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Gov. Wolf announces intention to remove K-12 mask mandate in January

HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Wolf has indicated a possible end date for Pennsylvania’s K-12 school mask mandate, which took effect Sept. 7.

According to a press release put out Monday by Gov. Wolf’s office, it is the “intention to return the commonwealth’s K-12 school mask requirement to local leaders on January 17, 2022.”

Wolf himself is quoted as saying that “we are in a different place than we were in September, and it is time to prepare for a transition back to a more normal setting.”

The press release went on to say that the mandate will remain in effect until mid-January, “at which time the administration anticipates local K-12 school officials will again be able to implement mitigation efforts at the local level.”

The mask mandate has been a point of contention for many parents and residents in the local school districts — especially Athens — with several choosing to take their concerns and frustrations to the school board meetings every month.

Athens Superintendent Craig Stage indicated that he is hesitant to take the governor’s announcement at face value, and he expressed some concern over some of the language used.

“He told us it was going to be our choice in August and then put the mask order in place,” said Stage. “I feel like there’s some language in there, it says anticipated, which gives me some time for pause.”

In a statement released by the Pennsylvania House Republican Caucus, Spokesperson Jason Gottesman shared similar concerns regarding the governor’s reliability.

“Back in May, Gov. Wolf told us when Pennsylvania reached a 70 percent vaccination rate, statewide mask mandates would be over,” said Gottesman. “He failed to live up to his promise in September with his administration’s school mask mandate. Waiting to lift that edict until January — what seems like an arbitrary time in the future — further delays fulfilling that promise.”

This anticipated change is only for K-12 schools, which means early learning programs and child care providers will still be subject to the mandate.

In a note to school districts, Education Secretary Noe Ortega said Monday his department will provide “clarifying guidance” in the coming weeks.

Two pending lawsuits assert the Wolf administration had no legal right to impose the mask mandate. The plaintiffs — among them the top leader of the state Senate, President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre — include parents who contend that masks interfere with their children’s breathing and cause other problems. Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court heard arguments in the suits last month but has yet to rule.

Despite many Republican state lawmakers being opposed to the mask mandate, the GOP-majority Legislature has not approved legislation to overturn it.

A major teachers union, AFT Pennsylvania, said it was concerned that most districts would quickly abandon masking. Although highly populous school districts like Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Allentown had intended to require students to wear masks when the statewide order came down in August, they were among a small minority.

“We are so close to being out of the woods; sending the decision back to irresponsible, politically motivated school boards will only further lengthen this pandemic and put our kids and educators and their families at risk,” said Arthur G. Steinberg, president of AFT Pennsylvania.

But the state’s largest school employees’ union, the Pennsylvania School Employees Association, said Wolf’s announcement was consistent with its view that districts should follow the advice of medical experts. PSEA spokesperson Chris Lilienthal said “it makes sense to start planning for a return to greater normalcy,” given recent declines in COVID-19 cases among school-aged children and the availability of vaccines.

Editor’s Note: Mark Scolforo, Marc Levy and Michael Rubinkam of the Associated Press contributed to this story.

Valley Fireworks Task Force lays out plans

SOUTH WAVERLY — The Valley Fireworks Task Force developed a plan of action for the coming months during its November meeting last week.

Representatives from Sayre Borough, Athens Borough, Athens Township and South Waverly Borough are working to create a common ordinance among the four municipalities that would address disturbances caused by fireworks in those communities.

The task force agreed to approach the solicitors of their respective municipalities and encourage them to begin drafting the common ordinance.

The task force will also be watching two bills in the state legislature while the local ordinance is in the process of being written.

Once it is drafted, there may be concerns as to whether or not it can become law.

In 2017, the state legislature passed a bill that relaxed fireworks restrictions in Pennsylvania, but several bills regarding fireworks have recently been drafted by the legislature.

House Bill 1628 is currently a bill in committee, and would rescind the 2017 bill altogether.

However, that bill may not get out of committee, according to task force member Ralph Meyer.

House Bill 988 is also currently in committee, and Meyer said it will likely make the floor.

That bill would allow municipalities to create their own legislation on the use of fireworks by residents.

The task force plans to draft a resolution promoting both bills and pass it on to State Representative Tina Pickett and State Senator Gene Yaw.

While awaiting possible legislative action, the task force also agreed it would be important to educate residents on the dangers and problems created by fireworks, especially among elementary students.

Member Marge Ross agreed to reach out and gauge interest in a program.

Additionally, members discussed the idea of attaching a letter regarding the impacts of fireworks on the community to the sewer bills issued by the municipalities in the months leading up to the Fourth of July.

South Waverly began doing that this past summer.

The task force will meet again at a date to be announced later after the members reach out to their respective municipalities regarding the common ordinance.

State officials push pediatric vaccine as new COVID cases continue growing locally (free to read)

Number of new COVID cases in Bradford County has continued an upward trend week to week, according to the latest COVID-19 Dashboard data from the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

In the week leading up to Friday’s reporting, the Department of Health said Bradford County had 186 new confirmed COVID-19 cases. There were 126 new confirmed cases the week prior, and 91 confirmed cases two weeks before. The department also reported 10 additional COVID-19 related deaths from over the past three weeks, with one of those deaths over the past week.

There also appears to be more new cases among children lately. The Department of Health reported that between Oct. 27 to Nov. 2, there were 16 new confirmed COVID-19 cases among children 0 to 4 years old, and 50 among those between 5 and 18 years old. Going back to between Oct. 13 to Oct. 19, there were seven cases among those 0 to 4 and 32 among those 5-18.

The Department of Health noted that statewide, COVID-19 cases among school-aged children is nearly three times greater than in 2020.

Earlier this week, Pfizer’s pediatric vaccine received emergency use authorization from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help protect children ages 5 through 11 from COVID-19.

Pennsylvania Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics President Dr. Trude Haecker noted that children make up one quarter of COVID-19 patients.

“It is exciting to see parents lining up to get their children vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus that caused this pandemic,” Acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam said at a news conference held in Scranton on Thursday.

Beam expected 414,000 doses of the vaccine to be distributed to providers throughout the state by the end of the week, with additional deliveries to be ramped up by the CDC in the coming weeks.

“The vaccine for children ages 5 through 11 is a big step toward moving past the pandemic,” Beam said. “To fellow parents I say: If you have a child between 5 and 11, get them vaccinated and give your child the power to safely learn, play and be a kid.”

In Bradford County, 21,146 Bradford County residents have been fully vaccinated against the virus.

As of midnight Thursday, there were 35 COVID-19 patients hospitalized in Bradford County with six patients in the ICU and on ventilators.

According to the DOH’s COVID-19 Early Warning Monitoring System Dashboard, average daily hospitalizations due to COVID-19 increased from 33.9 between Oct. 20 and Oct .29 to 37.4 between Oct. 29 and Nov. 4. The average number of COVID-19 patients requiring ventilators went from 5.3 to 6.3 between these two time periods, while the percentage of emergency room visits made up of COVID-19 patients went from 1.6% to 2.9%.

The Sayre Elks Lodge held a pop-up food pantry with Child Hunger Outreach Partners on Monday evening. The event allowed families to drive through the Elks parking lot and pick up boxes of food. The local Elks lodge also made a $2,000 donation to CHOP to help with the organization’s efforts to help feed local families throughout the year. Pictured above, from left, are Sayre Elks member Mary Gowan, Sayre Elks Trustee Kyle Bennett, Sayre Elks member Sherrie Cole, Sayre Elks Past Exalted Ruler Donna Shipman and Sayre Elks Esteemed Leading Knight Pat McDonald.

Gubernatorial candidate William McSwain visits Bradford County

TOWANDA BOROUGH — A gubernatorial candidate made his way to Bradford County on Friday to hear some local concerns.

Republican candidate William McSwain met with Bradford County Commissioner Daryl Miller at the Bradford County Courthouse to discuss topics like the local energy industry and employment in the region.

“There are thousands of people who rely on the energy industry and natural gas production here, so I want to be a pro-energy governor,” he said.

McSwain plans on visiting all 67 counties in Pennsylvania for his campaign and is concerned with residents leaving the commonwealth for other states, which he wants to changed by creating more job opportunities.

“Populations follow the jobs, so we need to bring jobs to Pennsylvania and make it into a destination, not a place to leave,” he said. “We want to have a Pennsylvania where families stay and businesses come here and provide jobs and we take advantage of our energy resources.”

McSwain said he is a family man who loves spending time with his four children and wife, Stephanie of 25 years, whom he met in the 4th grade.

“I love my family and I want my kids to have opportunities where they can stay in Pennsylvania and don’t feel like they have to go elsewhere to pursue a career,” he said.

McSwain is a former U.S. Marine and attorney, who later became a prosecutor and was appointed by President Donald Trump to served as the U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

He described himself as a conservative outsider who has never run for public office before and that he’s not a career politician who views his position as steps on a ladder.

“I am focused on what Pennsylvanians need, instead of my own career or advancements,” he said. “The three issues that I care the most about are good jobs, good schools and safe neighborhoods.”

For good schools, he wants to provide educational opportunities to all Pennsylvanians because he said that he’s grateful for his own education as a native of Chester County.

“We also need to get our economy moving by supporting small businesses, instead of destroying them, which is what Gov. Wolf did during the pandemic,” he said.

He said public safety is what he spent his professional life advocating for in roles as an assistant U.S. attorney, a trial lawyer in the U.S. Attorney’s office in the Eastern District of PA and as a presidentially appointed U.S. attorney.

“We need to stand up for law abiding citizens and that starts with supporting law enforcement,” he said. “When police feel supported, they are proactive in their policing and that’s what protects people.”