Culpeper woman creates sign of support overnight

Brittany Smyth in April created  a chalk  mural  on  the  wall  next  to  her  home along West Street, encouraging people to stay home and save lives. 

Since March, one unfortunate theme - unsurprisingly, the coronavirus - dominated discussions amongst government officials at all levels.

If somehow the coronavirus was not mentioned during a town council, board of supervisors or school board meeting, reminders remained of the otherworldly situation in which the world found itself.

After stay-at-home orders were issued, local government operations continued via electronic means for a while. Citizens were encouraged to remain civically active by submitting emailed public comments and tuning in to live-streamed meetings. Once municipal buildings reopened to the public, social distancing precautions such as cordoned off rows of seats were implemented.

Here is a glance back at governmental activities spanning the last 365 days.

Culpeper County

County Administrator John Egertson noted that the pandemic posed budgetary and operational challenges such as safely conducting public meetings and providing services citizens rely upon while assisting residents and businesses in unprecedented times.

Initial challenges, he said, included acquiring personal protective equipment for front-line employees, having some employees work remotely and adapting operations.

“Culpeper County EMS staff will continue to be on the front lines of the pandemic responses as well as the vaccine distribution locally. Their wellbeing will remain a concern for some time to come,” Egertson said.

The county’s lean staff, he noted, presented another challenge that resulted in success as “there is not one individual staff member who has not taken on additional roles and duties during the pandemic which enabled us to have so many success stories for the year.”

Egertson praised Culpeper Human Services and Kid Central for establishing a daycare program at the onset of the pandemic that allowed front-line medical, emergency, critical operations and hospital staff to continue working.

One issue that existed long before the pandemic, lacking internet service, was exacerbated and Egertson said “only served to show the nation just what rural localities like Culpeper have been dealing with for many years.” He added that the county will continue working until all residents have high-speed internet access.

“We have made huge strides in setting forth a plan to solve the broadband availability problem county-wide in the relatively near future,” he said.

Working with the school system, Egertson noted that 14 public wifi locations were established and the county also secured a $921,466 state grant to build additional internet infrastructure.

Another success Egertson noted was the distribution of $1.7 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funding to businesses and nonprofits hit by the pandemic. Come 2021, he added that another $800,000 will be available through a grant jointly obtained by the town and county.

Although safety nets to protect businesses have been implemented, he said the complete economic ripple of pandemic remains unknown.

“We continue to be conservative with the funds we are entrusted with so that we may have the ability to address unforeseen critical needs,” Egertson said.

Another project on the horizon in the new year is the construction of an active fitness playground at the Sports Complex, which will be funded via grants and donations. Egertson said this will be constructed in early 2021 and the county is pursuing additional recreational amenities.

Town of Culpeper

Town Manager Chris Hively said responding to the pandemic and reduced revenue was the town’s main obstacle. Successes, however, also centered around the town’s response to the pandemic.

Hively noted that the town successfully distributed grants to minimize the pandemic’s impact on the community. The Culpeper Cares Program, which distributed CARES Act funding, awarded 162 grants totaling $2.9 million, $1.7 million of which went to businesses.

In 2021, ongoing grant programs will include the Culpeper Downtown Micro Marketing Leverage Program Grant, the Culpeper Small Women and Minority Owned Business grant program, the Culpeper Competes Educational Entrepreneur Competition and the Culpeper Tourism Zone Incentive Program.

Hoping to aid businesses, the Town Council in the summer approved a $94,000 expenditure to purchase parklets that were installed along Davis Street to provide outdoor dining options.

Brittany Mabrey, owner of Raven’s Nest, said the parklets were incredibly helpful.

“We’re a small store with limited space so the extra room has made people less wary of not being able to find seating. It has become a very nice oasis for a lot of our guests, and we are grateful to have them,” she explained during the summer.

The parklets, however, received mixed reviews as some naysayers expressed distaste over their aesthetics and reduced parking.

One achievement Hively noted was unrelated to the pandemic as paving projects were completed on East Street and Blue Ridge Drive.

Looking forward, Hively said the town plans to provide a new entrance and parking on Blue Ridge Extended at Rockwater Park. The town will also relocate Fairview Cemetery’s maintenance building. Other looming projects include replacing the bridge at Yowell Meadow Park.

The council will iron out other future plans during a January retreat.

Culpeper County Public Schools

Local schools, along with every other Virginia public school system, closed their buildings and instituted virtual learning practices in March.

The following school year, Culpeper County offered a mix of in-person and virtual learning models in which students can either learn fully remotely or have two in-person and three virtual days per week.

There are 1,149 students at Culpeper County High School and 1,422 students at Eastern View High School. In the first semester, about half of those students attended in-person two days a week. During the upcoming second semester, schools will continue offering the already established options while also allowing more in-person days for a small number of high school students who need them the most.

Due to the rearranged educational landscape, the Board of Supervisors set aside $730,000 to make one-time payments to parents of students in grades k-8 who were financially impacted by increased childcare costs. Fewer grant applications than expected - 247 - were received and all but three applicants received $1,000.

While the second semester will greatly mirror the first, officials hope to eventually return to usual five-day in-person learning schedule. Keeping safety in mind, Superintendent Dr. Tony Brads recently said that the goal is to gradually implement that return to normalcy.

“Don’t panic out there folks. I’m not saying that’s immediate…When it’s possible – gradual – that’s our goal,” he said

Come next school year, the new Career and Technical Education Center will open and provide graduates more opportunities to immediately enter the workforce with well-paying jobs. Among the offerings at the $17.3 million school are nursing, culinary arts, maker space, cosmetology, building trades, automotive, EMT and cybersecurity courses.

This new addition is an expansion of the county’s established technical education program. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax attended the school’s groundbreaking and said “Culpeper is a very special place.”

“Both because of its history and its beauty, but also because it's been such a visionary and forward-thinking when it comes to CTE,” he said. “We are equipping young people with credentials and skills right out of high school. I’m so impressed by the partnership of the elected leadership and the schools.”

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