Charles H. Bullock School.
PHOTO BY ADAM ANIK

by Andrew Garda
garda@montclairlocal.news

Most of the students in a Montclair special education program will continue on remote learning after their teachers refused to report to school for in-person learning, citing safety concerns due to the pandemic.

The teachers, who work in the Applied Behavior Analysis program, were called back to work at the Charles Bullock School on Thursday, Oct. 15. 

But the Montclair Education Association said that all 30 of the teachers and paraprofessionals in the program declined to report “until such time as the schools are safe for their students.”

Some 1,057 students receive special education services in the school district. Approximately 30 are in the ABA program. Applied Behavior Analysis therapy focuses on reinforcing positive behaviors to help those on the autism spectrum better self-regulate and interact socially. 

“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, whether for this particular group of students, who are medically fragile, or for any group of students and staff going forward,” said Meredith Barnes, associate director for public relations for the New Jersey Education Association, which is working with the MEA on the situation.

Speaking at Monday, Oct. 19’s virtual Board of Education meeting, Malecia Walker, who has a second grader in Bradford’s ABA program, said she was disappointed in the district’s communication on the reopening. As for in-person learning, she said many children have sensory issues that preclude them either from wearing masks for long periods of time or from wearing masks altogether. 

Approximately five students showed up for class on Thursday, only to be met by substitute teachers, according to parent Jason Anderman, who has been leading a group of parents seeking more transparency. He chose not to send his child back. 

In an email sent to parents on Friday, Oct. 16, Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said: “We welcomed ABA students to Bullock School on Thursday and Friday. Families and students reported having a positive experience. We are delighted to be able to return our most vulnerable learners to an in-person environment.” Ponds and Montclair school district officials have not responded to numerous emails from Montclair Local for further comment. 

As most of the ABA students remained on remote learning with teachers continuing to teach via Zoom, parents said they were confused by the district’s messaging.

REACHING OUT ELSEWHERE

Concerned that the Board of Education would force ABA teachers and staff to take leave if they did not report for in-person learning, the group of parents led by Anderman emailed Mayor Sean Spiller, who is also the vice president of the New Jersey Education Association, and Councilman Peter Yacobellis.

The email said that while the parents had reached out to Ponds and to Thomas Santagato, director of pupil services, as well as to the board itself, they had yet to get a response.

The email also expressed fear that the district has instructed all special education ABA educators to return to the classroom or take a leave of absence.

“We particularly seek district assurance that our children’s special ed ABA-trained teachers will continue teaching remotely while the district negotiates with the union,” Anderman told Montclair Local. 

Although teachers and parents spoke out at the Monday, Oct. 19, BOE meeting, not much was said by the superintendent and the board at the meeting.

Ponds repeatedly said that the district was carefully considering all parents’ concerns and had a plan for reopening. 

ABA teachers will remain remote for now. COURTESY THOMAS YATES

REMOTE FOR NOW 

Spiller and Yacobellis reached out to Ponds and the Board of Education and convinced them to allow the ABA teachers to remain teaching remotely, according to Anderman, who spoke with Spiller Monday night.

Anderman said he was happy with the result and hopeful it was the beginning of meaningful dialogue. Spiller did not return a request for comment from Montclair Local.

Yacobellis told Montclair Local he advocated for extending the time frame for when parents needed to make their hybrid/remote selections, “based on the volume I was seeing of outstanding questions. But in deference to the autonomy of the Board of Education, I haven’t advocated for anything beyond that.”

The councilman is now hoping for more communication between the parents, district and staff.

“With regard to ABA teachers, my hope is that every effort is made to listen to the concerns and questions from both the teachers and parents before a decision is made and that all parties – teachers, parents, the district and union leaders listen to each other and be flexible,” he said. 

ONGOING FRUSTRATIONS

The MEA met with the administration on Oct. 1 to discuss the logistics of in-person learning, according to Barnes.

“The meeting was unproductive and the administration refused to answer any questions,” she  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 reentry plan shared with the MEA was incomplete, and the district moved back 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 of the building when he had time,” Barnes said. “And the district took the option of staff taking time due to child care or health concerns off the table once the MEA asked for safety reports.”

The MEA followed up in writing, but received no response, she said. 

Barnes said the teachers and paraprofessionals decided late on Oct. 14, the night before the reopening, that they would stand together and only teach remotely, a decision the MEA supported.

Before that decision, two teachers had already taken leave after they requested to continue to teach remotely but were turned down, according to Netania Zagorski, parent of an ABA child in kindergarten.

Zagorski said with the student-teacher ratio at one-to-one in the ABA program, losing two teachers could affect the program.


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RENOWNED PROGRAM

Parent Earl 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. 

“To characterize our ABA teachers as consummate professionals and ultratalented 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.

“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 [in court].”  

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 [that] 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.”

MEA President Petal Robertson claimed in an Oct.15 memo that Santagato had reached out to some of the union’s members individually, telling them to report to work in person. Robertson instructed its members to let the union know if they were approached by administration “and directed to do something that would put your health and the health of your students at risk.”

Barnes told Montclair Local that Santagato also sent out an email to parents on Friday stating that the staff was unwilling to work.

“However, that’s not an accurate statement at all, in fact all the staff reported to work the next day, albeit remotely, as they had the day before,” she said.

Robertson’s memo had mentioned that legal action might be taken against the district, but Barnes said the MEA didn’t want that.

“At this time we would prefer to come to an amicable agreement with the administration,” she said.