Year in Review: Top News Stories of 2021

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WARREN, Pa. – As our first full calendar year comes to a close, Your Daily Local is looking back at the year that was 2021. Up first, the most read news stories from the past 12 months.

As we take a look backward, our readers made one thing perfectly clear in 2021, they’re concerned about the future, or at least what’s happening with our future generations.

Five of the top 10 most read news stories in 2021 involved the Warren County School District. From masks to lawsuits, board seats and critical race theory, the goings-on in our schools were topics of great interest to you in the past year.

A pair of drug busts cracked the top 10 as did a discussion about the future of Big Four Road, the need for more foster homes and a restaurant opening.

Without further ado, here are the Top 10 Most Read News Stories of 2021:

1. WCSD Ignores District Lawyers Recommendation, Adopts New Mask Exception as COVID-19 “Circumstances” Increase in District
In mid-September, the school board approved a measure that three different solicitors recommended against when they voted to allow the district to accept mask exemption requests without documentation from a medical professional.

The move came as covid “circumstances” were on the rise in the district and just weeks after Acting Secretary of Health Allison Beam had issued an order requiring masks be worn in all K-12 schools across the commonwealth.

The action ultimately led to a group of parents suing the district and a federal judge issuing a temporary restraining order that required documentation from a medical professional before an exemption could be granted.

In December, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that Beam did not have the authority to issue the order and the district resumed the “masks-optional” policy it had at the start of the school year.

2. Arrest Warrant Served, Pittsfield Man Charged After Five-Month Investigation
On Aug. 25, Warren County Drug Task Force members executed an early morning search warrant of “Ben’s Games of Skill” in Pittsfield which yielded methamphetamine and a large amount of US Currency.

Drug Task Force detectives first learned of the illegal drug activity at the business in March and in the following five months multiple controlled purchases of methamphetamine were made from inside of the business.

The business owner, Todd V. Hebner of Pittsfield, was charged with 2 counts of possession with intent to distribute methamphetamines and 2 counts of criminal use of a communications facility.

A settlement conference in the case is scheduled for April 18, 2022.

3. Big Decision Looms for Big Four Road
The Pine Grove Township Supervisors spent much of 2021 debating about the future of Big Four Road. Supervisors have been weighing whether to keep the road open and maintain it during winter months (there is currently no winter maintenance) or closing the road.

Several residents attended the April township meeting to voice their concerns about the road and its current use. That the road is often used as a dumping ground was one of the major issues, while the speed at which vehicles travel the road was another.

“The one thing we were considering was just closing it, and maintaining it in case it had to be open for any reason for emergency vehicles,” Chairman Carmen Ferranto said. “But further looking at the regulations and laws, we either have to abandon the road or keep it open.”

Despite a well-attended public comment meeting in May and months of discussion, no formal decision on the road’s future had been made as of the final township meeting of the year.

4. Suit Filed Against Warren County School District to Strengthen COVID-19 Mask Policy
The school board action taken in our top story of the year led a group of parents and students to file a lawsuit against the district in federal court in Erie in early October.

The group asked the court to not only put an end to the policy that allowed mask exemptions without medical documentation, but also the district’s policy to only issue warnings to those who refused to wear masks on district transportation.

Judge Susan P. Baxter issued a temporary restraining order that required medical documentation for mask exemptions and required a discipline policy for non-compliance both in school buildings and on district transportation.

The lawsuit was eventually settled, just before the state supreme court ruled the Department of Health indoor mask order was not valid.

5. Critical Race Theory Discussed at Board Meeting
Critical Race Theory was a hot-button issue for most of the late-summer, early-fall as schools were getting back in session and local election races were heating up.

One Warren County parent approached the school board during its August meeting to ask that CRT be implemented in the district’s curriculum going forward.

“Simply put, it’s an examination of how our history, laws and race co-exist and how each affect each other,” Jessica Steuart said. “Teaching critical race theory gives us a chance to see how our system benefits some and oppresses others. It’s been discussed in many forms of literature since the 1970s.”

WCSD Superintendent Amy Stewart thanked Steuart for her comments and suggested that Steuart approach the district’s director of curriculum for further discussion on the matter.

The school board took no action on the request.

6. Following Two Retirements, Children and Youth Looking for New Foster Homes
Within months from one another, Warren County Children and Youth received word from two veteran foster families that after decades of service they felt it was time to retire from fostering.

The first step in becoming a licensed foster home is contacting CYS to express interest in beginning the process. The agency will send out an application and medical form, then, once the forms are returned, CYS will schedule training and come to the home for a home study and safety evaluation.

CYS received multiple calls from people inquiring about becoming foster parents in response to this story.

7. School Board Fills Region II Vacancy

8. Warren County Drug Task Force Makes Meth Bust

9. Sheffield School Club Aims for LGBT Acceptance

LGBTQ support club
Sheffield SMILE Club members Chelsea Burkett, Olivia Zawacki, Lisa Keesler, Carrie Warner, Heidi Colosimo, Neira Laird, Abby Krueger, Carter Lookenhouse, Cayla McMillen, Sarah Korchak, and Sarah Connolly show their support for LGBTQ+ community members. Photo submitted.

10. Open for Business: Mama Jane’s to Open to the Public

Pennsylvania State Rep. Kathy Rapp, City of Warren Mayor Maurice Cashman, Mama Jane’s General Manager James Porter, Mama Jane’s Owner Paula Webster, Mama Jane’s Darlene Hoffman, Warren County Chamber of Business and Industry Director of Chamber Operations and Tourism John Papalia and Mama Jane’s staff cut the ribbon in the restaurant on Wednesday, July 14, 2021. The west end establishment will officially open for business on July 15, 2021. Photo by Brian Hagberg.