Parents hang a sign at the Edgemont School entrance. KATE ALBRIGHT/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
hochman@montclairlocal.news

The union representing Montclair’s teachers — locked in a dispute with the school district over whether and when to return to in-person learning amid the novel coronavirus pandemic — told its members Wednesday the district was taking the union to court.

“Unfortunately, we have been informed that it is the district’s plan to take the association to court over our advocacy for the health and safety of students and staff,” Petal Robertson, president of the Montclair Education Association, wrote in a message to members this morning. “We always have been, and still are, committed to a mediation process. We will provide additional details when we are permitted to do so.”

But a press statement the MEA issued Wednesday afternoon didn’t specifically address any court action, and said the union didn’t know what steps would be next. It did, say, though: “Unfortunately, the district has not been able to agree to our reasonable requests for information nor our request to remain remote until the surge in transmission rates and positive cases has decreased to safer levels.”

Montclair Local has not yet seen a court filing from the district or MEA regarding the dispute. Schools Superintendent Dr. Jonathan Ponds told Montclair Local by email Wednesday evening “we are in consultation with the district’s attorney,” but issued no further comment.

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When Montclair Local asked the MEA and the statewide New Jersey Education Association (which has been coordinating with the local union) for clarification on any threatened or filed court action, a spokesperson for the MEA wrote back by email: “I believe that our press releases (sic) addresses the issue. I don’t think we have much more to say.”

This is a developing story.

The union and district began mediation Saturday after a face-off that saw MEA members first decline to return for a professional development day Jan. 19.

Montclair had expected to welcome back pre-kindergarten through fifth-grade students for a hybrid learning arrangement beginning Jan. 25, and middle-schoolers and high-schoolers Feb. 8. But Superintendent Jonathan Ponds, in a community bulletin Jan. 22, acknowledged he wouldn’t have the staff to make the Jan. 25 return happen. He also said the district was discussing the situation with its legal counsel.

In his own message to staff Wednesday, Montclair High School Principal Jeffrey A. Freeman told teachers planned professional development days for Feb. 1 and 5 were postponed, and directed teachers to continue “synchronous instruction following the remote learning schedule.” A copy of his message, as provided to Montclair Local by a person who received it from the district, didn’t say why the schedule change was made or address any court action directly.

Students have been out of Montclair’s classrooms since March, when the novel coronavirus pandemic first hit New Jersey. Ponds delayed a planned return in November, citing high levels of community spread. The MEA has resisted a return, saying coronavirus spread is as dangerous as it was in the fall, and that it’s not satisfied with answers about how the district is dealing with decades-old ventilation systems or safety procedures. The MEA says it hasn’t seen requested documentation that could address some of its concerns, and notes New Jersey could soon open up coronavirus vaccinations to teachers.

Ponds, for his part, has described the purchase of 400 air purifiers, mechanical upgrades to systems and upgrades that allow classroom windows to open up — intended as temporary fixes for ventilation problems a report estimated would take $26 million in the long-term to address. He’s also described screening procedures, masking policies and social distancing rules intended to mitigate concerns about coronavirus spread. But many at a 4 1/2-hour school board meeting just days before schools were set to open said answers to hundreds of questions Ponds described addressing in recent weeks hadn’t made their way to the MEA leadership or community.

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 ahead of a return to classrooms. 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.

In its press statement Wednesday, the MEA said it was “disappointed that the district lied about their commitment to fix or update the needed spaces, as there never was a second engineering report attesting to the remediations.” The union has previously said it asked for such an engineering report, but was never given one.

It continued: “Our records show that we have, for example, 164 sinks that need to be fixed. The district has no evidence to share with us whether or not these sinks will be fixed, as these are clearly an important fixture in pandemic hand-washing requirements. Reports from our findings with an industrial hygienist … as well as the first engineering report from
[engineers] EI, list many areas of concern. Without evidence that these issues have been resolved, it begs the question, how can we be sure the buildings are safe for our students and staff?”

The MEA said in the statement its members had been made “the scapegoats for our advocacy of the health and safety of students and staff.”

“At this time, we do not know what steps will occur next,” the MEA wrote. “What we do know is that we will not let this effect our educational plan to give Montclair students the very best instruction. We will not let this prevent us from being creative and innovative in our instruction. We will not let this taint the care and compassion we, all 1000 MEA members, have for our students and community.”

Parents and students through the district have been sharply divided over the question of whether to return students. More than 100 protested outside Edgemont Montessori School Monday, seeking a return they say is necessary for students’ education and developmental well-being. In the long school board meeting, several parents thanked Ponds for being steadfast in his plan to return students to school as well. But still others said they had deep concerns about safety for students and teachers alike. Teachers and some parents urged the district not to treat the MEA as an enemy.

The debate comes as more New Jersey schools are returning their students to some level of in-person instruction. Gov. Phil Murphy, who has encouraged in-person instruction, said Monday only 270 schools remained entirely remote at that time. Eighty-six districts have started entirely in-person instruction, up by six districts from a week ago and nine since winter break. Montclair had been slated to join 414 offering hybrid instruction (up from 348 on Jan. 4), with some students in and some out of the classroom at any given time.

New President Joe Biden has also released what he calls a five-step “roadmap” to return most students to schools.

Mayor Sean Spiller is also the vice president of the New Jersey Education Association, which represents teachers statewide. As mayor, Spiller appoints school board members. But he told Montclair Local in an email earlier this week his role “is not to dictate policy for either the Board of Education or the MEA, however I have encouraged all parties to come together to see if they feel safe conditions have been met at this time.

“As those charged with making sound educational decisions for our kids, I would be supportive of their collective conclusions, including whether or not vaccines are a prerequisite. They can determine if, like 414 other New Jersey [school districts], they can safely offer a hybrid of in-person and remote instruction, or if like 270 [districts], all-remote is the safe route at this time,” Spiller wrote.

He said Montclair must “remain flexible and make changes based on conditions as they exist.”

“Whatever we do, with 63 of our family members, friends and neighbors lost to this virus, we must have safety as our top priority,” the mayor wrote.

— Includes reporting By Erin Roll 

An earlier version of this story misstated the date the MEA sent its message to teachers. An earlier version also incorrectly attributed a message from MHS Principal Jeffrey A. Freeman to Superintendent Jonathan Ponds.