By ERIN ROLL
roll@montclairlocal.news

More than 100 parents and elementary-age students gathered outside of Montclair’s Edgemont Montessori School Monday for a protest calling for the schools to reopen — after the district announced once again a return to hybrid learning would be pushed back.

Superintendent Jonathan Ponds had expected to reopen districts schools — closed since the novel coronavirus pandemic hit New Jersey last March — on Monday. But Friday night, he sent a letter to the school community saying there wouldn’t be enough staff to reopen school buildings after Montclair Education Association members declined to come back. The union’s members serving elementary schools first voted not to return for a professional development day scheduled for Jan. 19, leaving open the question for most of last week whether schools could really open on Jan. 25.

The union had voiced its opposition to planned reopening dates (Monday for pre-kindergarten through fifth grade, and Feb. 8 for Montclair’s middle schools and high school), saying conditions at the schools and current COVID-19 infection rates did not make it safe to do so. Ponds has cited temporary upgrades to the district’s decades-old ventilation systems and precautions the district has planned for the students’ return. The district and the MEA have begun talks with a third-party mediator. 

The protest was organized by Montclair Families Advocating for In-Person Learning — or FAIL —  a parents group that has been especially vocal in demanding the reopening of schools. 

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A banner tied to the columns at the school entrance said: “318 days since we were in school.” 

Some of the attendees carried signs with statements such as “Stop Harming Kids,” “Not Remotely Okay,” “Kids Are Suffering” and “I Miss My Friends and Teachers.” 

The lawn in front of the school was piled with children’s backpacks, and Montclair FAIL signs were stuck into the lawn around them. 

“I think we keep hearing these dates thrown out, and right before that date comes, it gets pushed again. And it’s disheartening, for the parents and the kids,” Ryan Coakley, who has three children in eighth, seventh and second grades, said.

“My opinion is that the whole thing is pretty sad for all sides,” Coakley said. He said he hoped schools and the teachers could come to an agreement that was satisfactory for everyone. 

Jake Lewis, who has a second-grader at Northeast School, said he wanted to see education become a priority over what he viewed as politics.

“I feel like there’s a lot of political finger-pointing going on,” he said. 

He said he would have wanted to see the community and the teachers coming together in a better way to have productive talks about getting the schools reopened.

“I would think Montclair would be a leader in that respect. Instead it feels like they’re at the bottom of the barrel,” he said.

The protest comes days after a board of education meeting stretched late into the night as Ponds and other school officials heard from teachers who said the schools aren’t ready and that the MEA has been unfairly demonized, parents who worried about COVID-19 readiness, other parents who said a return is overdue and students are suffering without in-person learning, and students who spoke of the difficulty and emotional impact of being away from class. Ponds described answering hundreds of questions in recent weeks, though many at the meeting said those answers hadn’t reached the MEA or the community.

The MEA has also described a tense meeting late last week with the superintendent in which the union says it was denied access to detailed engineering reports and other information that could have addressed some of its concerns. Neither side has yet publicly addressed the progress of mediation that began this weekend. 

An engineer’s report last fall found extensive issues with ventilation systems it estimated would cost $26 million to fix. Ponds has recently described temporary measures such as the addition of about 400 air purifiers, upgrades to mechanical systems, and repairs to windows to let them ventilate air out. The district has released a spreadsheet of which rooms have the purifiers at elementary and high schools, alongside safety ratings for its rooms. Ponds has also described enhanced cleaning procedures, screening for students and staff, social distancing and masking policies, and the purchase of protective equipment for teachers and others.

Montclair Local has separately sent the district a list of questions — asking whether desks will have Plexiglas barriers, how hands-on classes like art and science labs will be handled, and what remaining work still needed to be accomplished before students return It has not yet received a direct response to that list. Ponds said in a message to Montclair Local the school district buildings meet state standards for health safety.

With photos by Kate Albright