The Greater Latrobe School District is staying status quo.
Board members met Wednesday night for a special emergency meeting and voted by an 8-1 margin to remain in the blended instructional model despite rising coronavirus (COVID-19) cases.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and state Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine, on Monday, announced all public schools in counties that are placed within the “substantial” category of community coronavirus transmission for at least two consecutive weeks – 59 of the state’s 67 counties – fall under the new directive. Westmoreland County school districts, like the majority across the state, have to decide by 5 p.m. Monday whether to commit to a full-remote instructional model in response to the local increase in COVID-19 cases or sign off on their compliance with state pandemic safety protocols.
Greater Latrobe opted to stay in its blended instructional model, previously approved at the Nov. 10 school board meeting. The blended model gives students the option to attend school in a brick and mortar setting, or remain at home in a full online remote model.
“This new order is basically an admission that as long as we follow their guidance, that we can continue to stay open during the substantial category,” Greater Latrobe solicitor Ned Nakles said. “And that really hadn’t been established from a legal perspective. I gave an opinion on it, that it’s a local decision … it’s a community decision, and I felt like I could support it, but now it’s in the order.
“At least there’s some recognition that we can keep working in substantial under certain conditions.”
Under the directive, the district had to sign an attestation form.
“It means you attest to something,” Nakles said. “It’s like signing a verification, or an affidavit, and it says you have a choice. You can stay in school and follow the guidelines that the state put out, or you can attest that you’re going to transition to fully remote learning. We signed the attestation and everything will stay the same.”
The attestation form required signatures from Greater Latrobe superintendent Dr. Georgia Teppert and school board president Dr. Michael Zorch. But Nakles wanted the full board to act on the measure to keep the district open in the midst of the state’s “substantial” category.
“I didn’t feel it was right for the superintendent and the board president to sign something and be out there on a limb all by themselves,” Nakles said.
“I think this should be a whole, complete board authorization. This is a decision the entire board has made. There should be some recognition that the whole board is going to support them and has their back on this.”
About 30 members of the public attended the special meeting. The board deliberated its decision in executive session for more than 90 minutes as the meeting started an hour later than the originally scheduled time.
Heidi Kozar cast the lone dissenting vote on Wednesday. She voted for a motion to send students to school five days a week earlier this month and against a similar motion in September.
Kozar touched on mask wearing, additional sanitization measures and social distancing in classrooms, particularly at the junior high on Wednesday.
“There are classrooms at the junior high that are not six feet, nor did I ever say they were six feet,” Teppert said. “We are socially distanced to the fullest extent possible of six feet.
“The World Health Organization states that three-to-six feet is their recommendation for socially distanced, and I can assure you that we are over three feet, with most of our areas being closer to four-and-a-half, or five, if not six feet. At the elementary buildings we are six feet and at the senior high, with 280 students online, currently, we are socially distanced.”
Teppert added that at the junior high, when students are not six feet apart, there are plexiglass dividers on desks.
“Even though we have those, if there’s a positive case, and we’re not six feet socially distanced, it would require quarantining individuals who are within that six feet area,” Teppert said. “At the junior high, you will see higher quarantine numbers because of some of the classrooms.”
Kozar added that she’s concerned about students who do not stay socially distant during the high school’s “Lunch and Learn” time period.
“I know our team is trying their hardest to monitor, but it’s not always possible,” Kozar said. “When given an opportunity like “Lunch and Learn,” they will cluster and there can’t always be an adult to tell them to back up. And they’re usually mask-less because they’re eating.
“I don’t know what the answers are. I just know that this is happening and it makes me very nervous.”
Teppert said that mask mandates are followed, adding that there are approved six-foot, socially-distant mask breaks, but she will meet again with high school administrators to discuss procedures.
“We have reiterated proper use of masks being over the nose and over the mouth,” Teppert said. “When we see an individual, if they don’t have the mask over their nose, they are asked to please pull your mask up, whether they’re adults or students.”
Kozar said that she talked to a teacher who told her that “almost every” student in her elementary class traveled away for the Thanksgiving holiday, which is a contrast to public health directives that advised against traditional gatherings.
“We are now at a rate higher than we were in the spring when we shut down,” Kozar said. “And we’re still considering being open after are students are traveling for the holidays.
“We should be doing everything we can to keep the healthcare facilities from being overwhelmed. And now, we’re going to go into the holiday weekend where people are not taking the governor’s advice, they’re going to be more likely to contract this disease and they’re going to bring it back on Tuesday. I just think it’s a really bad decision.”
Teppert said the board discussed a remote option one week after Thanksgiving, similar to several other county schools.
“Truthfully, our fear is that if we shut down for a week or two weeks, when the kids come back, and cases hit again, then we’re shutting down again,” Teppert said. “It would be best to have the kids in school after Thanksgiving, monitor it very closely. We would hate to shut it down for two weeks, come back, and then possibly have to shut down again.”
Zorch, a retired emergency room physician, doesn’t believe critical care in the community is currently being overwhelmed, but it’s a factor the district considers, in addition to community transmission, along with a myriad of other aspects.
Zorch added that the district has previously discussed its mitigation efforts and administrators and school officials are doing the best they can given the circumstances. He also referred to data that cites fewer cases of serious illness among students and lower transmission rates within the school setting if mitigation efforts are being followed.
“I understand this is a very serious disease,” Zorch said. “I sure as hell don’t want to get it and I don’t want to die. But we have a state that’s letting a casino open for God’s sake and telling us that we have to close our schools. It drives me crazy and I don’t understand that thinking.
“I don’t think we’re putting our kids at excessive risk. If we have a bunch of kids and staff members getting sick, then we’ll have to shut it down, but we haven’t had that yet.”
Teppert said the board still plans to continually evaluate, update and take into account “a large series” of factors, as to whether or not to change the model of education regarding the rise in COVID-19 cases. That could be transitioning back to a hybrid model of remote and in-person learning, or even full virtual, online classes again. But on Wednesday, the board agreed to remain in the blended instructional model, giving students the option to stay in school for five days a week or to learn online.
In October, there were 32 active cases of COVID-19 throughout the district, but as of Thursday, there were only eight active cases and 74 total since the beginning of the school year.
“We’re going to monitor every single case,” Teppert said.
Nakles said that if Greater Latrobe receives an order to close from the state, then the district must close.
“If we actually get an order that isn’t guidance, then we can’t disregard a direct order,” Nakles said. “In a roundabout way, the state is acknowledging that we can stay open while we’re in substantial, as long as we’re following the guidelines, which we’re following anyway.
“This is always a fluid situation and things can change. “Every time we think we have this tiger by the tail, we get some new guidance.”
A dozen staffers at Westmoreland Manor recently tested positive for coronavirus (COVID-19), officials at the county-owned nursing home announced Thursday.
The new cases among staff members at the Hempfield Township facility come as case totals in Westmoreland County have reached record highs.
Since mid-September, there have been 152 residents at Westmoreland Manor test positive for coronavirus, officials said, and including the new cases, 60 staff members have tested positive. Westmoreland County officials announced previously that the deaths of six Westmoreland Manor residents were associated with COVID-19.
The county on Wednesday set a new single-day high for new coronavirus cases with 273 reported, according to the county’s website, and added another 253 new cases on Thanksgiving based on the state health department’s totals.
November has been the county’s worst month of the pandemic, with total cases in the county nearly doubling since Nov. 1.
With 3,940 new cases since the start of November, the county’s case total has climbed to 8,412, according to the Pennysylvania Department of Health’s latest update, which came at noon Thursday.
That figure includes 6,583 confirmed cases and 1,829 probable cases.
There have been more new cases in the past two weeks (2,774 between Nov. 13 and Nov. 26) than in the months of September and October combined (2,657).
The county has seen a steady rise each week in average daily new cases. In the first full week of November, the county reported 502 new coronavirus cases and averaged 71.8 new cases per day. From Nov. 8-14, that average climbed to 133.8, and in the seven-day period from Nov. 15-21, there were an average of 200.4 new cases each day.
According to the county’s website, the county saw a record 1,510 new coronavirus cases in the seven-day stretch from Nov. 19-25, including a single-day record 273 positive coronavirus tests on Nov. 25. The average daily new cases during that seven-day period (215.7) sets a new high for the county.
There had been 62,107 negative tests in the county as of Thursday’s update to the Pennsylvania Department of Health COVID-19 Dashboard.
According to Westmoreland County’s website, last updated at 4 p.m. Wednesday, the county had 8,159 total coronavirus cases, an increase of 273 cases from Tuesday’s update. As of the update, there had been 61,588 negative COVID-19 tests in Westmoreland County (88.3%).
The daily coronavirus figures on the Westmoreland County website typically differ slightly from those on the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s COVID-19 Dashboard, which is updated at noon each day. The county’s site is updated at 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, with a weekend recap included with each Monday’s update. The county’s site wasn’t updated Thursday because of the Thanksgiving holiday.
There had been 179 deaths among Westmoreland County residents attributed to coronavirus as of Wednesday’s county update, as confirmed by the state health department through the National Electronic Disease Surveillance System (NEDSS). The Pennsylvania Department of Health as of its update Sunday listed 163 coronavirus deaths among Westmoreland County residents, and as of Thursday’s update that total had risen to 186 deaths.
The Westmoreland County Coroner’s Office on Tuesday increased its listed total of coronavirus deaths from 141 to 154 — 147 confirmed by testing and another seven 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. Of Westmoreland County’s coronavirus deaths, 102 were associated with long term care facilities, according to the state health department.
There were 82 COVID-19 patients hospitalized in the county as of Thursday’s update to the state health department site, up from 75 as of Sunday. Of those patients, 11 were on adult intensive care units, and there were five coronavirus patients on ventilators.
Statewide coronavirus numbers have also continued to surge with the state’s total cases reaching 336,254 as of Thursday’s update. That figure includes 312,299 confirmed cases in the state and 23,855 probable cases. Throughout Pennsylvania, 10,213 people have died of coronavirus, according to the state health department. Of those deaths, 6,430 are associated with long term care facilities.
There were 4,087 COVID-19 patients hospitalized statewide as of Thursday’s update from the Department of Health, 877 on adult intensive care units and 467 on ventilators.
Long term care facilities like Westmoreland Manor have been coronavirus hot spots throughout the pandemic. Statewide, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, there have been 32,915 coronavirus cases among residents and 6,466 cases among staff members at 1,232 long term care facilities. There have been 6,430 coronavirus deaths in the state attributed to long term care facilities.
In Westmoreland County, according to the state health department, 36 long term care facilities have accounted for 1,028 positive COVID-19 cases among residents, 137 cases among staff members and 102 coronavirus deaths as of Thursday’s update. That’s an increase of five deaths since Tuesday’s update.
Alex Vucish is a superhero. He has nearly one million Tik Tok views of him dancing as Iron Man, and a comic book artist painted a picture of him with Iron Man and titled it “My Iron Boy.”
What makes him a real hero, though, is that Alex, the son of Michael and Jessica Vucish of Hempfield Township, is not fighting off imaginary bad guys.
Since May, Alex has been fighting for his life.
Doctors at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh started him today on an intravenous drip of his own harvested stem cells. That’s part of the continuing battle against the neuroblastoma that invaded his stomach and impacted adjacent organs. He nearly died when side effects of one treatment landed him on life support.
“There were many times that we weren’t sure if he was going to be with us,” his mother said.
But after a series of surgeries, treatments, and chemotherapy, things are looking more promising for the boy who turned three in July.
“Alex is the strongest person I know and we are going to fight this with everything we have. We will never give up until the day we can say ‘All Done’ to cancer and we can all breathe again,” Jessica Vucish wrote on his public Facebook page, Alex Strong 2020.
Her son’s journey has been followed by people all over the world who send encouragement and prayers. The family credits that with holding them together through the toughest times that a child could ever experience.
His symptoms began earlier this year when he didn’t want to eat and his sleep was interrupted with bouts of screaming. Several visits to his pediatrician did not bring any diagnosis nor relief.
Jessica Vucish gave birth to their second child, Dominic, on April 20, and soon after, Alex’s condition worsened. He lost weight, his stomach was distended, and he was constantly crying. They finally took him to the emergency department at Excela Westmoreland Hospital on May 9.
“They took one x-ray and immediately sent us to Children’s Hospital,” said Jessica Vucish, who rode in the ambulance with him.
Because of COVID-19, only one parent was permitted in the hospital, so her husband and his mother, Lisa Jacobelli of Jeannette, stayed back to take care of the baby.
Alex was admitted for a night filled with testing.
“I think they did four ultrasounds, blood work and a CT scan,” his mom said. “I woke up at 7 a.m. — it was Mother’s Day — and one of the nurses told me that the doctors found a mass, and that it was huge. It was the worst day of our lives.”
Alex had stage 3 neuroblastoma, a cancer that develops from immature nerve cells and most commonly strikes children under the age of 5. His had grown to about five by seven inches in his stomach.
“We were totally not prepared for this,” Jessica Vucish said. “The oncologist came up with a plan, that ok, we’re going to fight this. For the first two weeks we really mourned the cancer diagnosis and we mourned what he was going through. By the end of the second week, we were thinking, ‘We can beat this.’”
Surgery confirmed the diagnosis, then chemotherapy started immediately to shrink the tumor. The parents signed papers acknowledging the possible side effects, including death.
“We were taken aback by how severe everything ended up,” his mom said. “Alex’s stomach became more distended after the first two days of treatment. The chemo sent him into a downward spiral. The tumor had soaked up Alex’s blood and oozed it out into his abdomen. It was wrapped around his organs and that sent him into liver failure. His heart rate went up to 198 and he started foaming at the mouth.”
He was rushed to the intensive care unit and put on life support. His organs were failing and the edema (doctors removed three liters of fluid) was almost collapsing his lungs. He was so sick that despite pandemic restrictions, both parents and his grandparents were called to his bedside to say goodbye.
“We were prepared to lose him,” Jessica Vucish said. “I remember being told that we were lucky to have him for the time that we did, and that we had to let him go.”
But Alex wasn’t going anywhere. He was upgraded from the ICU two weeks later and soon resumed a total of six rounds of chemo. In all, he had three stem cell harvests, another stay in ICU, four visits to the emergency room, and the latest chemo to destroy his immunity in preparation for a bone marrow transplant. There also were seven surgeries, including a 16-hour operation to remove the tumor after round 4 of chemo. That left him with a triangle shaped scar similar to what Iron Man has on his chest from near fatal injuries.
Alex already loved Iron Man. His mother found the superhero costume for him to wear on Halloween and took a video of him dancing. When Tik Tok star Jennings Brower saw it, he got a video of a group of people dancing and posted it side by side with Alex’s video.
When comic book “inker” Romeo Tanghal of New Jersey heard about Alex, he created a portrait of the boy with Iron Man and donated it to the family. Tanghal has an extensive résumé with DC Comics, Marvel Comics and others, including illustrating Batman, the Green Lantern, Star Trek and Wonder Woman.
“The love and response from the community and from people we don’t even know has been absolutely humbling,” Jessica Vucish said.
That included a parade of emergency vehicles and other well-wishers that went by when he was home for his third birthday in July.
Alex will remain in isolation for weeks, possibly longer, to avoid infection, and his mother is staying with him for the first two weeks. She’s not permitted to leave the room. She’s a photographer and lost many sessions because of the pandemic, and that gives her time to spend with her son.
Her husband is involved in the family business, Stellar Precision Components in Jeannette, and is working from home. He’ll spend the next block of time with Alex until his wife returns.
Vucish hopes that Alex won’t remember the worst of the times — all of the procedures that frightened him — and that he’ll remember only that he survived. He’s now in the NED phase, which stands for No Evidence of Disease. But his parents know that the tumor can recur.
“Everything that’s happening is scary,” his mom said. “But you just have to do it one day at a time because the only other choice is to not do anything. We would much rather fight for his life.”