By ERIN ROLL
The Montclair Board of Education charges in its lawsuit against the Montclair Education Association — announced and filed Tuesday — that the teachers union is conducting an illegal strike as its members won’t return to classrooms.
Teachers have continued to hold classes remotely, as they’ve been doing since March 2020, after refusing to return for a planned Jan. 25 resumption of in-person learning at elementary schools on a hybrid schedule. The district’s middle schools and high school had been expected to come back Feb. 8, but that return is in limbo.
The teachers union contends it’s not yet safe to return to Montclair school buildings with decades-old and dysfunctional ventilation systems, and that the district hasn’t been forthcoming or thorough enough about fixes and coronavirus safety procedures.
In the suit, the district asks Essex County Superior Court to compel teachers to return to the classroom. It also seeks monetary damages.
“The elementary staff [Montclair Education] Association members have engaged in a concerted effort by refusing to return to work,” the suit states. “The elementary staff Association members’ refusal to report to work constitutes an illegal strike which prevents the public school district from educating its students in person as required.”
Teacher strikes are barred by New Jersey law.
The MEA said in a three-page press statement on Tuesday that Superintendent Jonathan Ponds has implied “the staff is not teaching or working, that we don’t care about the students, and that there is a rift between the parents and us. He couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Read the MEA statement as well as the district’s lawsuit announcement in a “community message” below.
The suit states that the MEA’s actions have created an “emergency” and have “materially and substantially interfered with the district’s primary responsibility and obligation to ensure that all district students have the opportunity to attain their educational objectives.”
It alleges the MEA’s actions are a refusal to work, are a concerted action designed to deny government necessary manpower, and constitute work stoppages. It also says the district has a right to require its employees to perform their duties.
The MEA has not responded to specific allegations in the lawsuit, but in its statement Tuesday said the union was “sucker-punched by a district that cries wolf,” and that there were “mounds of proof of the district’s negligence in preparing buildings for students.”
It accused Ponds of violating the conditions of a confidentiality agreement as mediation between the parties continued. It said Ponds’ mentions in community messages, like the one released Tuesday, of plans for a return don’t take into account students’ or teachers’ needs for safety or scheduling, and include information on his ideas for a return “without context and [ignoring] the fact that he has failed to consider the important details needed to make such a plan work.”
Ponds, in his latest community message, discussed proposals such as only using rooms where HVAC systems are present and working, and having the district’s youngest students return to the Charles H. Bullock School, constructed in 2010, where there are no known ventilation issues. He also said the district considered letting teachers work part of their days remotely.
Meredith Barnes, a spokesperson for the New Jersey Education Association — which has often spoken for the MEA in recent weeks — said Wednesday the union wouldn’t make further statements about the lawsuit for now.
“We believe that since we have not walked away from the mediation table, we are still committed to the process and the confidentiality that was agreed to with our state mediator. We really do not want to risk breaching that trust,” Barnes wrote in an email to Montclair Local.
Montclair’s schools originally planned to reopen for some in-person learning in September, but the district opted to push that date back because ventilation systems in most of the buildings were deemed inadequate.
Ponds pushed back a second expected reopening date in November because of a high rate of community transmission of the novel coronavirus. But he says temporary measures — such as the purchase of 400 air purifiers and other mechanical fixes in school buildings — have made them safe for a return and meet state standards.
Gov. Phil Murphy has voiced his support for schools reopening, saying that in-person instruction provides students with educational, social and emotional benefits that cannot be achieved solely through remote instruction.
The Montclair schools’ lawsuit cites Murphy’s Executive Order 175, which said public and charter schools “shall resume partial or full-time in-person instruction during the fall of school year 2020-2021,” but also gave districts time to ramp up safety measures and instructed districts not yet ready to reopen to lay out timelines and steps for doing so. The order cites the Department of Education and the American Academy of Pediatrics on the importance of returning to in-school learning.
“Many districts have expressed that meeting critical health and safety criteria by the first day of school is proving to be a challenge,” Murphy said in August. “While we continue to believe that there is no substitute for being in the classroom, allowing districts to delay the implementation of in-person instruction will give them the time and flexibility they need to ensure buildings are ready and welcoming when they do open.”
As of the start of this month, Murphy said, 213 New Jersey School districts remain on entirely remote learning — down by 57 over a week earlier. There are 470 districts on hybrid learning, like the kind Montclair had been scheduled to start in January. Another 89 districts are holding full-time in-person classes. Under Murphy’s executive orders, parents who prefer to keep their children home for remote learning may do so in any of those arrangements.
According to the state Department of Health, as of Feb. 3, 629 coronavirus cases connected to 131 school outbreaks had been reported. Essex County has seen one outbreak, involving 92 cases.
Ponds, in announcing the lawsuit Tuesday, said mediation between the parties would continue.