by Andrew Garda
While some of Montclair’s special education students and teachers were set to return to in-person learning today, Oct. 15, at Charles Bullock School, instead they were still remote.
According to reports from parents and the Montclair Education Association (MEA), all of the 30 paraprofessionals and teachers in the Applied Behavior Analysis Program (ABA) in Montclair Public Schools who were supposed to return today, Oct. 15, chose to work remotely “until such time as the schools are safe for their students.”
Although 1,057 students receive special education services, roughly 29 are in the ABA program.
Applied Behavior Analysis therapy is an individualized treatment founded on the belief of neuroplasticity and the basics of learning and behavior. It focuses on reducing negative behaviors while reinforcing positive behaviors to help those on the spectrum better self-regulate and interact socially.
It can be difficult for ABA students to make strides using just Zoom or Google Meetup, and instruction can be more effective in person. Due to the pandemic, the district must balance the needs of ABA students and teachers with the health and safety of all involved.
The process for reopening the schools for in-person learning for the ABA program has been a source of frustration and confusion for parents and staff, according to Meredith Barnes of the MEA.
The administration met with the organization on Oct. 1 to discuss the logistics of in-person learning.
“The meeting was unproductive and the administration refused to answer any questions,” Barnes said.
At the time, the MEA believed that the plan was to have the ABA students back in school on Nov. 9.
However, according to Barnes, on Oct. 5 the district notified the MEA that the ABA program would return to in-person instruction on Oct. 12. The re-entry plan shared with the MEA was incomplete and the district moved the date to Oct. 15.
“When we requested the safety report so MEA members could make informed decisions, we were told by the superintendent to ‘come and get it ourselves’ and he would ‘schedule a walk through the building when he had time,” said Barnes. “And the district took the option of staff taking time due to childcare or health concerns, off the table once the MEA asked for safety reports.”
The MEA followed up in writing, but received no response, said Barnes.
Superintendent Jonathan Ponds has not responded to emails requesting comment on why the in-person program expected to open today, Oct. 15, was instead remote.
But Barnes said the teachers and paraprofessionals decided late Wednesday night, the night before the reopening, that they would stand together and remain remote, a decision the MEA supports.
“Staff have been given no assurance that PPE is available, and the MEA believes that any training the staff has had regarding student safety has been incomplete and insufficient,” Barnes said. “With the full support of the MEA, the 30 teachers and paras voted to continue teaching remotely until such time as the schools are safe for their students.”
Even before that decision, two teachers had already taken leave.
According to Netania Zagorski, a parent of an ABA child in kindergarten, the two teachers had requested an opportunity to continue to teach remotely.
“Two out of three K-2 ABA teachers are being at least temporarily, but indefinitely, replaced on less than 24 hours’ notice because the Director of Pupil Services has refused to consider their requests to teach physically remotely,” Zagorski said. “Which has effectively gutted the ABA program, even though allowing them to teach remotely would still preserve the appropriate ABA teacher-student ratio while keeping their jobs and maintaining consistency for the ABA kids.”
Zagorski said the student-teacher ratio is one-to-one in the ABA program, but that is often a struggle due to the low number of staff.
Jason Anderman, another parent in the ABA program, said the teachers are being disrespected.
“You know, the commitment and professionalism that I’ve seen from my child’s educators since we started has just completely impressed me,” he said.
Parent Earl Brown, another parent, agreed and is worried that if teachers leave, they will not be replaced quickly or effectively.
“To characterize our ABA teachers — Rebecca O’Sullivan, Lindsey DeCandia, and Vanessa Ehrmann — as consummate professionals and ultra-talented practitioners is as gross an understatement as the superintendent’s belief he can replace these teachers with a hastily prepared ZipRecruiter ‘help wanted’ post,” he said.
Brown said he and his wife, like many parents in the ABA program, moved to Montclair due to the high reputation of the program. They believed that for their autistic daughter, the education Montclair’s ABA program could provide would make a difference. A huge part of that, he said, is the staff.
“In a nutshell, the district can either make every effort to accommodate the remote learners and our ABA teachers and paras, or they will soon have to explain their discriminatory and dangerous reopening scheme to the Essex County Municipal Court,” Brown said.
Barnes said the decision to work remotely, despite instructions from the district to the contrary, was not one the teachers and paraprofessionals took lightly.
“As someone who was on their call last night when the decision was being made as to what to do, not a single staff member talked about their concern for self,” she said. “They focused entirely on what would be best for their students, and with the sheer lack of information from the district, they couldn’t in good conscience bring their students into such unsafe and unknown conditions.”
The biggest frustration for parents and the MEA is what they say is the lack of communication from the administration.
“I wish I could share that the district is telling us something, anything, but regrettably we have not been shown any more information, nor received any assurances that the schools and learning environment would be safe for in-person instruction,” Barnes said. “Whether for this particular group of students, who are medically fragile, or for any group of students and staff going forward.”
Anderman, who is an attorney, said after researching the CDC guidelines on reopening he does not feel the teachers are getting information on the extent the school district is taking to be in compliance with the CDC guidelines.
The situation also casts doubt on the ability of the district to completely open for all students in early November, Anderman said.
“I think the big implication of what’s going on with the dispute between the district and the ABA teachers right now is the concerns that the ABA teachers have are the exact same concerns, all teachers have,” Anderman said. “So, I don’t know how they plan to reopen based on this precedent, because if a sizable number of all the other teachers are equally upset about lack of communication as to safety and resources, to be able to pull this off, then I don’t know how they’re going to have enough teachers to actually conduct in-person classes.”