By ERIN ROLL
Montclair teachers and staff will have an easier time getting the COVID-19 vaccine starting next week through a new local partnership.
On Friday, March 12, Mayor Sean Spiller announced that through a partnership with the township, the school district and Hackensack Meridian Health Mountainside Medical Center, COVID-19 vaccines will be available to every Montclair teacher and staff member who wants to be vaccinated. The district currently employs 1,136 total staff members, of which 583 are teachers.
Although New Jersey opened up vaccinations to teachers last week, the program will make vaccines more accessible to Montclair teachers. The plan is to vaccinate up to 80 Montclair teachers a week in anticipation of an April 12 reopening for the elementary schools.
“The coronavirus is a challenge unlike any we’ve ever seen before,” Spiller said, outside Charles H. Bullock School, accompanied by school officials, township officials, hospital staff and union representatives. “This whole pandemic can be divisive in so many ways. But it is important for all of us to remember that it is only as a community, partnering together, standing arm in arm that we can get through this.”
“When we come together, we can tackle the pandemic,” Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said.
Ponds paraphrased a verse from a poem that was a favorite of John F. Kennedy: “Bullfight critics ranked in rows; Crowd the enormous plaza full; But only one is there who knows; And he’s the man who fights the bull.”
Pointing to the officials around him, he added: “These are our bullfighters. The ones that fought the pandemic, to help us get where we are,” Ponds said, referring to school staff, union members, township employees and hospital workers.
The schools were last in session on March 13, 2020. The next day teachers began packing up their classrooms.
“Exactly this time last year, teachers across Montclair were frantically packing up their classrooms for what we thought would be a two-week remote period,” said MEA Chair Petal Robertson. She said it was a stark reminder that things can change in a day.
“Mayor Spiller, you have given us the best anniversary gift we have gotten in some time, and we are so very grateful,” Robertson said.
Board of Education President Latifah Jannah expressed thanks for the vaccine initiative, and to those working to get students and staff safely back into school.
In a subsequent statement, Jannah said, “The Montclair Board of Education thank all who have come together to ensure a safe return for students, teachers, and staff back into our Montclair Schools.”
County Commissioner Brendan Gill noted that he is the father of a 12-year-old and a 9-year-old, and that his own father is a longtime district teacher. “This issue, each and every day, hits home for me.”
He added that the timeline over reopening schools had resulted in a lot of contentious rhetoric around Montclair. “There’s no question that this issue has been one that has divided our community to some extent,” Gill said.
The vaccine announcement did not mean the time for precautions is over, he added. “We are not by any means spiking the football, we are not by any means planning a victory,” Gill said.
The “vast majority” of staff members at the hospital have been vaccinated, Mountainside CEO Timothy O’Brien said, and the hospital has given “thousands” of vaccines to high-risk individuals since the first shipments of vaccine arrived in December.
O’Brien, also a Montclair resident, said his four and five-year-old daughters will be starting school in Montclair in the near future.
New Jersey has started giving teachers coronavirus vaccines earlier than expected.
Last week, Gov. Phil Murphy announced teachers and several other categories of workers would become eligible for vaccination on March 15.
But after President Joe Biden called on states to provide at least one dose to every teacher and school staff member by the end of the month, New Jersey quickly shifted its plans, beginning to vaccinate teachers late last week.
“President Biden last week came over the top through the Department of Health and Human Services and mandated that teachers and day-care professionals be vaccinated,” Murphy told reporters Monday at his routine coronavirus media briefing.
Biden, on March 2, announced he would use “the full authority of the federal government” to support vaccination for teachers.
The New Jersey Education Association has been calling on the Murphy administration to make vaccinations available to teachers for months, but the issue has particular relevance in Montclair, where a dispute between the public school district and the Montclair Education Association kept schools from reopening to any in-person learning this winter. The MEA contended school buildings aren’t safe, and that the district hasn’t taken thorough enough precautions. In past statements, it noted teachers could become eligible for vaccinations soon.
The two sides announced a settlement Tuesday in their court case over the matter — with an expected resumption of classes for elementary school students April 12.
“We are honored to begin vaccinating teachers and support staff beginning next week, including Montclair Public Schools,” Gill said in a subsequent statement.