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school reopening plans
The Montclair schools are preparing to reopen for hybrid learning. But parents and teachers have raised concerns about aspects of the reopening plan.
COURTESY ALEXANDRA KOCH/PIXABAY

By ERIN ROLL
roll@montclairlocal.news

Ongoing frustrations over the Montclair schools’ reopening plan and a perceived lack of transparency and communication from the district took center stage at the Oct. 19 Board of Education meeting.

After first announcing a Nov. 1 reopening date for all students, the district announced last week that hybrid instruction will begin on Nov. 9 for grades Pre-K to 5. Two weeks later, grades 6 to 12 will begin in-person instruction. The plan will meet requirements set by the New Jersey Department of Education regarding health and safety guidelines while providing a full level of instruction, officials said.

On Oct. 14, the district sent out a 12-page reopening plan with information on mask-wearing, hand-washing, sample schedules, information on buses and walking routes. 

On the hybrid schedule, middle school and high school students will be in school two days a week, four hours a day, with alternating cohorts in the building. For elementary school students, the cohorts will alternate between being in school three days a week and two days a week. 

On Oct. 16, the district released its 58-page Restart and Reopening Plan, which contained specifics about how classes and recess periods would be scheduled, temperature screening checks, procedures for isolating ill students or staff, sanitizing procedures and special education classes. 

Hallways will be marked off with foot traffic patterns, and students will be required to walk on the right-hand side. All high-touch surfaces will be cleaned and sanitized, including through the use of fogging machines and CDC-approved cleaning fluids. At recess, classes and groups will be required to keep to different parts of the playground or schoolyard.

In a survey on hybrid versus all-remote learning, as of Oct. 19, 64 percent of the 3,601 respondents said they are seeking a hybrid model, according to data that Superintendent Jonathan Ponds presented at the start of the meeting.

Of the respondents, 2,320 chose hybrid while 1,281, or 36 percent, chose virtual learning. Almost half, 2,761, had yet to respond. The due date for responses is today.

While some parents said the link to the survey was difficult to spot, others said the plan still did not provide sufficient information. 

Some parents and teachers criticized the plan for not being sufficiently detailed on medical accommodations for staff, how classrooms would be ventilated, safety procedures on how to assist a special needs child with toileting or on how exactly cleaning and sanitizing would be carried out. Parents criticized the district for asking them to choose hybrid or remote learning before they were supplied with more information. 

“I, as a parent, cannot answer that survey at all,” said Holly Shaw, who has children at Watchung, Buzz Aldrin and the high school. “I’m not sure how any parent could answer the survey with the plan attached.” 

Some parents have been advocating for the reopening of schools. On Oct. 6, parents held a rally in Edgemont Park to call for the resumption of some form of in-person learning, saying that the continuation of mandatory remote learning was having a negative effect on children’s mental health and academic performance.

Parents and teachers raised questions ranging from how special education classes would be safely conducted, and how school areas would be cleaned and disinfected, to whether students learning remotely would get the same quality of education as their peers in hybrid learning. Accommodations for staff who had health issues, or who had family members with health issues putting them at risk for COVID-19, were also a concern. 

For teachers at Renaissance, a main concern is that hybrid teaching would cut class time from 80 minutes pre-COVID to 60 minutes for remote to 40 minutes for in-person. 

Teachers said the reduced length of the blocks would cut down on the amount of instruction time the students would receive.  

Cathy Kondreck, the vice president of the Montclair Education Association, said teachers and staff have not had any input in the reopening plan. And she said the 58-page plan was sent out late in the day on a Friday, when it should have been sent out earlier in the week when professional development was ongoing. 

Oct. 15 saw the ABA program open up for in-person learning at Charles H. Bullock School. But the teachers and paraprofessionals in the program said they would not teach in person due to safety concerns. 

“Why did you not answer any of the ABA staff’s questions before reopening?” Margaret Saraco, a math teacher at Buzz Aldrin Middle School, asked the board. “You have made an absolutely painful situation worse.” 

Malecia Walker, who has a second grader in Bradford’s ABA program, said ABA students attending class at Bullock will have to be moved back to their usual schools when hybrid learning begins.

Ponds acknowledged that families and staff were frustrated, and he said the district is taking steps to be transparent and as communicative as possible. 

“We’re like many other communities out there,” he said, explaining that other districts in the area are taking reopening steps similar to Montclair’s. 

A video will be posted for parents at a later date on how the reopening process will be rolled out. For issues such as accommodations for staff with health concerns, the medical team will be meeting with teachers to discuss what options are available, Ponds said. 

Board member Priscilla Church agreed that it is good for students to be in school. The pandemic is creating new challenges pertaining to education, but she concurred with the need for transparency. 

“There is planning going on. And there is communication going on,” said Church, adding that the district needed to continue with communication, and to find better ways of communicating with families and teachers.