Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Aid Funds MCCC Pandemic Safety Measures

Blogger's Note: The following was submitted by the office of state Rep. Joe Ciresi, D-146th Dist. 

Montgomery County Community College is the recipient of a $443,597 grant to help it resume operations during the coronavirus pandemic.

The funding will assist in implementation of public health and safety plans to help resume operations this fall. It will be used to help keep students, faculty and staff safe and assist in meeting the unique challenges of providing education during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Whether our postsecondary institutions offer in-person or online classes – MCCC has already indicated most of its fall courses will be offered online – this grant will go a long way to ensuring the safety and instructional needs of the students and faculty is met,” said Ciresi, whose district includes Pottstown, home to MCCC’s West Campus.

The funding – totaling $28 million throughout Pennsylvania – was made available through the federal CARES Act, with distribution of funds based on enrollment, socio-economic factors and more.

“The pandemic has negatively impacted our economy and educational and career opportunities for many Pennsylvanians. Grants like these will help MCCC and other statewide institutions continue to educate students in a safe and effective manner,” said Liz, D-61st Dist., district is home to the college’s Central Campus in Blue Bell.

“Keeping these classrooms – even virtual ones – running safely and smoothly means so much to our overall recovery efforts and is a direct investment in our commonwealth's and our constituents' futures,” she said in the release.

The Governor’s Emergency Education Relief funds can be used for purchasing protective equipment, hand sanitizer and cleaning products; equipment or technology to take classrooms online; installation of barriers or other protective devices in building structures; or to purchase health apps to assist in contact tracing and health monitoring of students.

Monday, August 3, 2020

Grant Will Help Move Polluted Site Toward Re-Use

Blogger's Note: The following was provided by the office of State Rep. Joe Ciresi, D-146th Dist. 

The effort to clean-up the old Pottstown Plating Works property at the corner of South Washington Street and Industrial Highway has received a $77,000 boost in the form of a state grant, state Rep. Joe Ciresi, D-146th Dist. announced recently

The nearly $77K grant for an assessment of the property is a necessary step toward the remediation and redevelopment of the site. The grant was one of three new projects funded by the Industrial Sites Reuse Program that cleans up former industrial sites and prepares them for new use.

“This funding will be very helpful in our continued efforts to revitalize Pottstown and clean up old industrial sites,” Ciresi said. “By putting this property back on track for productive use, this project will create jobs, clean up the environment and be part of us entering a new era for Pottstown.”

The Redevelopment Authority of Montgomery County was granted the $76,582 to assess the former Pottstown Plating Works property, which is 3.89 acres and contains a two-story, 46,500-square-foot vacant building.

The assessment will include soil samples, groundwater samples, vapor intrusion evaluation and reporting. The Redevelopment Authority is working with 215 South Washington Street, LLC, to assess and remediate the site for use for light manufacturing, warehousing, distribution, call center and general small business. It is expected to create between 20 and 75 jobs.

The ISRP provides loans and grants for environmental assessments and remediation carried out by eligible applicants who did not cause or contribute to the contamination. The program is designed to foster the cleanup of environmental contamination at industrial sites, thereby bringing blighted land into productive reuse.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

High Cleaning Costs Keep Norco Playgrounds Closed

Photo from township website.
The playground in Riverside Park.
The cost is too much and the benefit too unknown for the North Coventry Township Supervisors to hire a company to clean the township's playgrounds weekly in an attempt to open them up to the public amid the coronavirus epidemic.

That was the conclusion reached Monday when the supervisors met for their regular meeting.

Township Manager Erica Batdorf said according to the lowest bids the township received, it would cost the township about $800 per week, or $3,500 per month, to have Budget Maintenance come in and clean  the playground equipment om the township's parks.

"We have no budget for it, but that's the reality of what we're looking at," she said.

"And how effective is that cleaning?" asked Supervisors Chairman Jim Marks. "Is it good or safe to the end of the day, end of the week?"

"I can't see spending the money when we have no idea if it is providing protection," he said. "I think we should keep the playgrounds closed until the numbers are headed in the right direction. We have to keep safety as the first priority."

The four other supervisors agreed.

"That's an awful lot of money," said Supervisor Rick Scheler. "As much as I would like to keep the playgrounds open, I don't see the money in the budget. We're already walking a tightrope."

 The playgrounds have been closed since  Gov. Wolf ordered all such public facilities closed. 

Batdorf told the supervisors that calls to the township are not so much complaints as they are inquiries about whether the playgrounds are open.

Streambank Restoration

The supervisors did vote to make some park improvements Monday, largely related to improving water quality by reducing erosion, a federal mandate as part of the Clean Water Act.

The township has five years to meet a target goal of reduced "suspended solids," or dirt, in the surface water that leaves the township.

This section of streambank in Kenilworth Park
could use some restoration to reduce erosion.
Two projects approved Monday should put the township 85 percent closer that goal.
Streambank restoration on Kenilworth Creek in Kenilworth Park, and along Bickle Run, are eligible for state funding from the Department of Community and Economic Development, said Batdorf.

The total cost for both projects is $240,609, with the state picking up more than half, depending on how the grants are awarded.

"We finally have a funding source for an unfunded mandate," said Supervisor Rebekah Elliott.

Roadmaster Jon McKee said his road crew can reduce the cost by doing some of the clearing work, particularly along Bickle Run, which runs beneath Keim Street and Miller road. 

"The permits are good for two years, I think it's time to get the ball rolling," said McKee.

The board agreed and voted to apply for the grant funding.

Fire Company Fundraising

Most of us noticed there was no Norco Fair this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. What some may not know is that the fair is the primary annual fundraiser for the Norco Fire Company.

The most recent chicken dinner to 
benefit the Norco Fire Co. sold out.
The pandemic also sidelined the fire company's usual fundraising letter, as well as Bingo and flea markets. Revenue from hall rentals for weddings and the like is also likely reduced.

A barbecue chicken dinner held recently did well "and they sold out of chicken," said Supervisors Chairman Jim Marks. Unlike previous years, the dinners people ordered ahead of time were delivered directly to their cars to maintain proper social distancing.

Another is scheduled for Aug. 29, from 11 a.m. "until the chicken runs out," according to the fire company website. 

Marks said the fire company website recently added a way to donate electronically.

Perhaps nothing has made the fire company's value to the community more evident than the July 30 fire that destroyed Ashwood Apartments putting more than 100 people out of a place to live.

It was at the firehouse that the victims were taken for food, clothing, comfort and connection with the Red Cross and to which an outpouring of donations from community were brought.

"I know the times are difficult, but it's been a difficult time for the fire company too, so if you can, please consider making a donation," Marks said.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

GoFourth! Festival Canceled Due to Virus Concerns

The coronavirus has taken another public victim -- a big, fiery fireworks display, and other associated fun.

The organizers of the GoFourth festival, who had moved the event from July 4th to Labor Day in the hopes of conditions allowing for fireworks and festivities, have canceled the event for 2020.

"With the current COVID safety regulations regarding outside events, the event is just not plausible," said Amy Francis, who co-chairs the event with Amy Brangaccio Wolf.

"Most importantly, we appreciate the fact that it is simply not worth taking such a potentially large health risk for the community at large for one afternoon of festivities," she wrote in a text.

"We are looking forward to making 2021 Pottstown GoFourth! bigger and better than ever for the people of Pottstown," she wrote.

The money already raised for the 2020 event will be carried forward for 2021,

In addition to forcing the cancellation of the Pottstown Volleyball rumble in June, other events planned for Memorial Park have also been canceled.

On July 8, the organizers of the PowWow on Manatawny Creek, scheduled to take place at the end of August, announced that the event has been canceled.

Also canceled is the Bark for Life event in the park, originally scheduled for Sept. 19, part of the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life fundraiser.

Another popular event has been canceled as well — this year's Fete en Blanc, originally scheduled for Sept. 18 in Smith Family Plaza.
There are few 'social distancing' problems 
in the middle of Manatany Creek.

However, one thing that will go boldly where it has gone many times before is the annual Rotary Club Duck Race, which is more easily undertaken with proper social distancing protocols.

"Rotary was planning to conduct the Twenty-ninth Annual Duck Race in conjunction with their events in the park," wrote Rotarian P. Richard Frantz.

"Because many certificates have been sold by our participating non-profit organizations, we are obligated and committed to conduct the race in some form and select prize winners. At this time, we do not know how or when, but it will happen sometime in September," he wrote.

"Certificates can be obtained from the participating agencies and any member of the Rotary Club."

Thursday, July 30, 2020

OJR and Pottstown to Decide Reopenings Tonight

As July draws to a close, so too is the window for continued discussion about how local schools will reopen this fall

Boyertown and Spring-Ford cast their votes earlier this week. Boyertown will start with a hybrid program and Spring-Ford will begin the year fully online.

Today was the previous deadline for Pottsgrove parents to decide between the two choices being offered, fully on-line or hybrid. However, the district announced Tuesday that the decision deadline for parents has been extended to Aug. 4.

Joe Zlomek has the full run-down in the Saanatoga Post, which you can read by clicking here.

Tonight, Thursday, July 30, will see two more local school boards, Owen J. Roberts and Pottstown,
meet to make a final decision.

Pottstown has already outlined its plan for full online delivered education, which has been reported about earlier, and it can be viewed here.

The Owen J. Roberts School Board will hold an online school board meeting tonight to decide on a re-opening plan. We have not recently reported on this, so here is a quick run-down.

The meeting is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. and the web link to the meeting will be posted at the top of the district website's home page about 30 minutes before the start of the meeting.

As noted on the district website, the full discussion began on July 8, when superintendent Susan Lloyd  emailed parents and guardians requesting their input on a DRAFT of the Health and Safety Plan for reopening schools in the fall. 

Parents were also invited to provide additional feedback by registering to participate in an in person or online school-based focus group on July 14 or 15. On July 21 the draft of the Fall Health & Safety Plan was presented during the Pupil Services Committee Meeting.

"Our first choice would be for students to return to school in-person for a full school week (traditional model)," the website informed parents. "New health guidelines alert us to the fact that we need to physical distance, be flexible, patient, and ready with another plan. It is possible that we will need to reopen schools with a Blended Learning approach. In order to meet capacity regulations, cohorts of students would rotate into school for face-to-face learning 2 days-per-week while other students are learning remotely, then switch. "

"No matter what, we know that in-person learning will not feel like the right choice for some families this fall. The OJR Cyber Academy will provide flexible learning opportunities to ensure your child’s success," according to the website.

"The OJR Cyber Academy will be taught by Owen J. Roberts teachers." The district plans a virtual Open House to learn more about the OJR Cyber Academy. There are unique sessions for elementary, middle and high school, as the structure is different at each level. Registration for this option opens on July 31. 
I will attempt to keep an eye on both meetings.

However, it's fair to say that I expect the Pottstown Board to endorse the plan being recommended by the administration.

Being less familiar with the situation in OJR, I will probably be focusing more on that meeting.

You can follow me on Twitter @PottstownNews

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Boyertown School Board OKs Hybrid Return by 7-2

With a 7-2 vote, the Boyertown School Board Tuesday night approved the "scaffolding" plan for a part-time return to school that had originally been proposed by the administration.

Board members Ruth Dierolf and Christine Neiman, both citing families' need to have their children in school so parents can work, cast the two no votes.

Stressing that the plan continues to evolve as conditions change, Superintendent Dana Bedden, noted one new element, which the board also approved, is moving the first day of school from Aug. 24 to Aug. 31.

The plan calls for elementary students to attend their neighborhood schools five days a week, but for the fifth and sixth grades to be moved to Boyertown's two middle schools for live instruction.

(Bedden warned circumstances may require that elementary students only attend in-person classes four days a week, with Friday being reserved for on-line learning, but that decision has not been made yet.)

Seventh, eighth and ninth graders will be taught in-person in the high school building three days a week, with the other two days doing on-line learning.

Grades 10, 11 and 12 would attend the high school two days a week and undertake online learning the other three days.

Additionally, the district has developed a fully on-line virtual program taught by Boyertown teachers, as much to prepare for another full-shut down, as to give parents another option.

In fact, Bedden said "I will be shocked if the state doesn't turn around and make us go virtual. This plan allows for that."

The district will also continue to offer the virtual program offered through the Berks County Intermediate Unit, said Michael Stoudt, the district's assistant superintendent for teaching and learning.

The approval had a bumpy road to the finish line. Two weeks ago when it was outlined for the board at the July 14 meeting, five board members -- Dierolf, Neiman, James Brophy, Roger Updegrove and Brian Hemingway -- indicated they wanted to see what a full return to school would look like. 

Thrown by the request, Superintendent Dana Bedden and his team came back to the board at a hastily called board meeting seven days later and told them essentially, that it could not be done and still meet the safety protocols being recommended by national and state health authorities.

After weather a flood of opinion on both sides of the question, board members Brophy, Hemingway and Dierolf all said they were only asking to see what a full open would look like.

During Tuesday's meeting, which attracted more than 600 people, Brophy said again that those board members who had asked for an alternative "were only doing our due diligence, so we had something to compare" the administration's recommendation to.

"There are a lot of things the administration just can't mitigate," said Brophy "There is some gain in health and wellness" in the hybrid plan, "but as for academics, it's a distant second."

Nevertheless, "voting no would subject parents, students and teachers to limbo again and I won't do that. I don't fully support this plan but it allows us to move forward," Brophy said.

"We have to move on, we have to get something going," said Updegrove.

"I'm not crazy about this either, but we have to submit a plan," said Hemingway. "We need to trust the people we hire to make recommendations and we need to think about whether this will work, and be
Boyertown School Board President
Brandon Foose

"Perhaps," said Hemingway, "the community is going to have to make sacrifices for the school district."

School board member Lisa Hogan said the plan "puts health and safety first, which si where it belongs."

"We've done the best we can to offer something for everyone," said board member Jill Dennin. "Each family will have to decide what's best for their child."

"At the end of the day, schools can't be all things to all people," said Bedden. 

"It absolutely is a compromise," said School Board President Brandon Foose. "Under the circumstances, we have to be flexible."

Next, the district plans to undertake another survey of families to determine more details on the options now approved.

Bedden Leaving?

Dana Bedden is welcomed to the Boyertown
School District two years ago.
It does not appear that Bedden will be around much longer to implement the plan.

Another school board was holding a meeting Tuesday night. The Centennial School District in Bucks County also met to vote on offering Bedden the superintendent's post, making him the county's first-ever African-American superintendent.

It is unknown at this writing how the vote went, but a press release posted Monday on the district's website indicated the board "plans to vote to approve Dr. Dana Bedden as the next Superintendent of Schools for the Centennial School District."

The release also indicated Bedden's desire to take the post. It includes a statement from him which reads: 
“It is an honor to be extended an opportunity to work collaboratively with the Centennial School District (CSD) School Board in establishing a clear education vision that is student and safety centered. I believe my over twenty-seven years of education experience, serving in a variety of positions could help me to work with the school board in providing the staff and students with a focused and aligned teaching and learning program where students can find success through academics, athletics, and the arts while serving the CSD community. It is also truly encouraging to have read the resolution released by CSD which publicly acknowledges a responsibility to speak against injustice, racial inequity, and to foster an equitable and inclusive environment for every student, staff member, parent, and community member.”
The release also "invites all community members to meet Dr. Bedden on Monday, Aug.3, 2020 at a virtual forum."

Bedden was hired only two years ago after a year-long search. He has promised to stay on board "through the beginning of the school year," according to a press release posted on Boyertown's website.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Pottstown Schools Chief Says Open Online Only

Pottstown Schools Superintendent Stephen Rodriguez speaks during a live presentation Monday night of the results of a parent survey, which found a majority uncomfortable with the idea of returning to school in person.
Following the release of the results of a parent survey, Pottstown Schools Superintendent Stephen Rodriguez announced last night that he will recommend that the district open schools virtually only, with no in-person classes, for at least the first semester.

The decision is not final and will only be so after a vote of the school board at a special meeting scheduled for Thursday night.

Rodriguez says more than 1,000 parents took the online survey that was only announced Wednesday. "I think that's the biggest response since we asked about the dress code," he said.

He ran through the results, which varied depending on who was answering the question: parents of elementary, middle or high school -- or all or some of the above.

The survey looked at various hybrid options outlined by Rodriguez in a similar live video session with 
parents last week. They include week on and a week off, two days a week, earlier class times and a wide variety of possibilities.

In the end, few if any broke the 50 percent mark for being acceptable to all parents.

"Nobody loved anything," he said.

What was clear, Rodriguez said, is that "70 percent aren't terribly comfortable coming back full-time."

That was the feeling of the district's COVID Task Force as well, Rodriguez said. Comprised of staff, parents, teachers and a student school board member, their overriding opinion is "this is a safety issue more than anything,"

"We've looked at this, read thousands of pages and worked on this for hours and hours and it's clear we are concerned about many issues, such as the lack of testing, with kits taking 14 to 16 days to get results," Rodriguez said. 

"When we looked at all different factors, it's near impossible to run a school, and we don't want people to get sick," he said.

This was also the conclusion reached by the Federation of Pottstown Teachers, said Rodriguez. 

The recommendation he will make to the school board Thursday is that the district go fully online for at least the first semester.

Making the recommendation a little easier to proffer, said Rodriguez, is the fact that the district now has a line on a Chromebook computer for every single Pottstown student. "We have thousands of Chromebooks, he said, although the kindergarten computers are not yet in hand. 

"They are ordered and I hope they arrive soon," he said. 

Unlike the hodge-podge curriculum thrown together on the fly when schools closed in March, the program offered online will be "synchronus," meaning the teachers will be live and interacting with students on the other end of the line. 

"Kids say they don't like structure, but they love it," Rodriguez said. "We want to give them plenty of structure. We're re-inventing school."

Career and technical instruction is being explored "and we're looking for what type of certifications we can give students through an on-line experience."

Rodriguez, who began his career as a special education teacher, said the district is also making plans to accommodate special education students. Those with the most severe hardships may well be taught in-person in largely empty school buildings.

There is still a lot of work to do, Rodriguez said. "Teachers need training. Parents need training. Kids need training," he said.

He explained that the district has also offered for years, a hybrid virtual academy originally designed to compete with cyber charter schools, and which will also be available for parents and students who prefer it.

As coronavirus cases begin to spike in parts of the country where re-openings occurred earlier, Rodriquez said the district has seen 400 inquiries into that program.

As for extra-curricular activities, Rodriguez did not have a firm answer, but he left little room for hope.

"If we can't maintain a six-foot distance in the classroom, we probably can't do it on the field," he said.

He said he understands the concerns of working parents. 

"Our system is built on the fact that kids go to school, but we had to make a choice," he said, adding that the district will be as flexible as possible to accommodate families with obstacles.

Rodriguez acknowledged "we know this isn't going to work for everyone."