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SASD board president takes offense to Facebook comments about students' safety

COAL TOWNSHIP — Shamokin Area School Board President Brian Persing criticized comments made on Facebook regarding the district’s concern for the safety of its students.

Speaking at the end of Tuesday night’s school board meeting, Persing said, “I take offense with the comments made about our kids not being safe in school. The kids are way safer in school than anywhere else and our school board and administrators have done a great job following all the COVID-19 protocols including mandatory mask wearing and social distancing.”

He added, “If one kid developed serious issues with COVID, we would shut down immediately. I’m upset that people claim we don’t care. Our board members, administrators and teachers have kids who attend school in the district. We certainly do care about the safety of the students and the entire staff.”

Persing said he became very upset when one Facebook post asked board members if they were waiting for someone to die before shutting down the schools.

Board member Jeff Kashner agreed with Persing about students being safe in school, but also stressed the importance of following the proper protocols at home to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Superintendent Chris Venna said in-person instruction will continue in the district for the time being, while noting that can change any day as positive coronavirus cases continue to rise in the community and statewide.

“The health and safety of our students are our top priority,” Venna said. “They are as safe in school as anywhere else. We are following all the protocols and the district’s health and safety plan to make our schools as safe as possible. But parents still have the option to have their students receive virtual instruction.”

Venna said the two school buildings are sanitized on a daily basis.

In response to questions from the public regarding the opening of the high school swimming pool, the superintendent said the pool will not be open Friday for the official start of the winter sports season due to COVID-19 issues and higher priority maintenance projects.

Venna said the pool is expected to open in the next few weeks.

He said the Stingrays swim team will not be able to use the pool this season due to COVID-19.

Venna said swimmers and other athletes will be able to use the cardiovascular and weight room equipment at the high school to prepare for the winter sports season. He said a request also will be submitted to Mount Carmel Area School District to use its high school pool.

Venna reported eight more students have opted to enroll in outside cyber schools as of Nov. 13, which is projected to cost taxpayers an additional $87,325.79. He said the projected outside cyber school cost is estimated at $2 million.

The superintendent said cyber school costs are crippling public school budgets and encouraged citizens to reach out to their local legislators to push for cyber-charter school funding reform.

The board will hold its annual reorganization meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 2, at Northumberland County Career and Technology Center.

Directors approved an agreement for health and welfare benefits consulting with Conrad Siegel Actuaries to provide ACA employer reporting for the district for the 2020-21 school year at a cost of $6,400.

The board approved an agreement with North Schuylkill School District to provide Shamokin Area with social work services as needed for the 2020-21 school year, effective Dec. 1, at a cost of $76 per hour.

The board approved an agreement with Televine Therapy to provide Shamokin Area with speech/language PRN virtual/in-person services as needed for the 2020-21 school year, effective Dec. 1, at a cost of $90 per hour.

The board also approved winter sports coaches.

Voting in favor of the agreements and coaches were Persing, Kashner, Ed Griffiths, Melissa Hovenstine, Charles Shuey, Bernie Sosnoskie, Rosalie Smoogen, Erik Anderson and Laura Scandle. Anderson and Scandle participated via teleconference.

At the beginning of the meeting, a moment of silence was held for Gertrude Trego, a longtime secretary in the school district who passed away Oct. 29.

The Southern Columbia Area girls soccer team celebrates after defeating Conwell-Egan in a PIAA Class 1A semifinal game Tuesday night at Tiger Stadium in Franklin Township. Go to Page B1 for story, more photos.

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New Eighth Street cigar store offers customers a place to smoke, relax
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SHAMOKIN — To Mike Snyder, one the most endearing aspects of cigar smoking is the camaraderie.

The 32-year-old Marion Heights man has walked into cigar lounges and spoken with people from all walks of life. Though the talking points have varied, the discussions are grounded on each others enjoyment of the smell of tobacco lingering in the air.

It was the this mutual trust and friendship that inspired Snyder to open Breaker Cigars, 500 E. Eighth St., in what has become known as the “Eighth Street Entertainment District” that includes neighboring Covered Bridge Brewhaus.

“I have sat down (in cigar lounges) not knowing a single person and had hour-long discussions with people,” Snyder said. “Cigars kind of help that. You can all come together because you all like cigars ... all different walks of life blending together.”

Although Breaker Cigars is the not the first place in the area to sell cigars, Snyder said his business is unique because it also offers customers a place to relax.

It has lounge and outdoor seating, which are located just a few feet away from two humidors filled with a wide selection of premium cigars, such as Ashton, CAO, Perdomo and Macanudo.

“I have a lot of friends from the area who do smoke cigars,” he said. “They wanted a place where they can sit and relax, and maybe have some drinks in a conformable setting. That was my goal, to have a shop where people could come and relax, regardless if you are buying the expensive stuff or cheap stuff.”

Snyder’s interest in cigar smoking did not start overnight, but, instead, grew out of a graphic design job for an online cigar catalog company and a broader curiosity to try different cigars that come in a virtually limitless number of different shapes and sizes.

Like drinking a fine whiskey for the first time, Snyder latched onto ACID Kuba Kuba and so began a journey to locate the best cigars on the market.

“I always wanted to do my own business and had some things on the side, nothing crazy. This space was available and it worked out,” Snyder said of the business, which opened in June.

Snyder said he and Eric Kuijpers, owner of Covered Bridge Brewhaus, work well together, adding that although alcohol and smoking often go hand-in-hand, patrons of Breaker Cigars do not get the sense that they are in a bar.

Breaker Cigars offers mild to very dark full-body sticks. Specialty cigars from Limited Cigar Association, a group formed to revitalize “mom and pop” brick and mortar stores, are also available.

“What makes a good cigar: something that you enjoy,” Snyder simply stated about a good smoking experience.

Breaker Cigars is open 5 to 11 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; and 2 to 11 p.m. Saturdays. Snyder hopes to expand hours following Thanksgiving, but he expressed some uncertainly because of the pandemic.

Regardless, apparel, eGift cards and requests for cigars can be made online by visiting the business on Facebook or at Breakercigars.com.


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Levine: Mask up — indoors or outdoors

Appealing to common sense and unity, state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine urged Pennsylvanians Tuesday to obey new directives that will become effective Friday and are aimed at combatting the spread of COVID-19.

Mask-wearing now is always required, indoors or outdoors.

“We wear masks whenever we are around other people,” Levine said. “Wearing a mask is really one of the simplest steps that we all can take to slow the spread of COVID-19.”

When indoors, she said, masks will be required anytime anyone is with someone who is not a member of their household – even if people are socially distant.

“This applies to every indoor facility – schools, gyms, doctors’ offices, public transportation, anywhere food is prepared, packaged or served,” she said. “And this applies if you have people in your home who are not part of your household.”

Levine insisted the directives are mandatory.

“They are requirements … the masking order, that is a requirement. That is an order from the secretary of health,” she said. “We absolutely are ordering people to wear masks, in really all settings.

But when asked about the ability to enforce the directive, Levine was vague.

It’s the businesses’ responsibility to enforce masking orders, she said, while it’s the responsibility of each individual to take steps to prevent the spread of infection on their own.

“Right now, that means following these orders and guidance. In the end, it will come down to the actions of each and every one of us and whether we do that.

“We really expect and anticipate that the public will come together and we will stand united to be able to stop the spread of COVID-19,” Levine said. “Each one of us, taking our responsibility for the common good of everyone in Pennsylvania. And, if we all do our part and we stand united, we might not need any further mitigation.”

Levine said the state does not plan to enforce any of the new directives, one of which affects travel into Pennsylvania.

Anyone who enters the state will be asked to undergo testing for the virus and receive a negative test result within 72 hours prior to their arrival. Without such a test result, quarantine will be required for 14 days, or until a negative result is obtained.

“These measures are extremely similar to what other states are doing,” Levine said. “We really want people to stay at home, and not to travel.”

The requirement does not apply to people who commute to or from the state for daily work or for medical treatment, she said.

Other states have the same issues with enforcing rules similar to these.

“I actually do have the authority, as secretary of health, to enforce isolation and quarantines. We’re not looking to take people to court. We cannot check every car driving into Pennsylvania and we have no plans to check everybody coming off every airplane in Pennsylvania, (but) we expect people to comply,” Levine said. “We must stand united in stopping COVID-19.”

Quoting from a just-released White House report on COVID-19, she said, “There is now aggressive, unrelenting, expanding broad community spread across the country, reaching most counties, without evidence of improvement but rather further deterioration. Current mitigation efforts are inadequate and must be increased to flatten the curve to sustain the health system for both COVID and non-COVID emergencies.”

When asked at what point the state leadership would consider shutting down Pennsylvania, as happened earlier this year, Levine said she could not predict the future “in terms of what might exist.”

“COVID-19 is burning throughout our country. Every single state is being impacted,” she said.

In addition to the “strengthened” mask wearing protocols and the entry restrictions, the state has initiated dialogues with CEOs and leaders of hospitals, health care systems, colleges and universities to ensure all of those facilities have established plans to deal with what is expected to be a surge in COVID-positive cases as the winter progresses.

“In Pennsylvania, we continue to see the number of new COVID-19 cases rising; our percent positivity, rising; our hospitalizations, rising; as well as the number of Pennsylvanians critically ill due to COVID-19 in intensive care units,” Levine said.

She quoted predictions from the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation, of the University of Washington: “Pennsylvania will run out of intensive-care beds in December.”

The availability of “medical-surgical” beds might not be consistent in all regions of the state, the projections suggest, which will affect the number of patients able to get access to health care.

Levine said her “expectations for acute care hospitals” include working collaboratively … “to review and prepare now how they will support one another should (they) become overwhelmed.”

“I think we have a very coherent plan,” she added. “We still have mitigation orders in effect, in terms of restaurant capacity, indoors, and gatherings.

“There are three ways to deal with the pandemic. You can work to contain it through testing and contact tracing, isolation and quarantine. You can work to mitigate its spread, which is what we’re doing now, and then … it looks very promising about the development of a vaccine, but that’s not going to happen overnight,” Levine said.

In discussing the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday — which traditionally is travel-intensive for the entire country — Levine asked state residents to think of others and stay home.

We don’t want people to be traveling to our state for the holidays,” she said. “Stay at home. Visit remotely. I understand that that is a tremendous sacrifice. But this is the biggest public health crisis that we have seen in 102 years.”

To date, 9,355 people have died in Pennsylvania as a result of the virus, she said, and projections suggest that number could increase to 12,000 by January and 18,000 by March.

“COVID-19 is not just an urban issue,” Levine said.

On Tuesday, the state Department of Health announced that 54 new cases of COVID were reported in Northumberland County, contributing to the statewide total of 5,900 for the most recent 24-hour period.

The total cases to date in Pennsylvania is 275,513.

One new death was reported in Northumberland County; the total figure is 119.

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City seeks $500K grant to help low-income homeowners with house repairs

SHAMOKIN — Work is underway to bring up to $500,000 in cash grants to income-eligible homeowners in the city, all for the express purpose of fixing up their homes.

“We’re very hopeful,” Shamokin Mayor John Brown said Monday when asked about the potential that the Federal HOME Program could deliver as much as $65,000 per low- to moderate-income applicant.

Eligible repairs include structural, roofing, plumbing, electrical, heating or furnace, window replacement, radon and lead-based paint mitigation, and energy-related improvements. Also included are modifications for mobility-impaired residents.

Originally, the plan was to apply for the grant in the fall of 2019 so that funding could potentially be available by this spring. The COVID-19 pandemic delayed that.

Now, the city and Teri Provost, director of SEDA-Council of Governments’ Housing Rehabilitation program, are working to finalize the application. Their next step is to hold a public hearing next week, followed by a comment period, and then submit the application by Dec. 15.

If the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development deems the application worthy, funds could be released to SEDA-COG as early as the spring of 2021.

“There’s no real downside of applying for these funds. It’s a really, really good program,” said Betsy Kramer, revitalization coordinator with SEDA-COG. “It’s to bring your home up to code, and there’s no cost to the homeowner.”

Since plans to apply for the grant were previously announced, more than 100 homeowners have applied and 62 qualified for it, Kramer said. Those 62 are on a list that SEDA-COG holds, which prevents duplicate lists and fraudulent additions.

There still is room, and time, for homeowners to apply for a portion of the funding, though. Funds will be distributed on a basis similar to first come, first served.

The grant will be administered by SEDA-COG, which would contact the first person on the list and make sure that the applicant and the house still meet the criteria to participate.

That criteria includes:

• Owning the home or having “life rights” to live in it;

• Meeting income qualifications based on household size;

• Being current on local taxes and municipal utility bills;

• Planning to live in the home for at least an additional five years.

Income eligibility limits are $35,400 for a household size of one; $40,450 for a household of two; $45,500, three; $50,550, four; $54,600, five; $58,650, six; $62,700, seven; and $66,750, eight.

If the house is in a flood zone, the applicant must pay for flood insurance on it.

“The other big thing is you need to hold onto the property for a minimum of five years,” Kramer said, adding that a grant recipient who is forced to sell their home within that timeframe will have to pay back a portion of the money that was spent on the rehabilitation.

“That’s so we don’t get people in there flipping houses,” she said, referring to individuals who buy houses typically for a low sum, renovate them and then put them on the market to gain a substantial profit.

Once all the requirements have been met, SEDA-COG will arrange for a house inspection and make use of local contractors to do the updates.

“Teri has actually vetted local companies,” Kramer said, “so it’s a win-win for the city.”

The last time the program distributed funds to people in Shamokin was about 15 years ago, Brown noted.

Funds, Brown said, aren’t awarded exclusively for one particular item that a homeowner needs.

“If you need a new roof, they won’t just put a new roof on,” he said. “They’ll look at your electric system too and bring everything up to code.”

Anyone who applies and is accepted into the program remains on the list and does not have to reapply in any subsequent years, Kramer said.

The city, though, will have to reapply for the grant for each year that it wants to participate.

Kramer expects that one year of the grant will provide enough funding to rehabilitate nine or 10 homes.

“I’d still encourage you to apply and get your name put on the list,” she said.

“This is just another level of service you can receive with SEDA-COG,” Kramer said.

“Homeowners can go through the process hassle-free with SEDA-COG managing it from start to finish,” Provost added. “We make the process easy for the homeowner and manage it from start to finish.”

For more information or to submit a home for application into the program, contact Provost at SEDA-COG, 201 Furnace Road, Lewisburg 17837, or by telephone at 1-800-326-9310, ext. 7253.

For details on other programs that SEDA-COG offers to businesses, individuals and communities, go to https://seda-cog.org.

Multiple vehicles burn Monday night at a junkyard along Route 61 in Upper Augusta Township. Upward of 10 vehicles caught fire at the property, owned by Robert Gilligbauer, of Shamokin.