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N.C. A&T cancels 2020 homecoming events

GREENSBORO — The Greatest Homecoming on Earth is taking a year off.

N.C. A&T announced Thursday that it’s canceling nearly all of its annual homecoming events because of the COVID-19 pandemic that shows no signs of abating.

The one exception is football: The Oct. 31 home game against South Carolina State is still on, but it will be played before a much smaller than normal crowd.

A&T said it might hold some homecoming events virtually. Nevertheless, the cancellation of eight days of in-person events means no Aggie FanFest at War Memorial Stadium, no concerts at the Greensboro Coliseum, no step show, no gatherings at the Greek plots and no early morning parade before the football game.

“We have decided that there will be no homecoming on campus this year,” Ken Sigmon, A&T’s vice chancellor for university advancement, told university trustees during an online meeting Thursday.

A&T’s annual event, which the university and its supporters have dubbed the “Greatest Homecoming on Earth,” had been scheduled to run from Oct. 25 to Nov. 1. A&T said homecoming events draw a combined attendance of more than 100,000 people.

The reason for the cancellation? Health and safety. Sigmon said university leaders got feedback from alumni, employees, performers, vendors and others involved with homecoming. A&T told students earlier this month that it planned to significantly reduce the number of students in classrooms, dining facilities and some residence halls, and it urged students to postpone large events until the spring semester or hold them online. For the fall semester, outdoor gatherings at A&T will be capped at 25 people.

Teresa Davis, associate vice chancellor for alumni relations, called A&T’s decision “appropriate” for helping reduce the potential spread of COVID-19, which has infected nearly 50,000 people across North Carolina since early March.

“Although we are deeply disappointed we will not be able to honor this highly-anticipated tradition,” Davis said in a statement, “we believe if we make the necessary sacrifices now, we hope to be able to see everyone next year, with even more anticipation, excitement and enthusiasm.”

The loss of A&T’s homecoming — one of Greensboro’s biggest annual events — will be an economic blow to the city, said Henri Fourrier, president and CEO of the Greensboro Convention and Visitors Bureau.

He said out-of town visitors book about 8,500 hotel room nights — a three-night hotel stay counts as three room nights — and spend about $6.3 million locally. A&T puts the overall economic impact of homecoming at about $10 million. The city of Greensboro, meanwhile, estimates that at least 50,000 people each year attend Aggie FanFest, a three-day festival that features food, music, merchandise and entertainment.

The reaction on social media was a mixture of disappointment and understanding. “This decision is the appropriate route to mitigate and reduce the potential spread of COVID-19,” one person wrote on Twitter. “While I do understand this decision, I am deeply disappointed,” wrote another.

Even the one homecoming event that will be held — the football game — will look and feel a lot different this year. A&T officials told trustees Thursday that Truist Stadium will fill only about 7,800 reserved seats on game day — roughly 40% of its normal capacity.

“We will have social distancing in the stadium,” Athletics Director Earl Hilton said.

Truist Stadium is the new name of A&T’s football stadium. Known as Aggie Stadium when it opened in 1981, the university sold the naming rights to BB&T before the 2018 season. The venue had been called BB&T Stadium for the past two years, but the name has changed again after BB&T’s merger with SunTrust to form the new bank known as Truist.

Hilton also said Thursday that bands and cheerleaders from visiting schools won’t be at Truist Stadium this fall. Hilton added that A&T’s band and cheerleaders won’t make road trips this season with the football team.

A&T’s announcement came on the same day that Winston-Salem State University said it was canceling the majority of its homecoming events, which had been scheduled for Sept. 13-19. The only homecoming event to be held in person will be the football game Sept. 19 against Tuskegee.

Winston-Salem State Chancellor Elwood Robinson said that homecoming is an integral part of the experience at historically black colleges and universities.

“Each year, we look forward to welcoming our alumni and friends to campus to celebrate our Ram Pride and reconnect with the Ram family,” Robinson told the Winston-Salem Journal. “We are extremely disappointed that our 2020 events are a casualty of the current COVID-19 pandemic. However, our highest priority is the health and well-being of our community. We feel this decision is the wisest choice at this time.”

Elsewhere in the Triad, Elon University announced earlier this month that it would hold Homecoming & Reunion Weekend and Family Weekend virtually this year. Both events had been scheduled to be held on the Elon campus in October.

'A great victory': Area DACA recipients express relief over narrow U.S. Supreme Court decision

GREENSBORO On Thursday morning, Jonathan Vargas got an unexpected surprise. In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — more commonly known as DACA — for about 700,000 young immigrants who came to this country as children.

“I was expecting the worse,” said Vargas, who along with his brother, Guillermo Vargas, lives in Greensboro and, like his brother, works as a nurse in the ICU unit at a Winston-Salem hospital. They are on the front line of the novel coronavirus battle, working with patients who have COVID-19.

Like many other DACA recipients, Jonathan and Guillermo Vargas have lived in limbo ever since President Donald Trump sought to end the program in 2017.

Guillermo Vargas said it is already stressful dealing with a national and global pandemic. The brothers said they felt they couldn’t make plans.

“It’s just not the smart thing to buy a house or do anything to set roots in if you don’t know where your future is,” Guillermo Vargas said.

Their parents brought them to North Carolina from Mexico in 2002. Guillermo was 14, Jonathan Vargas 12.

“This is a great victory, obviously,” Jonathan Vargas, whose wife is also a nurse, said of the high court’s ruling. “We celebrate it ... (but) the goal is to stay here permanently because this is our home. This is our country.”

Moises Serrano, an immigrant rights activist who lives in Yadkinville, is also a DACA recipient.

“It was a huge sense of relief,” Serrano said of the decision. “It’s crucial for Americans to understand that immigrants have been terrorized by Donald Trump for the past four years. His agenda was to caricature and scapegoat the immigrant community to unify his base.”

Serrano said that ever since Trump was elected president in 2016 he knew he would rescind the DACA program that would result in a legal battle that would end up before the Supreme Court.

And over the past four years, Serrano said, he and other DACA recipients have been looking over their shoulders, wondering if they were going to lose their jobs and be deported. When Trump ended the program in 2017, Serrano was in college. He said he had to decide whether he should quit school and get a job.

But he did graduate in 2018 and got a much better position than he would have if he had dropped out.

More needs to happen, Serrano said.

“The immigrant community needs an accessible pathway for citizenship and a pathway that includes the 11 million undocumented immigrants in our country,” he said.

Guillermo and Jonathan Vargas said they love their jobs as nurses but want to have the opportunity to go further in the medical field. They are now pursuing bachelor’s degrees in nursing. And they have ambitions to enter graduate school so they can become certified registered nurse anesthetists.

That requires a pathway to citizenship so they don’t have to pay out-of-state tuition, they said.

And they don’t want to leave their parents behind.

“They were the ones who had a dream for a better future,” Guillermo said.

Rainy day fund to help make up losses to COVID-19 in Guilford County budget; property tax rate won't increase

GREENSBORO — Guilford County leaders unanimously adopted a budget of more than $633 million after a lengthy debate over whether a High Point civic group should receive as little as $15,000 or as much as $40,000 in county funds.

The county Board of Commissioners ultimately settled on $20,000 after impassioned discussion Thursday about the next budget’s allotment for Forward High Point Foundation, a nonprofit group that promotes the city’s downtown development.

Commissioner Carlvena Foster, whose district includes High Point, started the debate by suggesting a budget change granting the group $40,000 in economic development funds. But Commissioner Alan Perdue countered with a substitute motion to adopt the full countywide budget with $15,000 for the High Point group.

Commissioner Melvin “Skip” Alston pushed for the full $40,000, noting that was what the similar group Downtown Greensboro Inc. receives.

“We should always know that High Point is a part of Guilford County and that Greensboro is not the only city in Guilford County,” Alston said.

The board went through several 5-4 votes rejecting lower amounts until the $20,000 figure passed unanimously.

Commissioner Justin Conrad prevailed with his argument that the board’s recent policy has been to award such grants on a per-resident basis.

High Point has roughly half of Greensboro’s population, so it made sense to award its downtown development group 50% of what the Gate City group is receiving, Conrad said.

There was little room for extras in the new budget that takes effect July 1 because of COVID-19’s damage to the economy.

The new budget includes no increase in the property tax with a total bottom line of just more than $633 million, an increase of about $6 million — less than 1% — above the current budget.

The county plans to spend the largest amount of its revenue on education, more than $307 million divided between local schools and GTCC.

Other major spending categories include $124 million for public health and other human services, $119 million for the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office and other public safety efforts, and $35 million for “general government.”

County officials expect a sharp reduction in revenue from the sales tax to be COVID-19’s greatest blow to the new budget.

They are planning for about $80 million in sales tax receipts during the next 12 months, $11 million less than the current budget and about $16 million below projections for 2021 before the pandemic.

County staff plans to close that gap with increased income from property taxes, federal and state financial support, and user fees for a variety of county services.

But the budget planners also are calling for the county to draw more than $38 million from Guilford’s rainy day account, known officially as the “fund balance,” set aside for emergencies or unforeseen expenses.

The budget also envisions collecting about $389 million from the property tax although the rate remains unchanged at 73.05 cents per $100 in property value. That’s almost $9 million more than the current year due to rising values.

The rate means the owner of a $100,000 house would pay about $730 in Guilford property taxes next year, just as this year.

Commissioners also held a public hearing Thursday evening on their plans for a Nov. 3 referendum on $300 million in school bonds, about 19% of what the Guilford County Board of Education sought to replace and repair aging buildings.

No residents spoke for or against the proposal during the hearing despite a change in board policy relaxing its COVID-19 policy banning residents from attending meetings in person.

A 6-3 board majority decided last month on the lower amount because, they said, the COVID-19 pandemic has damaged the regional economy so much the school board’s initial request for $1.6 billion was too much.

The school system wants the bond money to renovate, modernize and replace existing school buildings suffering from years of wear, tear and deferred maintenance.

As part of the initial bond vote last month, the board scheduled Thursday’s required public hearing. The commissioners planned to allow up to 30 speakers to attend the meeting in person, but they had no takers either in person or through the board’s online call-in option.

The commissioners could not vote to formally schedule the school referendum Thursday evening because of a new state law requiring them to wait 24 hours after public hearings that are broadcast remotely over the internet.

The law aims to give online listeners a chance to submit comments to the board. Residents who want to comment can send their remarks to publiccomments@guilfordcountync.gov.

The commissioners plan to reconvene at 5:30 this evening to vote on scheduling the $300 million referendum for November and on two other public hearing items that were on Thursday’s agenda.

An interesting article in today's newspaper