Grand juries resume in the Appalachian Judicial Circuit

grand jury

Appalachian Judicial Circuit will resume convening grand juries for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic.

Our communities have been hit hard by the global pandemic. As the COVID19 outbreak in Georgia continues, the Appalachian Judicial Circuit is continually working to balance legitimate public health considerations with
the necessity to maintain fair and effective administration of justice for citizens and communities within our circuit.

Since the Monday following the first Judicial Emergency Order, put in place by Chief Justice Melton of the Georgia Supreme Court in March of this year, our circuit has been addressing cases. At first, pursuant to the Supreme Court’s Judicial Emergency Order, our courts were confined to hearing only emergency civil cases and handling non-jury criminal cases involving incarcerated defendants. However, within weeks, our circuit had the ability to conduct full hearings in person, with appropriate health precautions, or virtually using videoconferencing for the safety of all parties. Since that time, hundreds of cases and matters have been addressed within our circuit, which have involved both emergency and non-emergency issues.

All types of cases are being heard and addressed on a daily basis in all of our counties, following the rules and procedures that are set forth in our circuit’s own Judicial Emergency Orders. Deputy Sheriffs are screening persons as they enter the courthouse for temperatures. Hand sanitization stations are positioned throughout the courthouse, and masks are provided to those entering the courtrooms. In all three counties in our circuit, technology has been installed that allows hearings to be conducted virtually between our court system and the Department of Corrections, as well as many of the local jails throughout the State. This technology has allowed many criminal cases to move forward and be concluded even while in-person proceedings have been limited.

As of September 10, 2020, the Supreme Court has authorized the empaneling of grand juries. Gilmer County shall convene on October 19, 2020, Fannin County shall convene on November 9, 2020, and Pickens County shall convene on November 16, 2020. To keep everyone safe, the following safety practices will be implemented, based upon guidelines from the Georgia Department of Health and “Guidance for Resuming In-Person Grand Jury Proceedings,” developed by the state Judicial COVID-19 Task Force, and approved by the Judicial Council. Our courts will work diligently to keep all individuals who enter our courthouses and courtrooms safe for the public and all court personnel.

• Strict social distancing guidelines will be required (6 feet or greater).
• Large rooms will be used for all proceedings.
• Temperature checks at the door of the courthouse will be performed, with those registering 100.4 or higher being excluded from entering the courthouse.
• All individuals who enter courtrooms, grand jury rooms or jury assembly rooms must wear masks, and witnesses must wear face shields when testifying before grand jurors or before trial jurors in jury trials.
• Arrival times for witnesses and groups of potential jurors will be staggered to prevent large numbers of people entering or gathering at once in the courthouse.
• Technology will be used whenever possible to minimize contact between persons.
• Use of hand sanitizer is strictly enforced and will be provided when entering courthouse and again when entering courtrooms, grand jury rooms or jury assembly rooms. Hand sanitizer shall be provided at various locations within the courthouse for frequent usage, especially after handling documents.
• Cleaning and disinfection of tabletop surfaces, chairs, witness stand, lectern/podium, and any other common surface area in frequent use shall be performed regularly.
• Jurors who are selected to serve as members of the grand jury shall notify the District Attorney if they show any symptoms of illness, even mild symptoms, during their grand jury service or have been exposed to a COVID-19 positive individual.
• Food and drink, if provided, will be individually packaged.
• Questionnaires will be mailed with the summons to potential jurors in order to screen for vulnerable persons and those with known COVID-19 risks. The questionnaires should be completed promptly and returned to the office of the Clerk of the Superior Court in each county.
• All potential jurors who have not been excused shall call in 48 hours before the date you have been directed to report in order to confirm that you or a family member are not experiencing any current COVID19 symptoms and/or to confirm the date and time that you are to report has not been changed.

If you would like to review the Judicial Emergency Orders, see a court calendar, read about the types of courts in our circuit, or review a list of family resources in our community, please visit our circuit website at On our website, you will also find our court Twitter feed updates, which you can follow on Twitter @AppalachianCt for up-to-date information about our court system.

Update On Opening Fannin’s Schools

Community, News, Rebel's Corner

Blue Ridge, Ga. – The Fannin County School System (FCSS) has released more details about reopening plans for students opting to attend in-person schooling during the 2020-21 school year.

Assistant Superintendent of Achievement and Governance, Sarah Rigdon, updated the Board of Education (BOE) on the latest decisions to reopen Fannin County’s Schools in August.

“We are revising our plans somewhat,” Rigdon said of the ever changing guidelines related to Covid-19, “because we want to also be good stewards and good partners with our governor in trying to keep everyone in Georgia safe and healthy.”

Rigdon referenced Georgia Governor Brian Kemp’s “Four for Four” plan, where Kemp is urging Georgians to follow these four guidelines for four weeks:

  • Wear a mask when out in public or when you cannot keep distance inside.
  • Practice physical distancing – six feet from those you don’t live with.
  • Wash your hands for 20 seconds several times throughout the day with soap and warm water.
  • Follow the executive order and heed the guidance provided by public health officials.

According to Kemp, if Georgians commit to these four things, “we can make incredible progress in the fight against Covid-19”.

With the “Four for Four” plan in mind, the school system has outlined a few new procedures for school students this year.

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Rigdon updates the board on school reopening plans.

Rigdon gave an update for students who will be riding school buses this year. The plan for buses was previously still in the works when the initial reopening update was given at the BOE’s July 9th meeting.

After consulting with medical professionals, school and district leaders, the FCSS has decided that masks will be required for all students riding buses. 

Disposable masks will be available to students riding buses as well as hand sanitizer to be used before boarding the bus.

“That is a requirement, not an encouragement or suggestion,” Rigdon emphasized of the decision for riders to be required to wear a mask.

Social distancing is just not possible for students on buses and Rigdon stated of preventing person-to-person spread of Covid-19, “The best defense against that is going to be masking up.” 

Students may also receive assigned seating on buses.

FCSS is still not making masks a requirement for students and staff inside school buildings, but are highly encouraging the mask wearing practice.

The district received a donation of cloth masks from the Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA) and will offer all students who are attending face-to-face school one of  these masks.

For parents, guardians and visitors to any of the school campuses, a mask or face covering will be required along with a symptom check before entering any buildings.

Employees of the FCSS will participate in Covid-19 related training. The training will consist of guidance about “best practices and instances when face coverings will be required”.

This specific situational guidance and training will be reviewed by the Department of Public Health.

Lastly, school specific plans for safely reopening are still being worked out among the individual schools. Staff will be given this information before returning on August 3 and parents/guardians will be given this information prior to August 7.

“The guidance is constantly updated,” Rigdon spoke about the individual schools’ finalizing plans and that these plans could still change as the district receives new information.



Featured Image Courtesy of Fannin County School System

Students return to school August 7th : What to expect

Board of Education, News, Rebel's Corner
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Blue Ridge, Ga. – Students of the Fannin County School System (FCSS) will have the option of returning to school in a modified traditional setting or utilizing online learning for the 2020-21 school year.

School Administration released their plans for reopening schools at the Board of Education (BOE) regular July meeting.

Assistant Superintendent Sarah Rigdon gave the board an overview of what to expect when school comes back into session. 

Fannin County, School System, Board of Education, Reopening, First Day, School Year, 2020, 2021, 2020-21, Covid-19, Coronavirus, Department of Education, Georgia, Online Learning, Traditional, Superintendent, Michael Gwatney, Sarah Rigdon, Masks, Safety

Rigdon presented the BOE with administration’s plan to reopen schools.

The Georgia Department of Education (DOE) released guidelines in early June for schools to consider when reopening in the State of Georgia. These guidelines, however, were only recommendations and the ultimate decisions for school operations were left up to the districts.

The DOE guidelines, along with guidance from both local and state authorities, as well as guardian and faculty input helped shape the approach that the FCSS is choosing to implement for the time being.

“The important part for us was to get the information and make the best decisions that we can,” Fannin County School Superintendent Dr. Michael Gwatney spoke of the system’s plan. “This plan is subject to change. We need to think of this as a living document. It will be modified as new things are learned.”


***Important Dates***

Traditional school, or in person education will begin on August 7, 2020.

Faculty and Staff are to report on August 3, 2020.

Online Learning will also begin on August 7, 2020.

Parents and Guardians may enroll their child for Online Learning between July 10 – July 20, 2020.


***Online Learning***

For those not comfortable with the traditional in class setting, an online option will be available. Assistant Superintendent Rigdon stressed that this online option will not mirror the distance learning that the school put in place upon the mandatory closure earlier this year.

The online learning platform will be run through a 3rd party that is yet to be determined. The platform will provide instruction to the child with the parent or guardian being a “learning coach”.

Students enrolled in online learning will spend the majority of the traditional school day (8:30 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.) either working online or working to complete assignments given online. Attendance will be taken and monitored via login and assignments completed.

There will be FCSS personnel assigned to check on each child’s progress. The “learning coaches” will be given the name of someone at the school who can help them navigate the program or assist with issues.

The content of the online learning platform, according to FCSS, will be “rigorous and graded”.

Students enrolled in Online Learning will be able to participate in sports and extracurricular activities. 

While the FCSS is not requiring that students sign a contract to remain in the online platform once enrolled (many other districts have this requirement), they would like to see those enrolled stay with the program through the first semester or for the entirety of the school year.

“We are not asking parents to sign a commitment, but we do want them to be extremely thoughtful as they make that decision because it is going to require us to allocate and spend funds that could be better spent if they’re not going to stick with the program,” Rigdon explained of the need for students and guardians to consider the decision heavily.

Rigdon did add for those who enroll but discover that the online platform is not working for them, “We are never turning a child away from our schools.”

Students utilizing the Online Learning platform will complete assignments from a school issued device. FCSS will provide a WiFi hotspot for students without internet, but these hotspots work much like mobile phones, so if you are an area with poor cell phone service it is likely that the hotspot would not work for you.

Online Learning is available for children in grades Kindergarten – 12. This includes children with IEPs (Individualized Educational Program). Online Learning is not available for Pre-K students.


***Traditional School***

Masks are optional for both students and personnel. Parents or Guardians must provide a mask for students who wish to wear one throughout the day.

Temperatures will be taken for all students, staff, parents and guardians each morning upon arriving at the campus. Anyone with a temperature of 100 degrees Fahrenheit or higher will not be permitted to stay at school. 

Hand sanitizer will be available to all children and adults before entering the school buildings.

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Parents, Guardians, and Staff completed a survey on key issues. This helped shape the district’s plan to reopen.

Elementary teachers will move the students instead of students changing classes. Middle and High School students will not be allowed to congregate in hallways. When and where possible class changes for Middle and High School students will be staggered or hallway traffic patterns will be addressed to prevent overcrowding.

When possible students will be assigned seats and will keep the same seat during the instructional class period.

Each school will “develop school level procedures” to limit the number of students in the cafeteria. This may include “grab and go” where students will pick up meals and eat in a classroom or designated area.

The final plan for buses has not been finalized. However, hand sanitizer will be available for anyone upon boarding a bus. Buses will be sanitized daily and ventilated to the extent feasible when in route.

Parents and guardians will be notified of any adjustments to bus routes or pick up times before the first day of school. Requirement to wear a mask while on a bus has not been decided, but parents and guardians will be notified of this decision as well.

Parents and guardians will be allowed to walk their child to class during the first few days of school but must wear a mask.  Schools will determine when parents and guardians will no longer have access beyond the main entrance.  

FCSS states “We want to keep the lines of communication strong, but we need to limit the number of people flowing into and out of the buildings each day.”


***If Schools Close Again***

Those students enrolled in Online Learning would continue the course that they are taking with no change. Students of the traditional classroom setting would switch to online learning but follow a model similar to that that was implemented in March 2020.


The FCSS states of the opening plan that “plans may change based on future orders from the Governor, the Department of Community Health, or the Department of Education”.

“Our desire is always to operate a traditional school with face to face,” Rigdon said of the hope for all students eventually to return to a traditional setting, “We believe our instruction is best at that level.”

Fannin County Chamber of Commerce : A message for visitors and part-time residents

Community, News

Blue Ridge, Ga. – With Blue Ridge and the rest of the State of Georgia slowly reopening, the Fannin County Chamber of Commerce released advice for visitors and part-time residents.

The Chamber states that vacation rentals in the area were closed for 5 weeks during Georgia’s statewide Shelter in Place Order. Governor Brian Kemp’s order expired on April 30, 2020, and was only extended for the medically fragile who remain under Shelter in Place until June 12.

“According to the 2010 census there were 4,000 vacation homes in Fannin County, and the 2020 census will most likely show at least 4,500,” the Chamber said in a public release, noting that Fannin County’s largest portion of visitors are not from vacation rentals but from part-time residents or those who own second homes in the area.
With people ready to make their way back to the beautiful mountains of North Georgia, the Fannin County Chamber of Commerce released the following advice to those coming to the area:
Blue Ridge Welcomes You Back
We are so happy to be welcoming visitors and part time residents back to Blue Ridge and the Copper Basin. Spring in the mountains is good for the soul, and a recovery getaway can help you restore balance, refresh yourself and clear your mind. It’s nature’s remedy for the quarantine blues.
But although Georgia’s Governor has reopened the state, here are some things you need to know. Measures are still in place to help discourage the spread of Covid-19, and the health and well being of our visitors and residents are top priority. Social distancing is still very much in place in Blue Ridge, and we encourage you to wear a mask in public places for your own safety and as a courtesy to others. Following are some basic things you need to know before you come back to Blue Ridge for a recovery getaway.
Groceries and Supplies
It is a good idea for you to bring your own groceries and supplies to be sure you have what you need for your second home or vacation rental. The availability of meat, poultry and fresh vegetables is sometimes hit or miss. Also bring your own cleaning and sanitizing supplies, hand sanitizer, face masks and paper products.
Restaurants and Shops
Governor Kemp allowed the reopening of most businesses on May 1, but many restaurants and shops are still closed. We will update the listings below of restaurants, shops and attractions daily, but a good practice is to call before you go. Even if they are not open for inside dining, some restaurants are offering carry out options and other special services. The restaurant list is long, so be sure to scroll to the bottom to find shops and attractions.
Local Attractions
The Blue Ridge Scenic Railway will not be in operation until June 1. Some other local attractions, like Mercier Orchards, horseback riding, kayak and canoe rentals, guided fishing and others are perfect for social distancing in the great outdoors. Georgia State Parks are open. Currently all of the Chattahoochee National Forest trailheads, recreation areas and waterfalls remain closed, as is the Ocoee Whitewater Center.
When you come back to Blue Ridge, you find yourself. Even though things are not quite normal, the magic of Blue Ridge is still the same. You can get away completely … again.

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