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By ERIN ROLL
roll@montclairlocal.news

Montclair’s elementary school teachers were expected to show up in school buildings Tuesday, in anticipation of welcoming students back to in-person learning beginning Jan. 25.

That didn’t happen.

The Montclair Education Association, the district’s teachers’ union, said Tuesday those elementary school teachers would not yet be returning, and continued to call for a delay in a return-to-school plan over concerns about ventilation systems, procedures and a rising number of community coronavirus cases.

Instead, Meredith Barnes, a spokesperson for the New Jersey Education Association, said the elementary school teachers continued working remotely Tuesday. No students were expected in person yet, so none showed up to empty classrooms.

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Barnes told Montclair Local the MEA had a general membership meeting Monday night, “to discuss the state of school safety.” Elementary teachers broke off into a separate conversation from that being had by teachers for older students. 

“At the end of their conversation they agreed to remaining remote for the health and safety of all,” she said in an email. “A vote was held and by an overwhelming majority it was decided by the members in the elementary schools that today they would continue their remote schedules as before.”

No decisions have yet been made by the middle and high school teachers, she said.

Barnes also said the MEA’s president, Petal Robertson, received a email from schools Superintendent Dr. Jonathan Ponds, letting her know a meeting planned for Tuesday would be cancelled, and mentioning an option of a walkthrough of some buildings with senior staff member to address concerns. But Barnes said “we already did walkthroughs with a health and safety consultant and an industrial hygienist,” and the teachers aren’t satisfied. Barnes originally told Montclair Local the message from Ponds was a call, and that he offered a walkthrough with a school board member, but she’s since clarified her comments. 

“There is more wrong with the district’s reopening plan than just concerns one might find in a walkthrough,” she wrote in an email. “This is about our organizational needs such as knowing which classrooms members are assigned to, which classrooms need repairs and other safety protocols for when staff and/or students are present in person.”

Montclair Local has reached out to the district over the last several days with questions about preparations, how many students it expects to return and what its response to the teachers’ refusal to return Tuesday is. Almost all of those questions have gone unanswered.

Ponds said in a message late Tuesday the district has met state health requirements to open, and that he’s “happy to hear about the most recent statewide report that cases have decreased.” 

“The goal of this administration is to ensure that the students and families of Montclair have their schools reopened to in-person instruction on Jan. 25 for PreK-5,” he wrote. “We will continue to provide fully remote instruction for those families that choose to remain in a virtual mode.”

Ponds didn’t address the refusal of elementary teachers to return Tuesday directly, saying only: “I look forward to the cooperation of the Montclair Education Association in making this goal a reality for our students.”

Plans to reopen schools

School officials closed Montclair’s buildings to in-person instruction in March of last year, as the coronavirus pandemic first started to take hold in New Jersey. School officials have maintained that a planned Jan. 25 reopening for pre-K through fifth grade, and Feb. 8 opening for middle and high schoolers will move ahead. They say issues with ventilation systems have been addressed, with the buildings and grounds department signing off on upgrades to systems throughout the district. 

Montclair is expected to return to a hybrid learning schedule, with some in-person learning, and some remote. State officials have largely left the decision on whether to hold in-person, remote or hybrid learning to individual districts, but urged at least some in-person instruction.

An opening originally planned for November was postponed due to rising COVID-19 cases.

Parents are torn. A newly formed group of parents, Montclair Families Advocating for In-Person Learning — or FAIL —  has rallied and issued demands for the immediate return to in-person learning, contending the continued delay has harmed their children. Others are concerned with safety given a rise in community cases and a backlog for vaccinations that has few teachers yet able to get inoculated. Vaccinations are open to health care workers, first-responders, those in congregate living, people over 65 and people with certain medical conditions —  but not yet broadly available to teachers. 

Carolyn Corbran, a district parent, said it was frustrating to hear reports that teachers did not report to work on Tuesday for in-person professional development. An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified Corban as a member of FAIL.

“Dr. Ponds has said just Friday that they are preparing for a safe return for students and staff into the buildings and yet the MEA released distressing statements over the weekend asking the district to delay reopening until all teachers can be vaccinated. There is no known date by which that will occur or any assurances of how many teachers will choose to personally get vaccinated, so this is a request for an indefinite delay of the hybrid model,” Corbran said.

Gov. Phil Murphy said Tuesday he hopes to open vaccinations to teachers soon, but didn’t commit to a date.

Corbran and other parents have launched a petition via the website Action Network, under the name “Concerned Parents and Community Members of Montclair, NJ,” calling for hybrid and in-person learning to be made available. FAIL also has a petition, urging both a return to school and transparent communication with parents.

“The return to hybrid date in Montclair has been moved so many times since August 2020 that parents have lost count,” the “Concerned Parents and Community Members” group wrote in its campaign.

Others are leery about registering their children to in-person learning.

“As much as I want everything to go back to normal it won’t happen during the current school year. I know at least three people whose household got infected because their kids got the virus at school,” Joana Pinheiro said.

MEA concerns

In a statement released on Jan. 15 through the New Jersey Education Association, MEA Chair Petal Robertson said, “We are calling on Superintendent Dr. Jonathan Ponds and the Montclair Board of Education to make the pedagogically sound and the safe decision to continue remote instruction.”

The group said its goal wasn’t to be “adversarial but instead to always be advocates” for staff, students and educators, and that in-person learning shouldn’t resume until community spread of the coronavirus slowed more. It noted vaccinations for teachers could be coming soon.

It said that when Ponds previously delayed a planned return to school in mid-November, the rate of transmission — an estimate for how many people each person with the coronavirus infects — was 1.14. The rate on the day the MEA released its statement was 1.15, it said. And it cited an increase of 42.8 cases per 100,000 people to 65.4 per 100,000 in that time.

“These numbers have been trending up since the holidays, as expected. With limited people in our school buildings, our schools have been shut down 11 different times, making it difficult to feel safe when increasing the buildings’ populations,” the MEA wrote.

The NJEA also started its own letter-writing campaign, urging the district to keep schools closed. By Tuesday afternoon, more then 1,000 people had signed on.

Open questions

Ponds has not yet responded directly to questions from Montclair Local about how many students have opted for in-person learning. Under instructions from Murphy and the state Department of Education, parents must be given the choice to opt their children out of in-person instruction.

Some parents say they are still waiting on communication from the district on how students or teachers will move from classroom to classroom, and how some of the cleaning and sanitizing procedures will work. 

Montclair Local is additionally continuing to seek answers from the district on any plans for Plexiglas barriers, transportation and reports on the ventilation systems. 

On social media, parents compiled a spreadsheet of questions they wanted the district to answer, from classroom operations to equity concerns and special education needs. 

In November, a report by EI Associates, one of the district’s architectural consulting firms, found that the vast majority of rooms in Montclair’s school buildings did not have adequate ventilation, with many rooms being found to have no adequate ventilation at all. In a community bulletin said to parents and staff Friday night, Ponds said the district’s “engineering consultants have inspected and approved all modifications to our ventilation systems.”

Eric Osterberg, who has two children at Montclair High School, said the district needs to be more communicative with what metrics the schools are using on COVID rates, building conditions, and the number of in-person teachers. 

“And they’re not clear on that,” he said. “As a parent, how can I track those metrics on those numbers to know when the schools are realistically going to open?”

He said a perceived lack of information from the district was leading to a lot of anger and frustration among parents, with much of that anger being aimed at teachers.