COVID-19 in Northeastern Pa.: With schools closed, teachers, administrators try to preserve sense of routine

(Photo via Greater Nanticoke School District website)

By Patrick Abdalla

SCRANTON, Pa. — Nicole Van Luvender had 60 seconds. She wanted to make them matter.

The principal at Riverside West in Taylor, in Lackawanna County in northeastern Pennsylvania, planned on leaving a short telephone message for each of her students last Friday. The school includes kindergarten through second grades. It has been shutdown since March 16.

“On some level, I wanted to reach out and create a sense of normalcy,” she told the Capital-Star.

So she basically recreated the school’s Friday morning announcements. That Saturday was National Down Syndrome Day, so she told her students about it and reminded them to wear blue. She updated them on the Read-a-Thon they were participating in. And she finished the voicemail off with the “Friday Cheer.”

Van Luvender is just one of many area residents trying to lend a hand as the region grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Katie Gilmartin is another person stepping up. The Scranton School District Board President and co-owner of Nada & Co., an apparel store in Scranton,  has helped coordinate an effort known as the “Masked Bandits.” 

The group has sent out kits to help make masks for different people who will be working through the situation. Anyone can join the effort.

“We’ve put together at least 25 kits with 20 masks in each,” she told the Capital-Star.

Such area businesses as  Sarno & Sons, a tuxedo company, and Woods and Company, a furniture store, have donated materials. Gilmartin and others have been putting them in packages for people to assemble into masks.

Those masks are then donated to the Lackawanna and Luzerne County Medical Societies by being dropped off at several regional locations. 

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The masks won’t be used by surgeons, but other people dealing with the virus, Gilmartin said.

“They’re not medical grade,” she pointed out. 

Earlier this week, Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Health, Dr. Rachel Levine, told journalists that those types of masks are welcome, but the most needed remain the N95 masks.

Gilmartin’s group isn’t the only one pitching in with masks.

Nanticoke Area School District, in Luzerne County, announced it had donated boxes of masks to Geisinger that were no longer necessary because of the extended school closure.

Like the rest of the state, northeastern Pennsylvania is seeing growing numbers of COVID-19 cases. 

A week ago, the region had 22 total cases and no deaths. As of noon Wednesday, Monroe County had 51 cases and one death. Luzerne County had 27 cases and one death. Lackawanna County had 18 cases and two deaths. Pike County has nine cases and Wayne County has four cases, Carbon County has one case.

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With the number of cases growing, any return to routine is welcomed.

“It can be a scary time for adults,” Van Luvender said. “Even more with kids.” 

That’s why she plans on making her Friday phone call again this week.

Before the day ended, Van Luvender and her teachers thought they’d be able to see the kids one more time before the break. Say goodbye, wish them luck. Instead, the closure came abruptly.

So last week she sent out the email to parents saying she would leave the kids the voice mail. She got positive feedback from parents throughout the week. So she’ll be recording her new message soon.

“We want to keep them engaged,” she said.

Correspondent Patrick Abdalla covers northeastern Pennsylvania for the Capital-Star.