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Stories and photos by WINGATE LASSITER unless credited otherwise
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Valentine's Day flowers from juniors to seniors

The youth of Centenary United Methodist Church put together 125 rose-bud vases for every resident of Smithfield Manor Nursing & Rehab for Valentine's Day: (left to right) James Foy, Elijah Matthews, Braxton Wilson, Banks Gaskins, Lexi Hopkins, Margo Grimes, Will Harris, Tristan Matthews, Crecia Parrish, Mackenzie Simonson, Will Denning, Whitley Kate Moore, Bo Harris, Hudson Schwartz, and Brayden Parr. (Photo sent from Centenary Church)


Masks optional at all schools "without stipulations"

That's what Johnston's Board of Education agreed upon without discussion or dissent at a special meeting Monday afternoon that was called in light of modified state guidelines regarding COVID-19 quarantines and testing.

The board's decision came after Assistant Superintendent David Pearce reported on "significant changes" in the state's Strong Schools Toolkit announced late last week – after Johnston's board had voted 6-1 to make masks optional starting next Monday so long as schools continued to have no more than 4% of students and staff either infected or quarantined at any time. (Board member Kay Carroll, who cast the lone vote against that plan, did not participate in Monday's session conducted "virtually" by teleconference.)

Monday's action, in effect, removed the 4% requirement.

In his report to the board, Dr. Pearce said the state's revised Toolkit "allows our schools to end contact tracing and no longer requires students or staff members who are in close contact with a person who has tested positive for COVID-19 to quarantine."

He said Johnston's Public Health Director Marilyn Pearson supports the new guidance from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

"Individuals who test positive must quarantine for five days and continue to wear a mask for five days after their quarantine, and individuals unable or unwilling to wear a mask for an additional five days will need to remain home," Dr. Pearce reported.

"It is important to note that masks will be required on our buses as required by federal mandate," he added.

Board member Mike Wooten offered the motion to make mask wearing at school optional after this week "without any stipulations." As a result, Johnston will be one of 45 school districts across the state without a mask mandate, while 70 districts continue to require masks to be worn (numbers reported as of Feb. 14).

This morning's report from Johnston County Public Schools showed 60 active cases among students and staff (down from last week's 87) with 130 students and 20 staff members quarantined (down from 261 students and 34 staff a week ago). Polenta Elementary (on Cleveland Road west of Smithfield) had 16 students in quarantine, but no other school in Johnston had more than 10.

VIEW the school system's COVID dashboard with data for all schools>

The number of new COVID cases detected here continued a downward trend this past week with 924 reported, compared to 4,588 three weeks ago. Hospitalizations also continue to decline (see table below), yet COVID-related fatalities among Johnstonians haven't let up, with 11 reported this past week.

Johnston's vaccination numbers continue to rise ever so modestly: This past week another 253 residents of the county became "fully vaccinated" with initially recommended doses while 558 got booster shots.

Nearly 54% of the world's population is now fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, according to Our World in Data, an information partnership between the University of Oxford and the Global Change Data Lab charity. Johnston County's rate is 53% while the statewide rate is 61% and the nationwide rate is 65%.

VIEW the current list of vaccination clinics in Johnston County>

VIEW the current list of COVID testing sites in Johnston County>


Case total
since 3-20 
(last week)
since 3-20 
(last week)

(last week) 
Fully vaccinated *
[got boosters]
( 53,632)
110,890: 53%**
6,360,932: 61%**
UNITED STATES 78,173,320
214,218,580: 65%**
WORLDWIDE 418,235,287
total doses
* 2 doses Moderna or Pfizer vaccines or 1 dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine
** Percentage of total population (all ages)

Data provided by: County of Johnston at 5:15 p.m. February 15
N.C. Department of Health and Human Services at 12:05 p.m. February 16
Johns Hopkins University at 8:21 a.m. February 17


Drone's-eye view of Smithfield-Selma High School. (JoCo Public Schools photo)

What's the forecast for growth in local schools?

Johnston's Board of Education got a 10-year forecast for school-enrollment growth last week from consultants based at N.C. State University who've been tracking the county's accelerated residential development for some time now. Not surprisingly, their numbers are greatest for Johnston's fast-growing northwestern quadrant closest to Wake County.

But what about growth that appears to be headed closer to Smithfield?

The chart below answers that question, showing school-enrollment upswings on the northwestern side of town that's reflected in projections for West Smithfield and Wilson's Mills elementary schools.

And that, in time, translates into rising enrollment at Smithfield-Selma High School.

The consultants – who work for OREd (NCSU's Operations and Research Education Laboratory) – told the school board they're currently tracking 233 residential subdivisions either planned or already under development throughout the county; and they expect 202 of those projects to be done by 2025, just three years away.

Obviously, most of those are in the exploding suburban areas on either side of Clayton. But recently we've seen a sudden uptick in interest among residential developers for tracts of land adjacent to West Smithfield.

The consultants, meanwhile, are recommending construction of one new high school, one new middle school, and four new elementary schools during the decade ahead – all in northwestern Johnston – plus expansion of Cleveland High School and existing elementary schools at Clayton, Corinth-Holders, and Princeton.


Campus Current
in 2031-32
Smithfield-Selma High School 1,448 1,433 1,706
Smithfield Middle School 748 560 733
South Smithfield Elementary 600 482 477
West Smithfield Elementary 540 463 705
Wilson's Mills Elementary 556 566 865
All high schools 11,313 11,762 13,961
All middle schools 8,836 7,922 9,587
All elementary schools 16,802 16,234 19,662
COUNTYWIDE TOTALS * 36,951 35,918 43,210
* not including enrollment in the Virtual Academy, alternative-site classes, and charter schools

Schools spend $7.8 million on electronic devices

Johnston's Board of Education last week approved two large expenditures from two pots of COVID-19 relief funds from the Federal Government: $3,757,694 to purchase 10,000 laptop computers for students and $4,082,525 for 1,825 interactive classroom panels for teachers.

The Chromebooks for students will replace older models deemed obsolete. The money for those comes from the Federal Communications Commission Emergency Connectivity Fund set up to help local school districts "close the Homework Gap" for students lacking Internet access or devices to connect to virtual classrooms.

The Interactive Trutouch panels for teachers will replace 1,445 failing or obsolete SmartBoards and provide devices for 380 classrooms that currently lack such "presentation technology." The money for those comes from Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding authorized by Congress.



SSS runner finishes
3rd in state 3A meet,
sets school record

Last Saturday, senior Alex Topoly of Smithfield-Selma High School took 3rd place in the 1,000-meter run at the 3A Indoor Track State Championships in Winston-Salem.
His time of 2 minutes and 38.72 seconds was a new school record.
Alex also excels in academics: He's on the school's latest Principal's List.

(SSS Facebook photo)


A Literary and Historical Journal about Johnston

The Johnston County Heritage Center has released its first Literary and Historical Journal – a collection of poems, short stories, and essays by a diverse selection of local writers.

The hardcover book is dedicated to the late Margaret Maron, acclaimed author and Heritage Center patron who was honored with the North Carolina Award for Literature in 2008, named Grand Master by Mystery Writers of America for lifetime achievement in 2013, and inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame in 2016. She passed away in 2021.

As the back cover states, this collection of short literary pieces "celebrates a fast-growing rural county in central North Carolina whose history dates back to colonial times."

The writings represent the perspective of those with deep family roots – like Johnston County native and former North Carolina Poet Laureate Shelby Stephenson. They also represent newcomers like Evelyn Wool – author, artist, and farmer who moved with her husband Robert from Connecticut to Pine Level in 2014 to embrace the slow-paced “JoCo” way of life – sometimes enthusiastically, sometimes reluctantly.

The book’s 164 pages feature poems by Oakley Dean Baldwin, Teresa McLamb Blackmon, Cindy Brookshire, Cornell Cox, Carolyn Grantham Ennis, Nell M. Evans, Dorothy La Motta, Shelby Stephenson, and Lasa Sanders-Williams.

Contributors of short stories and essays are Joe Austin, Cindy Brookshire, Dale Coats, Cornell Cox, Mary Nell Lee Ferguson, Kelley Stone Garris, K. Todd Johnson, Dorothy La Motta, Margaret Maron, Gordon McLamb, Gary Ridout, Vicki Poole Sherwood, Jake Stephenson, Sherwood Williford, and Evelyn Wool.

The book, produced with financial assistance from the Cynthia DeFord Adams Fund, was edited by Dorothy La Motta and Heritage Center Director Todd Johnson.

The Johnston County Literary and Historical Journal, Volume 1 is a fund-raiser for The Heritage Center, priced at $30, and is available at the center’s gift shop at 241 East Market Street in Downtown Smithfield 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday. The book can be ordered online at

Heritage Center story & photo

"Trusted by families since 1977"
840 S. Bright Leaf Blvd. • 919-934-7164 •



Black History program to salute health-care professionals

The Black History Committee of the Johnston County Heritage Commission will honor local African-American health-care professionals through a virtual program next Thursday (Feb. 24), beginning at 7 p.m. on the Heritage Center’s YouTube channel (and available for viewing later). Dr. Marilyn Pearson, Johnston County’s public-health director, will be the keynote speaker. Smithfield native Lucille Raiford Jones (right) of Bronx, N.Y. will receive special recognition as one of the first African-American nurses at Johnston Memorial Hospital when it opened in 1951.

Commissioners get "State of the County" report Monday

County Commissioners' Chairman Butch Lawter will present the annual State of the County Address at Monday's meeting of the board, scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. at the Courthouse in Smithfield. Also on the agenda are two grant requests requiring the board's approval: $730,000 from the state's Motorsports Relief Fund for GALOT Motorsports and $120,000 from the state for development of a countywide trails and greenways plan. The full agenda is posted on the county's website>

Land Use Plan public forums next Wednesday & Thursday

The Johnston County Planning Department will seek public feedback on revisions to the county's Comprehensive Land Use Plan at two locations next week: Johnston Community College in Smithfield on Wednesday (Feb. 23) and The Clayton Center in Downtown Clayton on Thursday (Feb. 24). The "drop-in style" sessions are scheduled from 6 to 8 p.m. both days.


Click on the name to read an obituary, usually posted by the funeral home

BILLY RAY HINES, 65 – died February 14

SHERLOCK HOLDER, 91 – died February 14

ANNA MAE WILLIAMS GRAHAM, 85 – died February 13

JACKLYN SELBY ALLEN, 74 – died February 12


RAYVON HAYES, 64 – died February 12

VIRGINIA McCURLEY WILLIAMS, 91 – died February 12

RONNIE DURWOOD LANGSTON SR., 72 – died February 10

SALLY CAMPBELL REGISTER, 75 – died February 10

ROSA LEE EVERETTE MARBLEY, 92 – died February 9

RACHEL LEE WOODARD, 87 – died February 9



Will masks off in school turn COVID back on?

With face masks about to become optional in Johnston's public schools, in a county with barely half the population vaccinated against COVID-19, how shall students and teachers and staff most vulnerable to infection protect themselves from now on?

Of course, they're still be able to "mask up" if they so choose. And if they're not yet vaccinated, there's still plenty of opportunity to get the free COVID shots.

The question is: Will that be enough to prevent mass outbreaks that could send many of Johnston's students back to remote learning at home?

We were wondering how many teachers and staff have been vaccinated. Since there's no vaccination mandate for school employees, Johnston's school system does not keep track of how many of them have been vaccinated, we were told.

In other words, our schools are headed into uncharted waters. For that matter, so are the rest of us who move about among so many folks refusing to take the shots.

One of those glorious Holt Lake sunsets

The late Julia Elsee, in an interview with Gary Ridout some years ago, said one of the reasons she was able to convince her husband Walter to move from town to a new home at Holt Lake was to admire "the most beautiful sunsets you will ever see." Here's one of those gems, photographed on Tuesday near the Elsee residence on Country Club Road. The days are getting longer as we move closer to Spring. Tuesday's sunset, according to the Old Farmer's Almanac, took place at 5:55 p.m.

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