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Casey says infrastructure law will boost region

Bob Casey has gone to bat for the new infrastructure law, touting the benefits he expects it will create in his home state.

“I think this is a remarkably significant opportunity for Southwestern Pennsylvania and, in particular, for counties that have not had enough infrastructure investment for a long time. And it will be a great benefit to the state overall.”

Casey, a Democratic U.S. senator, discussed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act during an interview with the Observer-Reporter on Thursday morning. The act, also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, was passed by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden in November.

That law provides $550 billion of federal investment to address a lengthy list of needs. They include improving roads, bridges and rails; expanding access to high-speed internet and clean drinking water; providing well-paying jobs; enhancing the environment; and investing in communities, some of which have been forsaken over time.

“We’re looking at five years (through the act),” Casey said. “This is an investment in the state and jobs. I’m not sure how many jobs, but thousands and hopefully tens of thousands.”

The three-term senator from Scranton is pushing for employment to be family-sustaining. “We want to create good-paying jobs, a lot of them union jobs. The loss or diminishment of union jobs really hurts communities. Too often with job creation, a company opens and has jobs, but they’re low-paying.”

Casey said the infrastructure law “is a continuation” of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. Both acts, he pointed out, “are investments in communities and people that we have not seen in a long while.”

Casey focused on Washington, Greene and Fayette counties – and other rural areas of Pennsylvania – during the half-hour telephone call. Agriculture is a major industry in the state, which has an estimated 52,000 farms and 7.3 million acres of farmland.

Of 67 counties here, 48 are categorized as rural by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania.

“We live in a very, very rural state,” he said. “Because of this infrastructure law, I believe rural Pennsylvania will benefit more than suburban or urban counties.”

Casey said “more than $170 million in direct money will go to Washington, Fayette and Greene counties and local communities.”

Broadband internet is a much-discussed issue across Pennsylvania – and the United States, actually. More than 30 million people nationwide, according to estimates, reside in areas lacking broadband infrastructure that can provide minimally efficient speeds.

As a result of the infrastructure law, $65 billion is being devoted to broadband nationwide. Pennsylvania, the senator said, “will get at least” $100 million for broadband to provide access to 390,000 people who lack access.

“That’s a really good start, and it’s money you can’t get from the state level.”

High-speed access, Casey said, “is one of the issues we’ve been talking about for years. At the federal level, there have been some good investments. The (Federal Communications Commission) has had some dollars available.

“But it’s not necessarily a lack of investments. Frankly, it’s not enough investments. Not enough deployment.”

That, he said, is due in part to the reluctance of some broadband companies to go into areas they don’t consider to be cost-effective. That can leave rural locations, especially, underserved or without service.

“Kids need high-speed internet to do homework. Small businesses need it and farmers need it to grow crops and do necessary work. This larger-measure law will help to better connect rural communities in Washington, Greene, Fayette and Westmoreland counties, and the commonwealth as well.

“High-speed internet is like electricity – you can’t exist without it. The solution is big money, and that’s why this investment will go a long way.”

Funding through the infrastructure law will be devoted to other needs. Prominent among them is environmentally related issues, to which $21 billion will go toward clean-up of Superfund and brownfield sites, reclaiming abandoned mines and sealing oil and gas wells that have been orphaned or abandoned in the U.S.

Pennsylvania will likely get a fair share of that money, for it has a profound number of toxic sites.

Casey extolled the virtues of this law and is eager to see it in action.

“We need to continue to make investments in communities. We’ve got more to do.”

Snow at last
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Area residents celebrated the first snowfall of winter Friday shoveling sidewalks and reveling in the winter wonderland.

Schools start after winter break amid COVID surge
  • Updated

Thousands of local students returned to schools last week amid a surge in COVID-19 cases as the omicron variant spreads throughout the region.

School districts are expecting to encounter mounting staffing issues – including teachers, bus drivers, cooks, and custodians –and student absences as a result of the soaring coronavirus cases.

But school districts are doing everything they can to remain open for in-person learning.

“We know the next month is going to be challenging,” said Jefferson-Morgan School District Assistant Superintendent Brandon Robinson, noting the district has more students, families, and staff who are dealing with the impact of the omicron variant. “Over the next month, I think we’re going to see a lot of students and staff test positive. But, being in school is important, academically, socially and emotionally.”

According to the state Department of Health, Washington County reported 809 new COVID cases on Wednesday and an additional 481 cases on Thursday.

The total COVID cases reported for the past week was the highest of the pandemic.

Over the two-day period on Wednesday and Thursday, 14 people in the county died from COVID, raising the total number of deaths to 535.

In a letter sent to families and the community, Charleroi Area School District Superintendent Dr. Edward Zelich said the school district will do everything possible to maintain in-person learning, but noted it might not be possible.

The COVID-19 situation and its impact on our ability to safely staff our schools is rapidly changing,” Zelich said in the statement. “We will continue to closely monitor the status, including during the evening hours, and we will inform you of decisions affecting our students and staff as quickly as possible.”

Zelich said the school district will work to protect the health of students, staff, and the community.

He said parents will be notified if and when staffing limitations require a classroom, grade level, or school to move to virtual learning.

“While we hope that these measures will not be necessary, we wanted to be proactive and notify parents of the possibility so that plans can be made for potential virtual learning days,” Zelich wrote.

In Fayette County, 342 new cases were reported over the most recent two-day period, and the death toll in the county stands at 546.

Greene County saw 43 new cases on Wednesday and 55 on Thursday, with no new deaths reported.

At Jefferson-Morgan, there are no plans to move the entire district to virtual learning, but there is a chance some grades may have to pivot in the future.

So far during the 2021-22 school year, there have been no closures at the high school, but some elementary grade levels have switched to remote learning due to COVID cases.

“We’re very fortunate that our teachers are really great at change, they’re great at pivoting at the last minute, and that’s what we’ve tried to do throughout the pandemic,” said Robinson.

Bentworth School District this week has experienced more positive COVID cases than it did before winter break, “but the numbers are not alarming,” according to Superintendent Dr. Scott Martin.

He said it’s been challenging to fill substitute positions in the classroom and on buses, but said the district has developed contingency plans for those situations.

“The Bentworth community is strong, and I know this too will pass,” Martin wrote in an email.

Ringgold School District this week offered parents an option to change their schooling option, which includes remote learning

One move that could help get students and staff back in the classroom sooner is new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance that has cut in half the amount of time COVID-positive students and staff need to spend out of class, depending on whether or not a person is showing symptoms. And, vaccinated and boosted close contacts do not need to quarantine if asymptomatic, but the CDC recommends they wear a mask for 10 days after exposure and take a test on the fifth day.

And school districts are taking advantage of emergency substitute teacher programs implemented by the state Department of Education that enable college education majors with more than 60 credit hours and adults with a college degree who undergo training to become substitute teachers to fill in for teachers who are sick or are at home with sick children.

“It’s proven to be beneficial to us,” said Robinson, who said the district is using education majors at Waynesburg University and California University of Pennsylvania who qualify. “That helps relieve the situation that we’re in.”

Safety is a priority, Robinson noted, and said the school district will use the lessons and tools of the past two years to try to navigate the latest surge without long-term shutdowns, which impacted students’ learning.

“We will continue to roll with the punches,” said Robinson.