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Shamokin Area School District superintendent: Students can attend in-person or remote instruction

COAL TOWNSHIP — The Shamokin Area School District intends to open its buildings for in-person instruction on Monday, Aug. 24, but will give parents the option of having their child participate remotely.

The school board on Thursday adopted its Phased School Reopening Health and Safety Plan, which calls for students to wear masks when unable to maintain 6-feet apart, “self-contained” classrooms at the elementary and middle school levels, and isolation rooms for anyone showing symptoms of the coronavirus.

“Our plan is developed to reduce the level of risk, but does not completely eliminate risks and exposure,” Superintendent Chris Venna stated during a slide show presentation. “Please understand that there are no 100% correct answers with some of the decisions that we must make. But, in every decision, we will continue to do the very best we can to provide the best and safest learning environment for our students and staff.”

The district, Venna stated, will release a survey for parents to decide what option is best for their child. Parents can choose either to send their child to school or have them participate from home. The survey must be completed by Monday, Aug. 3.

Venna said each family will be required to commit to one option by the first of each month, but can change the option on a month-to-month basis.

“We want to work with our families and give the ability to choose what’s best for their child,” Venna stated. “We are here to help. We don’t want to put anyone in harm’s way.”

Online instruction will be synchronous and/or asynchronous. Students would have the ability to log on and view their teacher deliver “live” instruction at certain times of the school day. Virtual attendance would be taken.

Synchronous learning fact sheets are being created for each building. Asynchronous learning fact sheets will also be available for those who cannot participate live, Venna explained.

Students participating from home can borrow Chomebooks from the school, if needed, and pick up breakfast and lunch at their respective school.

Venna cautioned that the district’s plan is a fluid document that is based on local, state and federal guidance that could develop over time.

“The reality of the situation is that we may start the year in one option and be forced to move into another,” he said. “We may have to move onto a total online option, at one point, or move into what people call a ‘hybrid option’ based on guidance from Gov. Tom Wolf and Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE).”

He remarked that the district has been working non-stop and is committed to providing the best and safest learning environment for students and staff.

Staff, students and families will be required to perform self-screenings for possible symptoms prior to entering the school, according to Venna.

Parents have the option, and are encouraged, to transport their child to school. Buses, which would be disinfected before runs, would be occupied by approximately two students per seat. Masks would need to be worn on buses since 6 feet of social distancing cannot be maintained, Venna stated.

Social distancing of at least 6 feet would not occur in most classroom settings, and masks must be worn when 6 feet of social distancing cannot take place. The district will provide washable face coverings for those in need, he added.

When asked by a member of the public if the district has established guidelines on the style of masks students can bring to school, Venna stated the matter has not been fully looked at, but said the topic will be addressed in the near future.

Elementary and middle school classrooms, he continued, would likely be self-contained or have the teacher moving between rooms. Anyone exhibiting symptoms will be required to stay home. Isolation rooms will be designated in each building for anyone having symptoms of the virus.

Additional precautions include one-way direction in hallways, limits on large group gatherings, and sanitizing common areas and classrooms.

Venna said a virtual town hall meeting will be conducted 7 p.m. Tuesday to answer questions about the reopening plan.

“Right now, we feel the plan we have is the best plan we have for our students and families. We obviously feel the students need to be in school with their teachers, as the best way to learn. And, we want to work with our families and give them the ability to choose what’s best for their child,” Venna remarked.

The board also allowed Venna to open school and reinstitute related activities, such as extracurricular sports, when permitted by the state and “consistent with applicable guidance requirements and suggestions.”

In other business, the board accepted the resignation of French teacher Omonyele Ahohuendo. Ahohuendo’s position was recently reduced by the board from full-time to one-quarter time.

The board also accepted the resignation of Kyle Burns, night grounds security; Lauren Swartz, social worker; and Brooke Strausser, special education teacher.

Director Laura Scandle noted she will donate her salary as treasurer back to the district.

A moment of silence was held for 16-year-old student Luke Mirolli, who passed away Monday, and former school board members Solomon Bidding, who passed away June 27, and Phyllis Lippay, who passed away June 29.

Board members also present during the meeting were President Brian Persing, Melissa Hovenstine, Edward Griffiths, Jeff Kashner, Erik Anderson and Rosalie Smoogen. Absent were Bernard Sosnoskie and Charles Shuey.

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Mother Cabrini, OLMC among churches to revise fundraising plans

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected lives worldwide and the coal region is no exception. Church and community organizations that depend on fundraiser dollars are among those hardest hit.

Prior to 2020, any given weekend in July and August usually had a fair, bazaar or block party associated with it, particularly in the coal region.

“Our church picnic is our biggest fundraiser for the entire year. We usually draw crowds of over 1,000,” Jennifer Seidel said of Mother Cabrini Church’s three-day extravaganza over Father’s Day weekend.

This year, however, churches are working to provide the spirit of the party without further endangering anyone’s life.

In order to cut its expenses but still earn the dollars that the fundraiser brings in, Mother Cabrini will hold a “block party” spread out over two Saturdays in August.

First, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Aug. 22, a picnic food sale will be held at the church hall, 214 N. Shamokin St.

“We’ll sell pierogies, pigeons, haluski and hamburgers in the church hall and, in the parking lot, we’ll have a dessert stand, potato cakes and adult slushies — they’re all the rage now,” Seidel said.

The slushie stand is new, she added. “We usually have a whole bar up at the picnic grounds. (This year) one of our parishioners who runs a bar donated his slushie machine to the church” for the event.

To comply with state mandates on mask wearing, social distancing and mass gatherings, volunteers will post walkway directions and conduct crowd control checks.

“Visitors will come in at the front of the property,” Seidel said. “Volunteers will be in place to ensure that no more than 25 people are inside at any one time to pick up food. In the parking lot, a walkway will be set up to facilitate one big flow of traffic.”

In addition, no on-site seating is permitted; only takeout meals will be sold. No bands or performers will be on-site.

“We want to make sure we don’t violate any state guidelines,” she added.

The second part of the event follows the next weekend, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 29, and will replicate the church’s “prizes galore” raffle. People purchase tickets and place them into buckets representing the prize they’d like to win, then one ticket is drawn randomly to win that prize. Winners cannot be present for the drawing but will be notified via a telephone call the following week.

“It’s a great fundraiser for us because everything we raffle off is donated, so there’s no expense associated with that. Because of social distancing, we only had space to do one or the other this year,” Seidel said, explaining why the two events had to be staggered.

But, people who come to purchase food items on Aug. 22 will have an early-bird peek at the prizes since the baskets will be on display as customers stand in the food line in the church basement.

“Last year we had about 70 baskets. Most were themed, but there were some big prizes, like a grill and a 40-inch TV, and also some with cash or gift cards,” she said. “It’s crazy, the amount of stuff that’s donated.”

Between the cash generated from the sales of food and drink and from ticket purchases, the church typically raises $25,000 from the traditional June picnic.

In addition to the cash crunch caused by the loss of collections from parishioners, who still aren’t attending services as frequently as they did before the state shutdown, and the losses expected from community events and fundraisers, church officials still must handle the fact that expenses haven’t decreased. In fact, there are more than usual, Seidel said.

“Contributions are down ... especially since we had the church closed for a while ... but operating expenses are the same,” she said, noting that the building was heated as usual in the spring and is cooled now through the hot summer. “We still are paying the salaries — we were able to preserve all the jobs at the church — and now we also have professional cleaners in twice a week” to meet new standards directly related to coronavirus mandates.

“This is one of those situations when you don’t realize what you had until someone takes it away from you,” Seidel said. “This is our opportunity to come together as the Mother Cabrini Church community and an even bigger part of it is, we’re bringing our community back together.”

Anyone who would like to volunteer for any part of the event may call Seidel directly at 570-898-6462.

Changes also are afoot at Our Lady of Mount Carmel, 47 S. Market St., Mount Carmel.

A meeting was held Tuesday to discuss possible festival and fundraising plans for August or September, but no details have been officially released, the Rev. Frank Karwacki said Thursday night.

“A lot of people showed up (for the meeting) and threw out ideas. We’ll probably make some ethnic foods like potato cakes and bring them out to people at a table outside our hall or wherever else,” he said. “That’s all we have planned right now.”

Last June, the church held its traditional fundraiser the weekend after Father’s Day. Then a two-day affair, the blowout would have blocked off the church parking lot and a section of nearby street — and raised about $36,000 for the church.

“Last year, we would have had about 200 gift baskets with high-quality products, a band playing and, of course, the food is the big thing,” Kawacki said. “It’s really neat. But that’s all on hold now.”

Nevertheless, the parish has “started the ball rolling,” he said, with plans to meet new state rules and still accommodate the community.

A committee will continue to iron out the details and release them when they are finalized.

Other churches and organizations planning new or revised versions of their summer fundraising events include:

• Saint Pauline Foundation summer raffle: Homemade food available for takeout only from noon to 6 p.m. today and from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, July 25 at Saint Pauline Center, 1136 Chestnut St., Kulpmont. Raffle tickets also available for purchase. Park at rear and use rear entrance. Practice social distancing and wear a mask.

• Holy Angels, Kulpmont: Picnic food sale, 4-8 p.m. Friday, July 31 and 2-8 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 1. Takeouts only; menu includes potato cakes, chicken fingers/french fry basket, torpedoes, haluski, Italian sausage, hamburgers, stuffed cabbage, pierogies, pasta fazool. From 4 to 8 p.m. Monday, Aug. 3 through Friday, Aug. 7, basket and money raffle chances will be sold in the activity center and the drawing date for the baskets and money raffle will be Sunday, Aug. 8. A bake and yard sale also will be held. Masks must be worn and social distancing practiced among visitors.

• Himmel’s Church, Rebuck. Country Festival originally planned for Saturday, Aug. 1, has been canceled.

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Cressona man charged with armed robbery of Lavelle Turkey Hill, eight other gas stations

SCHUYLKILL HAVEN — John James Bennett Jr., of Cressona, has been accused of armed robbery at the Turkey Hill in Lavelle and eight additional gas stations in Schuylkill and Berks counties in April.

The 32-year-old was charged Thursday by Trooper Tyler Brackman, of Schuylkill Haven state police, with 55 charges, including felonies of robbery and receiving stolen property, and misdemeanors of terroristic threats and theft by unlawful taking.

Bennett is incarcerated in Schuylkill County Jail in lieu of $500,000 cash bail set by Magisterial District Judge James R. Ferrier.

Bennett is said to have robbed the Mobil Gas Station in Cressona at 4:37 a.m. April 8; Bethel Food Shop in Bethel Township, Berks County, at 8:15 p.m. April 18; Uni-Mart in West Mahanoy Township at 5 p.m. April 20; Turkey Hill in Lavelle at 1:35 a.m. April 21, Mobil Gas Station in Cressona at 9:15 p.m. April 25; Fast Fill in Schuylkill Haven at 4:05 a.m. April 26; Speedway Gas Station in Pine Grove Township at 6:10 a.m. April 26; Auburn Food Mart in West Brunswick Township at 6:55 a.m. April 26; and Power Gas and Food Mart in Strausstown, Berks County, at 12:30 p.m. April 27.

The total monetary amount stolen through the course of these crimes was $4,594.97, according to Brackman.

The defendant is accused of entering the gas stations with his face concealed by a mask and his hood up, brandishing a handgun and demanding cigarettes and cash from the clerks.

Bennett is also accused of leading troopers on a related high-speed chase on April 28, which ended when he struck an unoccupied Pennsylvania State Police vehicle on Panther Valley Road in Schuylkill County. Bennett was taken taken into custody after fleeing on foot.

The vehicle pursuit began when a state trooper attempted to make a traffic stop on a Mercedes Benz that matched the description of the suspect vehicle involved in the robberies.

Bennett is facing 12 charges, including attempting to elude an office, recklessly endangering another person and various traffic citations. He was denied bail in that case after being deemed a flight risk.

Mike Colsten (51) battles underneath his son, Joey Colsten, during a Modified feature at Five Mile Point Speedway. The Hall of Fame driver, lost his battle with Mesothelioma in January and the track will host the "Mike Remembered 51" on Monday night.

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Bill written in response to murdered DOC guard signed by Wolf

HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Wolf on Thursday signed into law House Bill 256, which lowers the threshold that must be met to charge an inmate with a felony for committing assault on a corrections facility employee.

The bill is part of a package of bills, authored by Rep. Carl Walker Metzgar, R-Somerset/Bedford, that will address seven key areas to improve safety for Department of Corrections staff and the public, as well as toughen penalties on prisoners who commit violent offenses against facility employees.

Metzgar said the current language in the crimes code does not sufficiently address the intent of a prisoner who commits violent offenses against detention and correctional facility employees.

“Whether the assault results in ‘serious bodily injury’ or minor cuts and bruises, we have to consider that the intent to harm is present in both cases,” Metzgar stated Thursday. “If a prisoner commits these violent offenses while incarcerated, they are showing that they are still a danger to society and have not been rehabilitated. The resulting sentencing needs to reflect that observation.”

According to Metzgar, between 2015 and December 2018 there were 3,751 instances of inmates assaulting state correction facility staff and 3,364 prisoner-on-prisoner assaults.

“It is clear the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections’ policies have failed to protect the staff and officers that protect us from the state’s most dangerous criminals,” Metzgar stated in a bill memorandum to colleagues. “This clearly shows our fearless correction officers being targeted for attack by these prisoners.”

Northumberland County Sheriff Robert Wolfe, who serves on the prison board, said inmate attacks on county jail staff happen relatively often, as do attacks in correctional facilities throughout the state.

“It’s about time,” Wolfe said of the strengthening of the crimes code. “The penalties for any type of assault on a corrections officer need to be steeper. Chalk one up for the good guys.”

Wolfe hopes the passage of the bill will deter inmates from assaulting jail staff by knowing the consequences are stiffer than they used to be.

Metzgar wrote the legislation in response to the murder of Sgt. Mark Baserman, an employee at SCI-Somerset, who was fatally beaten by inmate Paul Kendrick on Feb. 15, 2018. Baserman died of his injuries on Feb. 26.

Authorities said surveillance footage shows Kendrick striking Baserman in the face then kicking him in the head. The inmate also attacked a second officer who tried to intervene.

Kendrick faces charges of murder, criminal homicide, aggravated assault, assault by a life prisoner and simple assault in connection with the attack that killed the 60-year-old guard.

Somerset County District Attorney Lisa Lazzari-Strasiser previously stated that the death penalty will be sought against the inmate, who is already serving a life sentence for a 2014 Pittsburgh murder.

The bill also provides that any law enforcement officer or correctional facility employee will be charged with a third-degree felony if they engage in any sexual acts with an inmate or detainee.

in April, Metzgar told the House Judiciary Committee that he introduced a package of bills to protect state correctional officers and prison staff.

“Whether an assault is on a staff member of another inmate,” he said, “there needs to be repercussions.”

Metzgar’s bills, all of which are in the House Judiciary Committee, are as follows:

• House Bill 257 would impose a mandatory five-year sentence for those convicted of staff assault, served consecutive to a prior sentence, and a $5,000 fine against the inmate’s commissary account.

• House Bill 258 would place inmates who assault staff on the restricted release list, confining them to the restricted housing unit.

• House Bill 259 would mandate two guards per guard towers armed with autoloading rifles, with a minimum of 500 rounds per rifle per-loaded in magazines.

• House Bill 260 would prohibit inmate access to boots, as this was the weapon used to kill Baserman.

• House Bill 261 would eliminate parole eligibility for inmates convicted of staff assault.

• House Bill 263 would restrict commissary eligibility after a staff assault without a regional deputy secretary’s approval.