Green Chameleon via Unsplash

By ERIN ROLL and LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
roll@montclairlocal.news
hochman@montclairlocal.news

A week of school days has come and gone without Montclair’s elementary school students returned to classrooms for hybrid learning, as had been planned for Jan. 25. A once-planned date to return middle-schoolers and high-schoolers Feb. 8 hangs in purgatory.

And as the Montclair Education Association and the public school district continue their dispute — with the union arguing it’s not yet safe to return, and school leaders trying to move ahead — there are plenty of unknowns.

We don’t know if anyone’s going to court: The MEA’s members serving elementary schools voted earlier in January not to return for a planned professional development day. Late on Jan. 22, schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds conceded in a community note he wouldn’t have the staff to return students the following Monday. The two sides entered mediation that weekend. But while the union told its members on Jan. 27 the district would take the MEA to court, neither side said so when asked for further comment, and Montclair Local has yet to see any court filing.

Ponds, in multiple messages since, has said the district is conferring with legal counsel — something he reaffirmed in a community message Jan. 29. The MEA said Jan. 27 “the district has not been able to agree to our reasonable requests for information nor our request to remain remote” and that it didn’t know what the next steps would be.

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“I understand your need for further information; however, this is a sensitive situation and because we are currently in mediation and working with legal counsel, we do not want to compromise either process,” Ponds said in the most recent community message. “It is important for everyone to feel heard, know that their safety is paramount, and that we reach the common goal of getting our students back to the classrooms.”

Ponds acknowledged that the idea of reporting to work in person could be stressful for some of the staff, and the anxiety caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in general. He said he understood “the discussions surrounding batch testing for COVID-19 and the situation with the distribution of vaccines” — with some educators pushing for vaccines to be open to teachers before they return to school buildings. “I understand and do not discount any of these concerns,” the superintendent wrote.

We don’t know if mediation has hit a wall: Something prompted the MEA’s message to its members Jan. 27. The union had already been arguing ongoing community transmission of coronavirus and aging ventilation systems that a report estimated would cost $26 million to fix make it unsafe to return, and had accused Ponds of not sharing detailed plans for safety. But in its Jan. 27 message, the MEA also alleged 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” — referencing temporary steps taken in the last few months to improve air quality. It said the district hasn’t provided any evidence of fixes to sinks needed for handwashing either. Neither side has said what if any talks continued after that. 

We do know some things about the district’s ventilation fixes — but not everything: The district has performed upgrades to many windows to let them open up, allowing for ventilation in rooms where it was lacking before, and made upgrades to mechanical systems. The district has ordered 400 air purifiers and set them up in rooms throughout its buildings. It also posted spreadsheets to its website, showing where the purifiers are located in elementary schools as well as the middle schools and high school.

But those spreadsheets don’t reference all of the rooms detailed in the fall engineering report that detailed Montclair schools’ ventilation problems. They don’t explain what sort of air quality to expect in rooms described as “red” or “yellow” (rooms marked “green” are considered safe as-is), but with purifiers present.

Montclair Local sent Ponds a message seeking clarification on those points, as well as asking how many classrooms at each building would be in use when the school reopens, whether any classrooms marked in “red” or “yellow” categories would be in use, and what the next steps for rooms deemed unusable would be. Ponds answered on Thursday only: “We are working with the district’s attorney.”

When Montclair Local asked again — noting these were procedural and safety questions about the school buildings themselves, and not specifically about the talks with the MEA — Ponds answered again: “I understand your wanting more information. However, this is a sensitive situation, and because we are currently in mediation and working with legal counsel, we do not want to compromise either process.”

We do know some things about safety procedures — but not everything: Earlier in the month, Montclair Local sent Ponds other questions. Among them were whether barriers like plexiglass shields would be in use; how typically on-hands instruction like science, art or physical education would be handled; and the state of staffing levels. Those questions were never addressed directly, but Ponds told Montclair Local the schools would meet state health standards.

But the district has laid out certain safety measures. Ponds first detailed some of the plans at a lengthy school board meeting Jan. 20 — just days before schools were set to open — and others in recent community messages. There are temperature checkpoints at school building entrances, and directional tape and six-foot markers have been put down in the hallways. Nurses’ offices will have isolation rooms. Staff members will be provided personal protective equipment including a minimum of one face shield and two masks, and some will be given more equipment depending on their job duties. In messages to parents, Ponds outlined how buses would be configured, with aides and social distancing guidelines in place. Students won’t be able to board school buses without masks. Families are required to use an online portal to complete health and wellness checks, as well as daily screenings, before returning their children for in-person instruction. Staff must use a screening form as well. The school nurse has prepared guidance on how to respond to potential symptoms. Spectators remain barred from athletic events.

Principals at two schools, Glenfield and Montclair High School, held school-specific presentations Thursday night to show some of the preparations. 

We do know Montclair — and Mayor Sean Spiller — are in the news a lot: Montclair has caught regional and national attention for its schools debate, which comes even as the Biden administration is pushing hard to get kids back to classrooms, and Gov. Phil Murphy touts just how many have already returned. The New York Times has covered the battle. So has WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show. Mayor Sean Spiller appeared in a segment on WPIX that he’s posted to his own YouTube channel.

A mayor is a not-uncommon go-to for checking in on a town’s issues. But Spiller has other connections in play. He’s the vice president of the statewide New Jersey Education Association, which has been coordinating with the MEA (many statements to media have come through the state union, on the local union’s behalf) throughout the debate. And the NJEA has more broadly taken a stance against returning students and teachers to schools before the union thinks they’re ready. Spiller’s role with the powerful teachers’ union was an issue during his campaign last year as well — in part because under Montclair’s form of government, the mayor appoints school board members. 

But Spiller, in his WPIX interview, said he isn’t among the negotiators.

“You’ve got the administrators from the school district, you’ve got the educators in a room having that conversation,” he said in the TV interview. “That’s tight to make sure they can figure things out.”

He’d also told Montclair Local on Jan. 25, the day elementary students had been expected to return: “My role as mayor 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,” and said he would be supportive of the “collective conclusions” of the school system and MEA, “including whether or not vaccines are a prerequisite.”

“They can determine if, like 414 other New Jersey schools, they can safely offer a hybrid of in-person and remote instruction, or if like 270 schools, all-remote is the safe route at this time,” Spiller wrote in an email.

In multiple statements to Montclair Local and other media, Spiller has emphasized a desire for collaboration and agreement among the parties. He’s said everyone’s eager to get kids back into classrooms, if the parties agree it can be done safely. He told the New York Times vaccination remained the only way to guarantee safety — an argument some MEA teachers have made — even as the mayor has stopped short of taking a side in any public statement.

“I want 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,” Spiller told Montclair Local in an email Jan. 21. “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.”

We don’t know what kind of headcount to expect for in-person learning: So far, the district hasn’t said how many children are expected to return for hybrid learning once the schools open up. 

We do know teachers, students and parents are all divided: Anyone who dropped into the recent school board meeting, which stretched into the night, could tell that. MEA members blamed the district for not being transparent enough, and urged school leaders and the community not to demonize teachers. Some parents and students praised Ponds and the district for their plans, at the time, to move ahead with the Jan. 25 opening. Some said it was long overdue, citing the emotional and educational difficulties their children were experiencing out of the classroom. Some parents struck a cautious note, asking for more information about safety precautions, or backing teachers who didn’t feel safe going back. And some just lamented the acrimony developing.

More than 100 parents and elementary-age students gathered outside of Montclair’s Edgemont Montessori School Jan. 25 for a protest organized by Montclair Families Advocating for In-Person Learning — or FAIL —  a group dedicated to getting the district’s children back into the classroom. For months, FAIL has been circulating a petition to return students, with more than 730 signatures as of Saturday afternoon.

The NJEA in January started a letter-writing campaign, urging the district to keep schools closed. It too gained hundreds of participants, though the campaign no longer appeared to be online Saturday. In response to the NJEA campaign, parent Carolyn Corbran and others 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. It had nearly 600 participants Sunday.

We don’t know if anyone’s set a new date for students to return. With so much in limbo, any target date to reopen schools would be hypothetical — and the district hasn’t announced one, even in the event legal issues and negotiations are resolved soon. Middle- and high-school teachers have been advised that planned in-person professional development days have been suspended until further notice.