by ERIN ROLL
erin.roll@montclairlocal.news

Montclair’s elementary schools will not reopen to in-person learning on Monday.

Superintendent Jonathan Ponds, in a letter sent to parents Friday night, said there will not be enough staff to reopen the schools on Jan. 25. 

The announcement comes following a week-long standoff between the district and the Montclair Education Association over the reopening of schools, which the MEA has opposed — arguing the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic leaves aging school facilities unsafe, and saying the district hasn’t been forthcoming enough about its safety procedures and plans.  

“It is with deep regret that I inform you that I am unable to properly staff our schools for in-person, hybrid teaching and learning on Jan. 25, 2021,” Ponds wrote. “As a result, I cannot open our buildings to students as planned. My team and I will be meeting with the Montclair Education Association (MEA) along with a third-party mediator this weekend to facilitate an agreement. We are also working in consultation with our legal counsel.”

Ponds acknowledged many parents would be upset by the news. 

“The decision to delay our opening of school buildings is disheartening. For all our families and students who were anxiously awaiting the return to in-person instruction, I realize how unsettling this news is,” Ponds wrote.

Ponds said all students will continue to follow their original remote learning schedules, with “live, synchronous teaching and learning until personnel and staffing issues are resolved,” he wrote.

In its own statement late Friday, the MEA said the mediation Ponds described would happen on Saturday. It described a tense Thursday meeting with the superintendent, where the union said its representatives couldn’t get their hands on requested documentation about school safety.

“We are just as confused as many members of this community. Obtaining documentation that the district claims to have, and upholding the meetings the district promised should not be difficult,” MEA President Petal Robertson said in the union’s statement. “However, it is our duty to ensure a safe and healthy workplace for our staff and a sound educational plan for our students.”

Robertson said the union had “asked repeatedly for meetings, for reports, for information, and time and time again we are met with silence and obfuscation from the superintendent but no verification. We are still hopeful and willing, as we look forward to mediation
tomorrow. The MEA is excited to begin the collaborative work of restoring our students, staff and families.”

In the MEA’s account of the Thursday meeting, the union asked for documentation regarding classroom readiness, and said “this documentation was not provided, and the MEA was met with hostility as Dr. Ponds blasted the leadership team for asking questions, inquiring about engineering reports, and other information about building readiness.” The union said it was only given a list of which rooms would receive air purifiers to address structural problems with school buildings’ aging ventilation systems, and not engineering reports.

An engineer’s report last fall found extensive issues with those systems it estimated would cost $26 million to fix. Ponds has recently described temporary measures such as the addition of about 400 air purifiers, and repairs to windows to let them ventilate air out.

“In terms of classroom readiness, there are many concerns with this report, especially with what’s missing in terms of the rooms being remediated or repaired as needed. Some rooms that appeared on the original report are left off of January 21st report in its entirety,” the MEA wrote.

The superintendent’s statement to the community doesn’t address the details of the district’s talks with the union, or provide an account of the Thursday meeting.

Both the district’s and MEA’s statements are included at the bottom of this article.

“I am devastated to hear that our school buildings are safe and yet buildings cannot be staffed appropriately,” parent Carolyn Corbran wrote to Montclair Local Friday night. “A labor dispute between the MEA and the district shouldn’t be the reason our children have to continue barely learning over a computer screen.”

The NJEA last week started a letter-writing campaign, urging the district to keep schools closed. By Friday night, more than 1,000 people had signed on. Days later, Corbran and other parents had launched their own 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. Another group, Montclair Families Advocating for In-Person Learning — or FAIL — has also been circulating a petition for the past few months, urging both a return to school and transparent communication with parents. Both the “Concerned Parents” and FAIL petitions have several hundred signatures.

Another parent, Jason Mark Anderman, told Montclair Local by email he was reminded of the challenges when the district moved to bring Special Education Applied Behavioral Analysis students without union support.

“That said, I’m encouraged that the most recent district email states that both sides plan to enter mediation. I do wish that the district had sought a mediated solution last summer, so an in-school option could have been provided to those children who certainly need one,” he wrote. I hope the mediator can help all stakeholders agree on a common set of facts as to what constitutes reasonable safety in each schoolroom per CDC Guidelines, and guide operational planning to allow teachers desiring to teach on-site or remotely sufficient flexibility to do so.”

Anderman said that even if the district doesn’t see the union as an “ideal partner,” it’s still an essential stakeholder, necessitating a negotiated resolution first before announcing an unachievable reopening.”

“I sympathize greatly though with both sides, assume positive intent, and hope two-way communication will offer a path forward,” Anderman wrote.

A week of uncertainty

The decision late Friday comes at nearly the last minute — as the standoff between the MEA (with the backing of the statewide New Jersey Education Association) and district left it unclear whether students could be greeted by empty classrooms Monday.

Ponds first announced last month his intention to return students in grades pre-K through five to school on a hybrid schedule beginning Jan. 25. Students in Montclair’s middle schools and high schools were expected to return Feb. 8. Ponds himself had pushed off a planned reopening in November, citing high levels of coronavirus community spread.

Wednesday night, Ponds offered thorough new detail on reopening plans that some teachers and parents said they wished they had much earlier, even as the superintendent described answering hundreds of questions in the past few weeks. The union maintains its particular concerns are far from addressed.

As a Board of Education meeting that evening stretched late into the night, Ponds and other officials heard from parents and educators with wide-ranging views on reopening. Some parents have demanded schools return for hybrid learning as soon as possible, citing the difficulties of remote learning and negative emotional impact on their children. Some teens told the district of the same struggles.

Yet other parents and teachers argued it’s not yet safe to return.

MEA members speaking Wednesday night alleged the superintendent hadn’t been transparent enough with their leadership about safety precautions, even as the Ponds pledged to continue working with the union to settle their differences.

And some parents criticized the MEA’s position as unfair or ill-timed, and argued the union was exaggerating health concerns.

That meeting followed a surprise to parents the day before, when teachers didn’t show up in elementary schools Tuesday for planned in-person professional development. Monday night, the MEA had voted against returning teachers to schools until its concerns were satisfied.

But throughout the school board meeting, Ponds and other district officials reiterated that the schools were on track to reopen as scheduled — giving no hint of what would happen if the union didn’t relent. Subsequent communications to the district community worked under the premise students would be back Monday as well.

There has been no announcement yet from the district regarding the planned reopening date for the middle schools and Montclair High School. The MEA last said its members had not made any decisions about returning to the middle schools and high school.

Corbran, in her email Friday, noted hundreds of New Jersey districts have resumed some level of in-person learning “and our children have not seen the inside of a classroom all year and I fear there’s no end in sight.”

“The MEA’s tagline on social media this week of #businessasusual is offensive and shows how little regard is given to the children including special education children who are struggling educationally, physically and emotionally,” she wrote.

But Montclair Local has heard from parents leery of a return as well.

“Parents think that things will be normal when the schools reopen and that couldn’t be further from the truth,”  Courtney Anderson wrote on Montclair Local’s Facebook page. “Kids in the buildings will still be learning from Zoom. The only difference is that they are now exposed to the virus.”

Tammy Oliver Granger, in another post to the paper’s Facebook page, urged: Vaccinate the teachers. Get it together and get our kids back into school where they belong Montclair.”

Gov. Phil Murphy has suggested over the last week New Jersey could soon open coronavirus vaccinations to teachers — but didn’t commit to any timetable. For now, vaccines are available to long-term care residents and staff, first-responders and certain other essential workers, those over 65, and those with certain health conditions.

The governor himself has urged any district that can do so to resume at least some level of in-person learning, though he’s left details of implementation to individual districts. Montclair students have been out of the classroom since last March, when the novel coronavirus pandemic first hit New Jersey.

Montclair Mayor Sean Spiller, also the vice president of the NJEA, told Montclair Local Thursday in an email he wanted to “recognize the extremely difficult situation that our new superintendent stepped into, starting in a new district as we entered into a pandemic, the likes of which none of us have ever experienced.”

“Our educators, students, and parents also deserve high praise for going above and beyond to continue the work of teaching and learning. It is from that starting point that we need all parties working together,” Spiller wrote in the email to Montclair Local. “It is important that all educational stakeholders collaborate in order to ensure we have an appropriate and clearly articulated safe plan for any return to in-person instruction.”

The mayor hasn’t yet answered a message back asking whether, in either his role as an NJEA officer or as a Montclair official, he’s been involved in talks among the parties. Under Montclair’s form of government, Spiller appoints board of education members, but he’s too recently taken the role to appoint any current members.

This is a developing story. 

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