By ERIN ROLL
roll@montclairlocal.news

Montclair’s elementary school students are slated to return to school on April 12.

The Montclair Board of Education and the Montclair Education Association reached a settlement in their lawsuit over reopening schools to in-person learning March 9, the day they were scheduled to begin arguing the case before Judge James Paganelli in Essex County Superior Court. The two sides had been in conference for several hours when the deal was announced.

Paganelli, who read the settlement at a brief hearing in the afternoon, did not announce a starting date for the district’s middle or high schools. He also didn’t detail what sort of a schedule Montclair schools would have.

The settlement is contingent on several “deliverables” —  including the district sending the MEA information on cleaning and safety protocols, teacher schedules with a focus on preparation time, entry and dismissal plans and best practices for isolation rooms. The two parties will also do walkthroughs of Montclair’s seven public elementary school buildings during the week of March 22. Teachers will receive their class rosters by March 19.

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“The Montclair Public School District is pleased that the Montclair Education Association (MEA) has committed to in-person instruction at the elementary schools commencing on April 12,” schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said in a statement released late Tuesday afternoon. “We will work collaboratively with the MEA during walkthroughs scheduled for the week of March 22 and provide them with the remaining items they requested.”  

Montclair Local has sent messages to the district and union seeking more information. Ponds said the district was planning to release a full statement on the matter on March 10. 

Mayor Sean Spiller, who is also the vice president of the New Jersey Education Association, said in a statement posted to social media that a “safe return to in person instruction is an objective shared by all.”

“Recovering from COVID-19 as a community won’t happen overnight, but getting our kids and staff back in the classroom safely is a key and necessary step forward,” Spiller wrote. “As we continue making strides towards normalcy, I want to encourage everyone to remember that especially when facing our most daunting challenges we must never lose sight of our shared values, our shared love for our township, and our mutual respect for one another. We are all in this together and together is how we’re going to get through it.”

The district filed the lawsuit against the MEA in February, arguing that when teachers refused to return to classrooms this winter, they were conducting an illegal strike. Teachers continued to teach remotely, as they have since the novel coronavirus pandemic hit New Jersey in March of last year. The MEA had contended Montclair school buildings aren’t safe, and that the district wasn’t thorough or transparent enough with its plans to protect students and staff.

In the settlement, the two parties agreed to set up a reopening team consisting of essential staff members, MEA members and at least one building principal, with the goal of meeting weekly to exchange information on the reopening process. 

The court docket will remain open until mid-to-late April. 

“We all want a safe return to in-person teaching,” Paganelli said. “That was the goal that everybody joined the conference with this morning, and I appreciate that very much.” 

A dispute that went months

The district, in its filings ahead of Tuesday’s hearing, had said enrollment dropped off in the 2020-21 school year by 459 students compared to the year before — about 7% of the student population. Roughly half of that was among elementary school students, the district said. It argued the union’s refusal to return interfered with the school system’s obligations to teach students, and kept it from fulfilling state mandates to return to some in-person learning if possible.

The MEA, just hours ahead of the settlement announcement, issued a press release saying its resistance to returning was based on the district’s failure to follow-through on its assurances about safety. 

An engineer’s report in the fall found serious ventilation problems through almost all school buildings, and estimated they’d cost $26 million in the long run to address — a key point in the MEA’s arguments against returning over the last several months. The district purchased hundreds of air purifiers and took other steps it said would improve air quality, and released spreadsheets to parents showing their locations.

But the MEA for months said the district didn’t give the union an updated engineering report, or what it said in the release was promised “collaboration on a sound educational plan” or building-by-building meetings. The district brought its engineer back in March, but only after the MEA stood firmly by its position, the union said.

“The follow-­­through on these items would have gone a long way in building trust and  demonstrating a desire for authentic collaboration. Unfortunately, none of these things occurred,” it wrote.

Over the last few months, Montclair Local sent Ponds several questions about safety precautions. 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. He cited the ongoing dispute and litigation in declining to provide more information.

But the district did lay 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 community-wide messages. The district had been planning 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.

The MEA, in the statement issued ahead of the settlement Tuesday, said it didn’t assume the district had “nefarious” motivations, “after all, it is not now nor has it ever been our goal to vilify or to be vilified.” And it rejected characterizations of its dispute with the district as a “battle” — saying “in fact, that type of rhetoric poisons the public and brings us further from restoration.” 

Murphy pushes NJ schools to return

Gov. Phil Murphy has said recently he would “fully expect” schools throughout the state to return for in-person learning by the fall. At the start of this month, he announced of New Jersey’s 811 public school districts, charter schools and other school systems, 533 were on hybrid learning schedules, up 42 from a week earlier, and 110 were conducting all-in-person learning, up 15. Another 142 remained fully remote — down 48. Twenty-seven were using a mix of in person, hybrid and all-remote learning.

The governor earlier this month announced teachers would become eligible for coronavirus vaccinations on March 15 — then stepped up that date further as President Joe Biden’s administration urged all states to get teachers vaccinated by the month’s end. The MEA had cited the possibility teachers could soon be vaccinated in statements about its concerns over a return, but said Tuesday “was never a premise in our discussions with the district.”

Spiller told the New York Times in January vaccination is the only way to guarantee safety, but has stressed since he didn’t necessarily consider it a prerequisite for returning to classrooms. The mayor has said repeatedly it’s not his place to take a side in the dispute over returning to classrooms. 

Separately, in late February, a group of eight families sued the Montclair school district, seeking a return to full-time in-person learning. Parent Steven Baffico, serving as a spokesperson for the group, has their lawsuit bolstered the district’s own case against the MEA, which had argued in part the union was opening up the school system to liability by preventing it from serving students fully. 

Baffico said Tuesday the parents’ lawsuit would still move forward for now. He said he’s glad there’s a settlement, but that there don’t seem to be many details available just yet, and he wonders why it will take weeks before students return.

Another parent Sarah Blaine told Montclair Local by email Tuesday she’s glad the district will be providing the MEA more complete details “and I am only sorry it took litigation for us to achieve what other districts managed to do collaboratively months ago.” She said she’d been frustrated by “our administrators’ inability to answer basic questions about how they planned to operate in a way that will keep our family safe, and as a result I felt forced to elect all-remote for my middle schooler.”

Saturday, parents seeking a full-time return to schools still plan a protest in Montclair’s Rand Park. One of the organizers, Rachel Keane, told Montclair Local by email participants want Murphy to make full-time in-person instruction mandatory, and want the state Department of Health to change its guidance to allow students within 3 feet, rather than 6 feet, of each other in classes. For many districts, the social distancing requirement has limited the amount of students able to attend any one class in person.