story of the Year: COVID-related issues topped headlines throughout 2020

In March, coronavirus and COVID-19 started showing up in headlines in Banks County and across the state, country and nation. It hasn’t slowed down since then with daily and weekly updates being given on news sites on the impact of this deadly virus that has shut downs schools, businesses and churches and led to people not leaving their homes for months at a time.

COVID-19 has certainly been the “News Story of the Year.” It has changed the way of life for everyone. Terms such as working remotely, zoom meetings and virtual school have become common. Seeing people in public wearing masks are the norm now. And doctor’s appointments by Facetime or even through a drive-by at an Urgent Care are more likely than going into your doctor’s office.

In Banks County, the first news headline came on March 18, with the bold headline on page 1: “Coronavirus Coverage 2020: Schools, businesses, close; election postponed.” From that week onward, every issue of The Banks County News had at least one, and often many more, stories related to COVID-19.

In that March 18 article, it stated that schools would be shut down through March 31. Schools actually ended up remaining closed for the rest of the school year following an order by the governor. No one imagined that would be the case at the time. The governor ordered citizens to “shelter-in-place” and many people, especially the elderly, did not leave their homes for months in fear they would get the virus.

Banks County government shut down for one week. The city halls at the towns in the counties closed to the public. Cases of COVID among city and county employees were reported.

As the year ends, the number of cases continue to increase. Area hospitals are often at capacity. The latest data for Banks County show that a total of 1,094 county residents have confirmed cases of COVID, with 18 dying from the virus and 130 being hospitalized.

However, as the year ends, a vaccine has been developed and is being given to front-line health care workers. As for when this will be more readily available or what percentage of the general public will want to take the vaccine, that is unknown as 2020 ends.

Students to return to classroom Jan. 5

Banks County students will return to the classroom on Tuesday, Jan. 5. Teachers will return to work on Monday, Jan. 4.

There are approximately 100 students who have opted to begin or continue online instruction.

“We are monitoring the data regarding the virus daily,” superintendent Ann Hopkins states. “I hope that we will be able to continue in-person instruction through the remainder of the year. The virus spread in our area has increased. In an effort to keep everyone safe and stop the spread of the virus, we will strongly encourage wearing masks when social distancing is not possible.”

Hopkins said two factors are considered when deciding whether to close school and change over to “virtual” learning.

“The first factor is the transmission within the school,” she said. “Through contact tracing and the assistance of the Department of Health, we can identify if the students with a particular facility are spreading the virus to one another of if the virus is from outside of the school as family members may transmit to the students. This is not an exact science, but we are able to somewhat determine how rampant the spread is within the school facilities. The other factor that determines our status is the available personnel. We must have the staff members healthy or available substitutes working to continue to have face-to-face instruction.”

Teachers are planning lessons far in advance in order to prepare in the event students, classes or the system must move to remote instruction.

“Because we have many students without Internet access, our teachers and technology department have been downloading materials to USB drives,” Hopkins says. “Our transportation department delivers these items, along with meals prepared by the nutrition staff, to those who are in quarantine. It has been a team effort. The men and women who work for this school system love these students and this community and have continued to go above and beyond to try to make things work for everyone.”

Hopkins said the goal will remain to “keep our students and staff safe and healthy.”

“Our staff is not only working hard to educate the children but also to provide them with some sense of normalcy during this pandemic,” she says.

Newsmaker of the Year: Calm during the storm; Superintendent leads school system during tough year

When schools suddenly closed in March due to COVID-19, no one expected that the doors would remain closed for the remainder of the school year. It went from days to weeks to an order from the governor that schools remain closed.

Educators had to immediately change over to remote or “virtual” teaching with students and parents being thrown into a world of learning that was new for everyone. It was a trying time for everyone with challenges that had not been faced before. It was an uncertain time as the virus spread in the community.

Superintendent Ann Hopkins, who had only been in the top education position in Banks County for a little over one year, was the calm behind the storm who led the teachers, students and parents through these trying times with leadership, strength and kindness. She has been named the 2020 Newsmaker of the Year.

When asked about the challenges in 2020, Hopkins is quick to give credit to the team that makes up the school system.

“Our faculty and staff have faced more challenges this year than could possibly be imagined, and they have all done a fantastic job,” she said.

Hopkins was named Banks County superintendent in February, 2019, after having served as assistant superintendent for the system since 2014. Prior to that, she had been employed with the school system since 2005 as the federal programs director. She served as an administrator and taught in Hall County before coming to Banks County. She began her teaching career in Jackson County in 1994.

“This has definitely been the most challenging year I have ever faced in my 25-plus years in education, but

I am blessed to work with a group that I consider family,” Hopkins said. “We make decisions together based on the information we have at the time. Many times, we are back tracking to make changes based on the newest data.”

Hopkins grew up in Commerce, where she graduated from Commerce High School in 1990. She is married to Ron Hopkins. They have three children, Tripp, Crew and BellaKayt.

“I am honored to serve in this community as superintendent,” Hopkins says. “I enjoy supporting others and strive to do what is best for all of our students.”

Past Newsmakers of the Year

2019 Tim Harper, Banks County clerk of court

2018 Hannah Mullins, Banks County economic developer

2017 Bob Waldorf, Banks County extension

2016 Jimmy Hooper, BOC chairman

2015 Leslie George, Keep Banks County Beautiful

2014 Brad Day, economic developer

2013 Carlton Speed, sheriff

2012 J.H. Brooks Family/Farm

2011, Deidra Moore, 911 director

2010 Jerry Neace, Baldwin mayor

2009 Milton Turner, Lula mayor

2008 Jim McLendon, Homer UMC pastor

2007 Robin Trotter, Family Connections/Generous Hearts

2006 Gene Hart, BOC chairman

2005 Doug Cheek, Homer mayor

2004 Rep. Jeanette Jamieson

2003 Chris Erwin, superintendent

2002 Jack Banks, Development Authority

2001 Bonnie Johnson, CVB

2000 Charles Chapman, sheriff

1999 Mark Reed, Baldwin mayor

1998 Gary Freeman and Danny Maxwell, BOC

1997 Bo Garrison and Dock Sisk, BOE chairman and superintendent

1996 Milton Patterson, BOC chairman

Election Jan. 5: Three races to be on run-off ballot

Three run-off races will be on the ballot Tuesday, Jan. 5, when voters go to the polls.

XXX Banks County voters have already cast an early ballot in this election. Early voting will be held through Dec. 31. All early voting will be at the Registrars Office in Homer, from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. daily.

All Election Day voting, on Jan. 5, will be at the Banks County Recreation Department, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

The three races on the ballot are:

•The Senate race between Republican Sen. David Perdue and Democrat Jon Ossoff.

•The Senate race between Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Democrat Raphael Warnock.

•The Public Service Commission race between incumbent Republican Lauren "Bubba" McDonald and Democrat Daniel Blackman.