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GLSD approves health, safety committee

The Greater Latrobe School Board during its regular meeting on Tuesday approved the addition of a health and safety ad hoc committee to the list of school board committees.

Board member Dr. Michael Zorch, a retired emergency room physician, was selected to chair the health and safety committee, which will recognize increasing and sometimes novel issues facing the district during the last several years relating to safety and health concerns.

“We feel it’s very important during the pandemic,” Greater Latrobe Superintendent Dr. Georgia Teppert said. “And with Dr. Zorch’s medical knowledge and background, and how active he’s been with the pandemic, to lead this committee … he was always interested in school safety and security and he clearly has an interest in this area as we continue to navigate COVID-19.”

District officials already consult with a panel of local medical experts, who have current information regarding the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, particularly in the Westmoreland County area. Teppert said that Zorch frequently speaks with other physicians throughout the area, as well. Members of the district’s new committee have not been appointed yet. Zorch was just approved on Tuesday as the chair.

“Obviously, Dr. Zorch has had input and contact with all other medical personnel throughout the community,” Teppert said. “When we go to make decisions regarding instructional models, or anything we do with the health and safety and welfare of the full community, that’s when we will utilize this committee, get feedback and come to a consensus and a recommendation on what’s best for our school district.”

Greater Latrobe, as a district, is currently in a full remote instructional model until Jan. 18. It’s a decision the board made on Dec. 1 and Teppert said allows the best continuity of education for students, while maintaining health and safety of the entire school community and adhering to state guidelines for travel during the upcoming Christmas season.

Because of Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s limited-time mitigation orders passed last week, Tuesday’s school board meeting was held virtually. Teppert said that Greater Latrobe’s instructional model will be reviewed again at the board’s Committee of the Whole meeting on Jan. 12.

“We’re looking at everything,” Teppert said. “Not only what’s best for the education of students, but also the health, safety and welfare of students, staff and the entire school community.”

Teppert said the past week of virtual learning was smooth, but the district, like others throughout the county, are struggling with teachers in quarantine and substitutes who have to cover their position if regular instructors are unable to teach. There are currently 11 active cases of COVID-19 throughout the district, including five among staff.

“That has been our biggest challenge, being able to fully staff,” Teppert said. “We’ve been able to, but it’s been tight. As far as instruction, I think it’s going rather smooth, but the challenge is the staffing component.”

The district will soon have better air filtration throughout its buildings when students return to full-time learning next year.

Kurt Thomas, the district’s director of operations and planning, informed board members of progress on a previously-approved, district-wide bipolar ionization system installation with Siemens Industry Inc. The system, which costs $443,008, provides a series of air handling units serving five Greater Latrobe buildings that introduces positive and negative ions into the airstream, which are meant to decontaminate the air and space served by the units.

Thomas said he expects the project to be completed by the end of the calendar year, in time for the students’ return to in-person learning. Thomas said about 60% of the work is finished, as the senior high vents are complete, but rooftop units still need work. Mountain View Elementary School units are completed and work at the junior high began a week-and-a-half ago.

“That will help a lot when the kids come back,” Zorch said.

The board also approved its agreement for a school resource officer between the City of Latrobe and the district. Michael Porembka, Greater Latrobe’s assistant superintendent, said that the motion was the district’s standard contract with the city, which needed to be renewed. Robert Daerr works for the City of Latrobe and he’s also the current school resource officer. The district has employed a school resource officer since 2014.

Additionally on Tuesday, the board approved Jeffrey Lewis as an additional school police officer. Porembka explained that the district has a staff of six school police officers and Lewis is an addition to the group.

“He’s a retired state trooper who can give us a few hours every day to help secure our buildings,” Porembka said. “We like to have a number of officers available for after school events. In a pre-pandemic world, we would be having holiday programs and it’s nice to have somebody covering those events. We like to add people who will complement our staff and he was a good fit for us.”

The board on Tuesday also approved an agreement with Unity Township and the Mountain View Elementary School Parent Teacher Organization.

The agreement is in support of Unity Township’s grant to the state Greenways, Trails and Recreation Program for a Mountain View Elementary School playground improvement project. The township would act as a sponsor of the grant through the state’s Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) for the purchase and installation of the playground equipment, totaling $165,752. The program requires a 15% cash match — $24,863 — for any requested funding, which will be provided through a separate agreement with the Mountain View Elementary PTO. The district plans to continue to make the playground and all equipment available for use by all township residents, including recreational and educational programs.

Also on Tuesday, the board approved a non-contractual professional employee retirement incentive. The motion stated that the district will provide the retirement incentive to any employee within the bargaining unit who has at least 20 years of service under the Pennsylvania School Employees Retirement System (PSERS) and at least 17 years of service within the district.

The district will pay premiums for hospitalization, dental and vision plans for eight years or until the retiree becomes eligible for Medicare. Employees must submit a letter for retirement purposes by March 31 to take advantage of the incentive.

Business Administrator Dan Watson said the district offered the incentive for two reasons.

“First, we know that we have some budget issues with the impact COVID-19 is having on our local tax collections,” Watson said. “This early retirement incentive could provide us with some budgetary relief.

“In addition to that, the whole COVID-19 teaching environment may not necessarily be suitable for every individual currently staffed here. This will give those individuals an opportunity to potentially move on, which will allow us to restructure our staff, or find individuals who might have a certain skillset that would work better in this environment.”

Resident Sandy Fenton spoke during Tuesday’s meeting on concerns she had regarding high school schedule changes in addition to a reduction in synchronous learning time.

“I understand the board has a tremendous challenge, along with all districts in the surrounding areas in trying to come up with these instructional models,” Fenton said. “I have concerns whether or not we can have a consistent schedule no matter what the board has to decide as far as physical space in which the students are learning. I think that allows for the best consistency in making academic progress and ensuring our kids are on the same academic level as students in other districts.”

Jon Mains, high school principal, said the schedule was changed to 90 minutes of instructional time, featuring fewer transitions for students during the day, less hallway traffic for pandemic safety reasons and an increase in instructional time for teachers. The school day begins at 8:30 a.m. at the high school, a transition to later start times to help the students’ mental health and well-being. Teachers also have the flexibility for an hour of instruction and 30 minutes between each set for planning purposes, in addition to working with students and reaching out to parents.

“We work with teachers, we work with students and a lot of input was sought out to come up with this schedule,” Mains said. “Personally, I think it’s working very well and I think our students are happy with the schedule.”

Fenton also touched on a concern for academic progress for course advancement and prerequisites in the future. She asked how the district plans to reach state-mandated instructional hours.

“In Keystone tested areas like algebra, biology and literature, it’s hard to cut content because we have to cover standards, and we are covering standards in those classes,” Mains said. “We’re putting a premium on the mental health and wellness of our students and faculty and we’re getting the content covered that needs to be covered.”

Mains added that the high school is allowing teachers additional planning time to give students a better classroom product.

“We felt like if we go deeper in the content, students can master it instead of memorizing it for a test to get the grade and move on,” Mains said. “I think it’s going well, but we have to seek additional feedback from students. We’re always looking to make our product better.”

Also on Tuesday, William Brigaman, a district bus driver, asked if wages will be paid during the current time when students are remotely learning. Solicitor Ned Nakles said the district technically doesn’t have an obligation to pay DMJ Transportation because the contract is based on bus runs the company makes. But the district did pay drivers during a period in November when students were in a remote setting.

“We’ve talked about this on a couple of occasions,” Nakles said. “We’ve had discussions with DMJ, but I don’t have an answer (Tuesday) as to what’s going to happen. We’re continuing to monitor the situation and we continue to meet on an ongoing basis with DMJ. That’s on our mind constantly and hopefully, we’ll have answers pretty quickly.”

The board also approved:

  • Resignation of Sean Grosso, boys’ lacrosse assistant; Madison Kollar, support services liaison; Margaret Mears, coordinator of transportation and facilities;
  • A $5,000 stipend for Laurie Golobish as pandemic coordinator;
  • Carole Britton, elementary, emergency certified and Alaina Pecora, business computer information technology, as substitute teachers;
  • Robert Brown, Lisa Poponick, Derek Sipe and Carissa Sutter as full-time custodians at $13.08 an hour and Ryan Dillon and Floyd Newill as substitute custodians at $9.25 an hour;
  • Lucy Firmet and Kelly Wanichko as winterguard volunteer coaches;
  • Dan Hennessy to the Latrobe-GLSD Parks and Recreation Commission for a three-year term ending Dec. 31, 2023;
  • Permission to advertise for general school supplies, art, science, paper, custodial, electrical and medical supplies, in addition to fall, winter and spring sports equipment;
  • Lesco Federal Credit Union to the 2020-21 designation of depositories;
  • Changes to the school calendar.

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Latrobe Municipal Authority approves sewage rate increases

Latrobe Municipal Authority (LMA) customers will see their sewage rates increased next year.

The LMA board of directors at its meeting Tuesday voted to adopt the water and wastewater department budgets for 2021, including the sewage rate increases.

Effective April 1, the sewage usage rate per 1,000 gallons will increase from $2.50 to $3.00. The administration/operations fee will also raise from $6.50 to $7, at that time.

Additionally, the debt service fee for City of Latrobe customers will be bumped from $6 to $7.50, effective Jan. 1.

Mark Gera of Gibson-Thomas Engineering Co. Inc. told the authority board that the rate increases are necessary to fund several wastewater department projects in the upcoming years, including a bar screen replacement and switchgear upgrades at the sewage treatment plant.

The current usage rate fee generates a 5% operating surplus, “which in my opinion is not adequate,” said Gera. “We usually recommend a 20% operating surplus and try to get as close as we can to it.”

An increase in usage rate from $2.50 per 1,000 gallons to $3 per 1,000 gallons will generate a 13.1% operating surplus, still shy of the recommended 20%. Another option was to raise the usage rate to $2.75 per 1,000 gallons, which would generate a 10.2% operating surplus.

The board of directors approved the 2021 wastewater budget — including the rate increases — by a 6 to 1 vote. LMA assistant treasurer Neal Fenton opposed.

“I would just rather do it as a step function and go to the $2.75 first before we go to $3,” Fenton said, referring to the sewage usage rate increase.

However, board chairperson Ellen Keefe said the rate increases were necessary.

“As much as everybody hates to raise rates, I think the finance committee was all in agreement that this was an absolutely necessary component of the budget going forward to keep the system operating well,” she said.

Both the water and wastewater department budgets were balanced, according to authority manager Terri Hauser.

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic affected revenues in both departments, Hauser said.

“We saw an increase in the residential uses (from people staying home from work/school),” Hauser said in an email to the Bulletin. “However, we also saw a decrease in our revenues from commercial/industrial users due to shutdowns.”

In other business, Gera provided an update on a number of LMA projects.

The sewer line replacement project underneath the Ligonier Street bridge, or “Brewery Bridge,” over the Loyalhanna Creek in Latrobe is now complete, Gera said. That project replaced and strengthened the existing interceptor before the bridge is replaced this upcoming spring.

“We got lucky with the weather,” Gera said. “They did a good job.”

The board in August awarded a bid to Ligonier Construction for $228,000 to complete this project. On Tuesday, the board approved a $129,700 payment to Ligonier Construction.

Also, the mechanical bar screen replacement project at the sewage treatment plant is “complete and operational,” Gera said.

In November 2019, LMA accepted a bid of $415,514 from Export-based Kukurin Contracting Inc. to replace the mechanically cleaned bar screen at the authority’s wastewater treatment plant. LMA approved payment of a $22,919.85 invoice to Kukurin.

Contractor W. A. Petrakis of Export will begin working on the Monastery Run reconstruction project in January, Gera said. LMA awarded a $198,990 bid to W. A. Petrakis in August. The project calls for increasing the size of pipes of a roughly 900-foot stretch of sewer line, in addition to constructing several new manholes from Monastery Run to Lloyd Avenue Extension.

In other business, the authority board:

  • Approved payments in the water department, including $2,220 to Gibson-Thomas and $548 to Meyer Darragh for downtown water line replacement work;
  • Approved a renewal of general insurance for 2021 as prepared by Kattan-Feretti Insurance;
  • Approved payments in the wastewater department of $1,045,708.79, for work Monastery Run reconstruction project and the 4.3-million gallon equalization tank project that is aiming to prevent sewage overflows into the Loyalhanna Creek;
  • Approved payments in the wastewater department of $166,226.85, which includes the aforementioned payments to Kukurin Contracting for bar screen replacement and Ligonier Construction for the Brewery Bridge replacement project;
  • Approved a change order for Ligonier Construction in the decrease amount of $1,550 for the Brewery Bridge sewer replacement project.

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Cerilli becomes third county commissioner to test positive for COVID-19

All three members of the Westmoreland County Board of Commissioners have now tested positive for coronavirus (COVID-19) after Commissioner Gina Cerilli on Tuesday notified other county officials of her positive test.

Commissioner Doug Chew alerted the county of his positive test result in October, and commissioners chairman Sean Kertes last week announced he had tested positive for the virus.

“As in the past, the County immediately implemented steps to minimize the impact to our workplace and to keep all employees healthy and safe,” according to a county news release. “Commissioner Cerilli is currently following isolation recommendations. Westmoreland County Human Resources department will conduct contact tracing. The county has already implemented enhanced cleaning and disinfecting of the commissioners’ suite and continues to take precautions, including masking and temperature taking at the courthouse.”

The latest coronavirus case in the commissioners’ office comes as Westmoreland County on Tuesday saw more than 500 new COVID-19 cases reported in a single day for the fourth time in less than a week.

Tuesday’s new case total of 542 marked the third highest single-day increase for the county and the seventh time this month the county has added 400 or more cases in a single day.

Westmoreland County has already had more new coronavirus cases in December than it did in the entire month of November.

As of Tuesday’s update to coronavirus case figures on the county website, there had been 5,541 new cases since the start of the December.

There were 4,954 new cases reported in the county throughout the month of November, which more than doubled the total cases that had been reported through the first eight months of the pandemic.

With Tuesday’s update, there have been 14,802 coronavirus cases reported in Westmoreland County since the first cases were reported here in March.

That figure includes 11,400 confirmed cases and 3,402 probable cases as of Tuesday’s update to the state data.

There have been 68,950 negative tests in Westmoreland County.

The county on Tuesday also saw its COVID-19 death total exceed 300, according to state data on the county website. With 10 new deaths reported Tuesday, the county’s coronavirus death total now sits at 304. The Pennsylvania Department of Health continuously adjusts death counts for prior dates as new data is received, meaning the coronavirus deaths reported Tuesday didn’t necessarily occur on the same day.

The first coronavirus deaths for Westmoreland County were reported April 5, according to the state health department.

The Westmoreland County Coroner’s Office on Tuesday increased its listed total of coronavirus deaths for the first time since Dec. 2. With the update, the total climbed from 193 to 242. Of those deaths, 235 were confirmed by testing and another seven are presumed cases based on symptoms. The youngest person to die of COVID-19 in Westmoreland County was 36, according to the coroner’s office, and the oldest 109. The coroner’s COVID-19 death total includes any individual whose death occurred in Westmoreland County, regardless of their county of residence.

Statewide, total coronavirus cases have surpassed half a million. The case total had reached 509,320 as of Tuesday’s update. That figure includes 465,134 confirmed cases in the state and 44,186 probable cases. Throughout Pennsylvania, 12,890 people have died of coronavirus, according to the state health department.

Of the state’s coronavirus deaths, 7,532 are associated with long term care facilities, which have been virus hotspots throughout the pandemic.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, there have been 44,591 coronavirus cases among residents and 8,136 cases among staff members at 1,409 long term care facilities throughout the state.

In Westmoreland County, according to the state health department, 45 long term care facilities have accounted for 1,435 positive COVID-19 cases among residents, 166 cases among staff members and 147 coronavirus deaths as of Tuesday’s update.

Hospitalizations for COVID-19 patients continued to rise as of Tuesday’s update.

Statewide, there were 6,295 coronavirus patients hospitalized Tuesday, according to the state health department. Of those patients, 1,264 were in adult intensive care units and 705 were on ventilators.

In Westmoreland County, as of Monday’s update there were 164 patients hospitalized for COVID-19 — up from 157 Monday — with 24 in adult intensive care units and 16 on ventilators according to the state health department. Of the 89 ventilators available in Westmoreland County, according to state data, a total of 27 were in use by COVID and non-COVID patients as of Tuesday’s update.

According to state figures last updated at noon Tuesday, there were 24 adult ICU beds available at Westmoreland County hospitals — 26.7% of total adult ICU beds — 24 medical/surgical beds and 57 airborne isolation beds.

The state years ago established seven regional Health Care Coalitions, or HCCs, as part of its emergency preparedness plan. Westmoreland County is part of the HCC of Southwest PA, or the Southwest region, which also includes Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Cambria, Fayette, Greene, Indiana, Lawrence, Mercer, Somerset and Washington counties.

The Southwest region had 1,556 patients hospitalized for COVID-19 as of Tuesday’s update. Of those patients, 323 were on adult intensive care units and 201 were on ventilators. Overall, 453 of the region’s 1,129 available ventilators were in use as of the update.

Citing concerns an influx of COVID-19 hospitalizations could stretch health systems thin on staff, Pennsylvania Department of Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine on Nov. 23 issued an order directing hospitals to reduce “elective procedures” by half if their region meets at least two of the following criteria:

  • 33% or more of hospitals in the region anticipate staffing shortages in the next week;
  • 50% or more increase in the moving average of COVID-19 admissions in the previous 48 hours;
  • 10% or fewer of the medical and surgical beds in a region are projected to be available in the next 72 hours.

The Southwest region is currently the only HCC in the state that meets the anticipated staffing shortage criteria.

As of Tuesday’s update, 36.1% of hospitals in the Southwest region anticipated staffing shortages.

According to the state’s COVID-19 Reduction of Elective Procedures Dashboard, the Southwest region had experienced a 0.9% decrease in coronavirus hospitalizations over the most recent 48-hour period prior to the site’s update on Monday and 42.2% of medical and surgical beds in the region were projected to be available for patient care in the next 72 hours.

The Southwest region on Monday also saw the first administrations of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine as five UPMC health system employees received doses of the vaccine on Monday. The Pfizer vaccine is the first to be authorized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for emergency use. The FDA is still reviewing a second COVID-19 vaccine, produced by Moderna, Inc.

Excela Health spokeswoman Robin Jennings said Excela expects to begin administering immunizations to staff on Friday.

"Santa's COVID Christmas" was voted as the Community Favorite and took first place in the Children's Division.

“Deck the Paws” won first place in the Teen/Adult Creative Division.

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Voice of Westmoreland plans virtual forum for COVID-19 concerns

Community activism group “Voice of Westmoreland” has planned an online public forum this evening to allow for an airing of grievances and the compilation of a “list of demands” to county officials regarding the local response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

The event, billed as “A Real Public County Commissioner Meeting” is scheduled for 7 to 8 p.m. this evening on the Zoom online conferencing platform. To register, visit voiceofwestmoreland.com/events. “Join us to hear stories from community members about the impact of COVID, share your public comment, and hear our list of demands to the County Commissioners,” the event’s description reads.

According to its Facebook page, Voice of Westmoreland is circulating a petition seeking for the commissioners to expand COVID-19 testing in the county, lobby state and federal officials for additional coronavirus stimulus relief payments as well as extensions for unemployment benefits, support a countywide moratorium on evictions and provide weekly informational sessions regarding the local pandemic response.

Members of the grassroots organization have been frequent contributors to the public comment periods of Westmoreland County Commissioners’ meetings since the group began. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, several commissioners’ meetings have included dozens of comments submitted by email from Voice of Westmoreland (VOW) members.

A common refrain among those comments has been a call for the Westmoreland County Commissioners to commit federal coronavirus relief money to making free COVID-19 testing convenient and accessible to county residents and supporting contact tracing efforts to combat the spread of the virus.

The commissioners previously said they were supportive of the ideas, noting that the state Department of Health oversees testing and contact tracing since Westmoreland County doesn’t have its own county health department.

Leading up to the Nov. 3 general election, members of the group also lobbied the commissioners for ballot drop boxes to be located throughout the county for submission of mail-in ballots.

According to its website, Voice of Westmoreland “is a nonpartisan grassroots organization that focuses on issues that are important to residents of Westmoreland County: healthcare, clean air and water, living wages, racial justice, education, and fair government.”

The group’s website also states “{span}VOW is committed to doing everything necessary to prevent the re-election of our current president.”{/span}