By ERIN ROLL
Montclair students will not go back to their schools in the fall and will instead continue to learn remotely, Superintendent Jonathan Ponds announced at a virtual town hall meeting tonight, Aug 13.
“Based on the information I have been communicated by my team, it is my judgement that we need to begin the school year in a fully remote model,” Ponds said.
School will begin virtually for students on Sept. 10. Ponds did not give a date as to when the district would open school buildings.
The announcement was on the heels of Gov. Phil Murphy’s announcement on Wednesday, Aug. 12, allowing school districts to start the year with an all-remote model if they demonstrate that they cannot meet the health and safety standards required by the DOE and the Department of Health.
Ventilation is a factor in the district’s decision, Ponds said. The ventilation systems in the schools are sufficient for a normal school year. But this year, he said, was not a normal school year.
The district will be working with its architects and engineers to enhance the schools’ ventilation systems. Dates and timelines of the work, and the eventual return to school, will be released to the public and to the Department of Education at a later date, he said.
“This decision weighs heavy on my heart,” Ponds said, acknowledging that many families had strong feelings on the subject. “I’ve seen the emails. I’ve read the emails. Sadly, this decision must be made in the interest of health and safety.”
In July, school officials announced a proposed hybrid schedule, with two cohorts of students – known as Mounties and Bulldogs – alternating between in-person and remote learning, with each cohort getting a total of eight hours of in-person instruction two days a week. Families who preferred to keep their children home for remote learning only would be allowed to do so.
Montclair will continue working toward the hybrid model, and families will be notified of their children’s assignments into Mounties or Bulldogs starting next week, Pond said.
Ponds also reiterated that virtual learning is being revised and strengthened, including to allow more direct interaction between students and teachers.
New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) members and other groups have called for school districts to begin the year with all-remote learning, saying that reopening schools for in-person instruction in September would put both staff and students at risk.
On Tuesday, Aug. 11, the NJEA released a statement calling on Murphy and state education officials to have all school districts begin the year remotely, due to a shortage of teachers and concerns about health and safety.
The Essex County Education Association released a statement calling for a delay to in-person instruction as well. The statement was signed by education association representatives from across Essex County, including Montclair Education Association Chair Petal Robertson.
Mayor Sean Spiller, who is also the vice president of the NJEA, told Montclair Local that schools are not ready to reopen for in-person instruction.
“Despite the best efforts of districts all over the state, we see that the very people tasked with creating safe reopening plans, the Association of School Administrators and the principals and supervisors association, have both said schools are not ready to open for in-person instruction. When you consider additionally that the teachers and support staff have also called for a delay in opening through the New Jersey Education Association, I think it is clear that there should be a delay in opening for in-person instruction,” Spiller said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to some concerns regarding staffing. On June 3, the Montclair BOE approved 35 retirements, a 25 percent increase from the year before. The board has since approved one other retirement, and seven more resignations.
Yesterday, the Department of Health (DOH) released a series of guidelines for school districts and local health departments to determine whether to physically reopen schools, based on the severity of virus spread in their region. The guidelines include requiring schools to close if two or more COVID-19 cases appear in separate classrooms. In addition to instructions on regular cleaning and disinfecting of high-touch surfaces, social distancing and face coverings, the guidelines also mention school sports, which may only resume with permission from the New Jersey Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA).
Also included are arts activities such as choir and music classes. For those activities, if they involve singing or playing wind or brass instruments, the DOH urges music teachers to keep students spaced apart, and also encourages classes to be held outside if weather permits. Students are also advised to wear face coverings in music classes when not playing an instrument that requires the mouth, but if classes are outside, students may choose not to wear a mask.
The DOH also will also release a color-coded surveillance system that describes what actions school districts should take, depending on the level of virus spread in their region.
If a region is classified as very high risk, or red, then remote learning must be implemented at all schools. Under the other three categories – green, yellow and orange – in-person learning is allowed to continue, as long as the appropriate social distancing and health safeguards can be maintained.
Families with questions regarding Montclair’s reopening plan may email the district at firstname.lastname@example.org.