Students form two lines as they wait to enter Renaissance Middle School May 10, 2021. KATE ALBRIGHT / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
hochman@montclairlocal.news

Montclair Mayor Sean Spiller is planning Monday to formally announce a task force “to facilitate a smooth return to full time in-person learning,” he said in a statement Saturday.

Spiller will announce the “Full Time Task Force” and an update on federal funds for schools alongside several other political leaders — 11th District Congresswoman Mikie Sherrill, Essex County Commissioner Brendan Gill and a representative of 10th District Congressman Donald M. Payne, Jr. — as well as the task force’s chair, Montclair resident Debra Jennings, the statement said. Sherrill and Gill are both Montclair residents.

The mayor said in the statement, sent by Matt Krayton of PR consultancy Publitics, the task force would include “parents, students, educators, administrators and members of our Board of Education to help us return to full time in-person instruction in the fall stronger than before, while building resiliency for the future.”




The statement didn’t name any of the members, or say what if any role school officials may have had in planning the task force.

It quoted Payne saying the task force will “allow parents and students to voice their concerns, teachers to provide feedback on how best to conduct in-person learning post-pandemic, and administrators to create policies that are in the best interests of everyone involved.” It didn’t describe a specific process for how that would work alongside or be coordinated with the district’s own outreach efforts. Krayton said more information would be presented at Monday’s press conference.

The only officials named in the statement — the mayor, county commissioner and Congress members — don’t have any formal authority over school operations, though their work often intersects with that of the school system (for instance, in helping secure funds, or in facilitating partnerships like one Spiller announced earlier this year to vaccinate Montclair school district employees.)

But under Montclair’s form of government, Spiller helps shape the body that ultimately runs the district — he’s responsible for appointing school board members. When three new members take their seats Monday, for the first time, the majority of the board will be members Spiller selected. He’s also the current vice president and incoming president of the New Jersey Education Association, the powerful statewide union for teachers and other school staff. The NJEA and the local Montclair Education Association had both found themselves in conflict with the Montclair district in January when MEA members refused to return to school buildings, citing coronavirus safety concerns — but the parties have since reached an agreement, and hybrid learning schedules have started. For his own part, during that conflict, Spiller said it wasn’t his role to dictate policy to the MEA or district.

Spiller said in the statement the task force’s chair, Jennings, is a “longtime nonprofit leader and advocate in the special education and education equity spaces.” Her LinkedIn profile says she currently works in intersectionality, race and disability, and family engagement and empowerment — the latest responsibilities in 24 years with the SPAN Parent Advocacy Network. She’d been a longtime executive co-director for the group as well. She’d also previously been a member of the professional advisory board for the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

Sherrill said that as a mother of four children “I personally know the overwhelming challenges remote learning has imposed on kids and the toll it has taken on students and their families this school year” and cited her own work as a congresswoman to advocate for and help support a return to school facilities. She said she looked forward “to seeing the task force’s work and finally getting kids back in school full-time as soon as possible.”

Gill, the father of two children in Montclair schools and the son of a still-active Montclair school teacher, said the “swift return to full time in-person instruction is critical for the wellbeing of our students and our township.” Gill, in an April letter to Montclair Local, defended against criticisms he’d resisted returning students to schools — saying he’d always supported a return, once it could be done safely. He’d previously said availability of vaccines for teachers had been a key factor. His own daughter returned in April with other elementary school students, he said in the letter.

Montclair students were entirely out of classrooms for more than a year, after coronavirus lockdowns shut all New Jersey school buildings in March 2020. Plans to return were delayed several times, most recently amid the MEA’s and district’s dispute starting in January. The district eventually sued the MEA, alleging an illegal teachers strike, but the parties eventually settled. Staffers agreed to return, and the district agreed to provide more information on facilities upgrades and safety practices.

The district’s elementary school students returned to classrooms on a hybrid learning plan April 12, and middle school students came back May 10. High schoolers are expected to come back starting with freshmen May 19. Specific scheduling plans have been in flux over the past few weeks, as district officials have made adjustments meant to get children in classrooms more often.

Superintendent of Schools Jonathan Ponds has said he expects students to return full-time in the fall. Gov. Phil Murphy has also said he expects every district in the state to offer only in-person learning come September, with allowances made for staff and students who have specific health concerns.

But some parents have pushed for an earlier full-time return. A group of eight families have filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the district seeking five-day instruction. Some parents have pushed for full-time learning at community demonstrations and in petitions.

Councilman Peter Yacobellis, in a separate statement emailed constituents Saturday, said the Montclair Township Council is ready to work with the school system, teachers, parents and others on a return to five-day learning in the fall. And he said while he’d have liked a return earlier, “after speaking with Dr. Ponds, I do not feel at this point that it is logistically possible to do so safely.”

“I know that’s difficult to hear for many parents,” the councilman wrote.

But he cited the $6.6 million expected through the American Rescue Plan as a resource, and advocated for work toward addressing learning loss and other consequences from the pandemic. He also said he’d support a bond issue to upgrade school facilities.

“I welcome any coordinated effort to return kids to school full time,” he told Montclair Local by email. “To me that means having all parties involved communicating and coordinating. If we can do with Montclair schools what Essex County did with vaccines, then that’s the home run. We cannot accept anything less than full time in class learning for the next school year and we have to do whatever it takes to make that happen.”