2021 Nanticoke News - Current

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Nalepa sworn in to Nanticoke council

Bob Kalinowski - Citizens Voice

Nanticoke City has a new councilman.

City council recently appointed Joseph Nalepa to fill the seat of the late John Pietrzyk, who died Jan. 2.

Nalepa was sworn in Thursday by Magisterial District Judge Donald Whittaker.

Nalepa, 51, is a Coast Guard veteran who served 17 years in the Pennsylvania State Police.

“I would like to thank the members of council and the mayor for this opportunity to represent the city,” Nalepa said. “I look forward to working on the future endeavors of the city to make it a better place for all citizens.


Area mayors discuss pandemic relief with Cartwright

Help could be on the way for Wilkes-Barre and other municipalities in Northeastern Pennsylvania struggling financially through the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic.
Mayors from Luzerne and Lackawanna counties held a virtual meeting with U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Moosic, to discuss the effects of the pandemic on their cities.
Cartwright expressed optimism relief would be forthcoming through President-elect Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Package. It includes $350 billion to state and local governments with budget shortfalls from revenue losses jeopardizing public services residents take for granted.
“They’re all at risk unless the federal government steps in,” Cartwright said.
Mayors George Brown of Wilkes-Barre, Paige Cognetti of Scranton, Kevin Coughlin of Nanticoke and Jeff Cusat of Hazleton participated in the hour-long discussion. Each one had the opportunity to highlight their particular concerns.
Brown brought up the city’s revenue loss, estimated to be between $3 million and $4 million for 2020 due to lower tax collections from businesses and the construction projects put on hold.
“He gets the message. He understands what municipalities are going through,” Brown said of Cartwright whose congressional district includes Wilkes-Barre.
Cartwright, who was reelected last year to his fifth term, added Brown raised a good point about how the proposed assistance would be delivered and whether there will be a population threshold requirement for direct aid, cities of 400,000 for example.
“I indicated the more we get directly to the cities, the happier I am,” Cartwright said.
The congressman said he “will be pushing hard to get the administration to make that number low” for direct grants rather than having the state distribute the funds.
The mayors began meeting regularly last year with the aim of sharing best practices to deal with issues common to their cities and speaking in a unified voice to state and federal lawmakers. Pittston Mayor Michael Lombardo was unable to attend Friday’s meeting.
Cartwright asked if the group could be expanded to include mayors from Honesdale, Hawley, Milford and other municipalities in his district.
“We’re happy to do that,” Brown said. “We’re looking at, as I said Mr. Cartwright, power in numbers.”


Hanover Area, Greater Nanticoke Area schedule return of in-person classes 
Michael P. Buffer – Citizens Voice

Hanover Area and Greater Nanticoke Area school districts are moving ahead with plans for in-person learning to return.
Both districts suspended in-person classes and transitioned to fully remote instruction after a surge of COVID-19 cases hit Luzerne County in October.
Greater Nanticoke Area on Feb. 1 will return to a hybrid schedule that mixes online and in-person instruction days for two groups of students at the Kennedy Early Childhood Center and Elementary Center, Superintendent Ronald Grevera said Thursday during a virtual school board meeting. The district will also start providing in-person learning on Feb. 1 for life-skills and autistic-support classes.
“The Educational Center and the high school will remain closed until further notice,” Grevera said. “They will continue in the virtual format.”

Hanover Area will start providing in-person instruction Feb. 16 for its highest need students, for autistic-support classrooms, emotional-support classrooms and life-skills classrooms, Superintendent Nathan Barrett said Thursday during a virtual community meeting.
On March 1, Hanover Area plans to return to a hybrid schedule that mixes online and in-person instruction days for elementary school students, starting with kindergarten.
“And then we’ll take that week by week, and we will continually on a week-by-week basis add another layer of students,” Barrett said, adding he wants to bring back in-person classes “slow and methodically” in order “to see if we remain healthy.”
In-person learning could return for Hanover Area High School students when COVID-19 transmission moves back into the moderate range, Barrett said.
The state had recommended all-virtual learning for schools in counties with substantial COVID-19 transmission for two consecutive weeks. But last week, the state changed its guidance to approve of in-person instruction for elementary-school students in counties with substantial transmission when the second semester starts Jan. 25.
The state guidance is not a mandate. A county has substantial transmission when the test positivity rate is at least 10% or the COVID-19 incidence rate is at least 100 cases per 100,000 residents over seven days.
Test positivity was 15.3% from Jan. 1 through Thursday in Luzerne County, down from 16.4%. The county incidence rate was 375.8 cases per 100,000 residents, down from 457.4.
Luzerne County moved from moderate to substantial transmission on Oct. 23. The incidence rate was 138.8 from Oct. 30 to Nov. 5 in Luzerne County, and test positivity was 7.9% then.


New Nanticoke/West Nanticoke Bridge needed to unlock development, legislator says
Jennifer Learn-Andes jandes@timesleader.com

A new Nanticoke/West Nanticoke Bridge over the Susquehanna River will be necessary to open up thousands of acres in Nanticoke and Newport Township for new industrial development, said state Sen. John Yudichak.
“We know that’s going to be a tall order,” he said of the estimated $35 million to $40 million funding required for the project. “If we’re going to bring in industry and attract more jobs, we’re going to need a new bridge.”
He said it’s the same business model followed in the South Valley Parkway roadway project, which cost $90 million and provided direct Interstate 81 access to tracts that now house distribution facilities for Chewy.com, Adidas, Patagonia Inc., True Value and others collectively employing more than 4,000.
Privately funded construction along the South Valley Parkway is nearing a billion dollars, said Yudichak, I-Swoyersville.
“I’d say that’s a good return on the investment, and the next big infrastructure on the horizon to continue this great economic progress is the West Nanticoke Bridge,” said Yudichak, who has started discussing the plan with officials at all government levels. “It will get done.”
The estimated 5,000-acre swath he expects to attract thousands more jobs includes the 400-acre Whitney Point Industrial Park and also property owned by the nonprofit Earth Conservancy, he said. Some is abandoned coal mine land that must be reclaimed.
While there has been “very little activity” in the industrial park, he expects that to change now that other land closer to I-81 has been developed.
As possible proof of the site’s potential, Yudichak said he is “encouraged” that a few companies are evaluating the Newport/Nanticoke land for possible projects.
These companies have all indicated an upgraded bridge is “very important” as an access point for increased truck traffic, he said, declining to identify the interested companies due to non-disclosure agreements.
He described the site as the last large-scale industrial development area remaining on “the floor of the Wyoming Valley” with rail access.
Approximately $1 million was secured several years ago to bring rail access to the Whitney Point park, he said. A railroad spur was added off the Norfolk Southern main line that runs through Newport Township and Nanticoke, he said.
Last month, Gov. Tom Wolf awarded a $1.5 million state Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program grant for infrastructure upgrades and reclamation work at Whitney Point to help attract new industry, Yudichak said.
He credited Wolf for fulfilling a commitment to invest in rebuilding of the Newport Township area following the state’s closing of the State Correctional Institution at Retreat last June, which had 400 workers and was the township’s largest employer.
A portion of the newly state-awarded $1.5 million may be used to expand rail at the industrial park along a former coal rail bed that still exists, Yudichak said. The spur is operational but does not fully extend into the park, he said.
“The strength of the site is rail service,” he said. “That’s a very attractive feature for such a large tract of land that also is very close to Interstate 81.”
Buying time
As Yudichak works with others to seek funding for a new bridge, the existing county-owned span needs work.
Based on various issues found in an inspection, the bridge was downgraded to a 15-ton weight limit in May by the county and Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.
County Engineer Lawrence Plesh has stressed the bridge meets safety requirements, but he cautioned additional weight limits may be necessary at some point if rehabilitation work is not completed.
The problem: the lowest cost for this rehabilitation is $2.67 million based on bids submitted by four companies in October.
Without an additional funding source, Plesh said the county won’t have enough money saved to complete this work for a year or two. And spending all that saved-up money on one span would prevent the county from addressing work needed on others in the county’s inventory of 300 bridges, he said.
The weight limit on the Nanticoke/West Nanticoke Bridge was partially necessary because bridge components known as bearings are not fully “moving with the bridge” to help it expand and contract as vehicles cross, which puts more stress on other components, Plesh said.
In addition, some of the pins that secure eye bars no longer meet the original design capacity due to rust and other conditions, he said. These pins must withstand force and cannot reach the stage where they snap, he said.
The rehabilitation would fix strip seals on top of the bearings and replace some of the worn pins, he said.
The problems with the 2,072-foot bridge, which links Nanticoke and Plymouth Township, were discovered during a state grant-funded study of the structure to identify needed rehabilitation work, he said.
Yudichak said he is working with the state transportation department and county officials on funding options and a plan to keep the bridge safe and operational as a replacement bridge is pursued.
The low bidder for the rehabilitation project has agreed to hold its bid until March, Plesh said.
Plesh said this project will only repair the bridge so it can remain at a 15-ton limit.
“It’s slowly deteriorating, and every season takes a little out of it,” Plesh said. “If we do absolutely nothing, the bridge will eventually be closed. If we do the rehab, maybe it can stay at 15 tons for 10 years instead of four or five.”
County Manager C. David Pedri said he is actively working to develop the best plan focusing on public safety and cost and emphasized county council must be involved.
“If there’s a way we can partner with the state to fix and keep the current bridge open and support new future growth, we’re interested in discussing it,” Pedri said.


Local superintendents approach new state recommendations with caution
Mark Guydish - Times Leader

The state announced revised guidance for school districts that, theoretically, could mean some students will return to in-person lessons soon, but local superintendents reacted with some caution.

Previous guidance suggested districts in counties deemed by the state as at “substantial” risk of COVID-19 use remote-only learning. The new guidance suggests districts in substantial counties can consider hybrid learning — some students learning in schools while others learn online — for elementary school students. The state still recommends remote-only learning for middle schools and high schools.

Superintendents of local districts that are currently in remote-only mode said the change will be reviewed carefully, but that won’t be the only factor in weighing when students get back in their classrooms.

Wilkes-Barre Area Superintendent Brian Costello recently announced the district will stay in remote-only mode at least to the end of January. After the new guidance was announced Thursday, Costello said via email that decision still stands.

Noting the new recommendations were made “to encourage schools to consider returning some students to in-person instruction as local conditions permit,” Costello said the change “allows us to resume in-person instruction for elementary and other specific student groups starting February 1st,” depending on status of the pandemic at the time. “We will be providing more information for our district stakeholders over the next two weeks.”

Pittston Area Superintendent Kevin Booth pointed out that the new guidance don’t officially take effect until the second semester — Jan. 25, according to the state announcement — and that for his district the new semester starts February 1. “There will be several discussions between now and then,” he wrote.

Like Wilkes-Barre Area, Booth had previously announced Pittston Area would likely remain in remote-only mode through January.

Wyoming Area School Board had voted to remain in remote-only mode until at least Jan. 19th. Asked if the new guidance would change plans, Superintendent Janet Serino replied via email.

“I will be meeting with our board in an executive session to discuss the January 19th return date. There are current considerations that must be discussed to determine whether that date will remain or change. Even though state guidance is to be considered, every district is different and must assess what is best for all involved.”

Like Wyoming Area, Greater Nanticoke Area had announced the district will remain in remote-only mode until at least Jan. 19. Contacted Thursday, Superintendent Ron Grevera said via email that “the new state guidance increases the odds of bringing students back in hybrid fashion.”

Grevera noted the district had successfully started this school year in a model that had two groups of students taking turns coming to the schools, with Group A in schools Mondays and Tuesdays while Group B learned live on line, and the two groups switching Thursdays and Fridays. That model worked well for seven weeks, he said, until a surge in COVID-19 cases pushed Luzerne County into the “substantial” designation.

“The new guidance makes it easier for our district to reopen in the hybrid model because it allows us to open even if our county is in the substantial range of COVID-19 transmission,” Grevera wrote. ” There are many factors that places the county in a substantial range including nursing homes and prisons which have little to no effect on our local community.”

The state labels counties in three categories of transmission risk based on two factors: The number of new cases per 100,000 residents in the last seven days, and the percent of tests that come back positive. A county is deemed at low risk with fewer than 10 new cases per 100,000 residents and a positivity rate below 5%. It is moderate with 10 to 99 cases per 100,000 residents or 5% to less than 10% positivity, and substantial with 100 or more cases or positivity at or above 10%.

The recommendations remain the same for low and moderate counties under the new guidelines: Full in-person or hybrid learning in low counties and hybrid or full-remote learning for moderate counties. The original guidelines recommended remote-only learning in substantial counties; the new guidance suggests hybrid or full-remote for elementary schools but still recommends remote-only for higher grades.

“The research on offering in-person instruction during COVID-19 continues to emerge,” Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said in a media release announcing the change. “While it is impossible to eliminate the risk of disease transmission entirely within a school setting where community spread is present, recent studies have shown that when mitigation efforts, such as universal masking, physical distancing, and hand hygiene are followed, it may be safer for younger children, particularly elementary grade students, to return to in-person instruction.”

The guidance is not mandatory, with the final decision left up to the individual school districts.

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