By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
hochman@montclairlocal.news

There’s a phrase that recurs when Montclair Schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds and other administrators talk about their plans for a full-time return to schools this fall: “to the extent possible.”

Students will be spaced three feet apart, “to the extent possible.” Classes and lunches will be held outdoors, “to the extent possible.” Students will be spaced apart on buses, windows will be open in classrooms, “to the extent possible.”

“You see that’s the ongoing theme throughout the presentation,” Felice Harrison-Crawford, the district’s director of operations and school support services, said Thursday as administrators held a town hall meeting in anticipation of the return.

But what won’t be possible, human resources director Damen Cooper told those who’d logged into the meeting, held remotely less than a month before in-person classes begin: a requirement that teachers get vaccinated. The district also isn’t currently requiring unvaccinated teachers get tested regularly, he said.

That’s as per guidance from the district’s own attorneys, and the state, Cooper said.

The discussion around whether districts can or should require vaccinations, like so much in the pandemic, is a fluid and controversial one. On Wednesday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered all teachers in that state to be vaccinated or tested weekly. Chicago followed suit. Chalkbeat reports Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon told his members to anticipate a mandate in the city’s schools, though no such policy has yet been announced.

And Gov. Phil Murphy suggested at his Aug. 9 coronavirus briefing a statewide requirement could be in the works, saying “My guess is within the next two or three weeks, we’ll have something we’ll be able to put out there.”

But the NJEA, in a “Vaccine FAQ” on its website, says employers “are likely legally permitted to mandate that employees receive the vaccine,” though employees with qualifying disabilities or health concerns might be entitled to accommodations. Exceptions for religious reasons might be required as well, it said.

And Janet Bamford, the chief public affairs officer for the New Jersey School Boards Association, pointed Montclair Local to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidance, saying federal equal opportunity laws don’t prevent an employer from requiring COVID-19 vaccination for employees who enter the workplace, if required reasonable accommodations are made.

New Jersey Education Association Director Steven Baker wasn’t available Friday for comment on any further position the union might have on the matter, but was expected back Monday. Spokespeople for the state’s health and education departments haven’t yet returned messages.

Cooper cited both health concerns and religious objections as reasons Montclair couldn’t issue a district-wide mandate.

The district is planning a voluntary survey for personnel, asking if they’ve been vaccinated. Cooper said the district is still working with its attorneys on what information might be shared from those answers. He didn’t say whether the district might take different safety precautions for contact with a staffer who hasn’t been vaccinated than one who has.

The day following the meeting, parent Debra Caplan started an online petition, urging the district to institute school-based screening testing for students and staff, beyond the pooled testing process that began last school year and is expected to continue in the fall. The CDC recommends localities consider screening testing along with other mitigation techniques as students return to schools.

Caplan argues on the petition the pooled testing “is not a sufficient amount of testing to detect whether or not COVID is spreading in our schools, nor will this be enough to isolate cases and mitigate spread.” As of Sunday morning, her petition had 140 signatures.

Under the pooled testing system, Harrison-Crawford said, students and teachers who consent swab their own noses. Tests are returned within the week. The tests aren’t individualized, but rather done as a batch — they’re meant as a statistical aid to identify the presence of coronavirus in the full group, not a diagnostic for a single person.

How often those tests will be done is an open question. Harrison-Crawford described a potential system mimicking last school year’s, testing students in one grade level one week, skipping a week, then moving on to the next grade level. At that rate, with 13 grades, each being tested every other week, a full cycle would take 26 weeks. But she said the district is pursuing funding that might allow for more frequent testing.

“We might do two grades a week. There’s a lot of things to consider,” including manpower and availability of materials, she said.

Also from the town hall meeting:

No remote district-wide instruction: Ponds reiterated a point he’s made several times in recent months — that the district would only move to remote instruction if ordered to do so by the state. Under the latest instructions from Gov. Phil Murphy, all districts must provide only full-time in-person instruction, except to make accommodations for students or staff with particular health concerns. If a student or class must quarantine because of a coronavirus case or exposure, synchronous remote instruction will be provided, said Kalisha Morgan, the district’s assistant superintendent for equity, curriculum and instruction. But remote instruction won’t be used for non-coronavirus-related time away from schools.

Outside classes and lunches: School activity will be moved outside when possible, Ponds and others said. Tents could be used to allow for outdoor activity in a light drizzle. Morgan said administrators had discussed a lower temperature threshold of 32 to 40 degrees. In inclement weather, lunch will be provided in locations including gyms and auditoriums, Harrison-Crawford said. But it wasn’t immediately clear if district leaders yet had an expectation for how often the evening’s go-to phrase, “to the extent possible,” might ultimately mean. Ponds’ executive assistant said he would provide further details on that matter and other questions sent to his office by Montclair Local in the coming week.

Accelerated learning: The district will be pursuing strategies to address learning loss that include new federal funding-supported after-school and Saturday programs. “To make this a reality for students in Montclair requires recognition of the fact that a history of inequitable access to opportunity has put students of color, low-incomes students, English language learners, students with disability and other student groups on the downside of longstanding achievement gaps,” Morgan said. Each school will, additionally, have a team dedicated to social-emotional learning with training provided to all teams by the end of this month, she said. Teachers will be taught skills for self-care first, as a bridge to learning to work with students and families.

Masking and social distancing: Students and staff will be expected to wear masks, including when students are playing outside, Ponds said. But students with disabilities that make it difficult for them to wear masks won’t be required to do so. The school will aim to space students three feet apart, but that won’t be possible in all situations. CDC guidance recommends schools maintain three feet of distance, but acknowledges that can’t happen in some cases. And Ponds said social distance during recreation is a challenge. He said staff would try to “work with our students in the most emotionally safe way” to encourage social distancing during playtime.

Known coronavirus cases: Contact tracing will be done whenever there’s a known coronavirus case, Cooper said. Letters will be sent to affected families and building staff.

Self-screening: Staff will be required to do mandatory daily health assessments, Morgan said. Students will be required to use the school’s online portal to complete self-assessments twice a week. Students who show up to school without having completed the assessments will be directed to a kiosk to finish one before attending school.

Airflow and ventilation: The state of ventilation in Montclair schools has been an ongoing concern, with engineers’ assessments finding last year many classrooms had little or no active ventilation at all. The district last year authorized interim measures including repairs to windows and the installation of air purifiers and mechanical ventilation in rooms that had none, and further work authorized this spring should be completed by November, Ponds said. Weeks ago, board of education members said there isn’t enough time for Montclair schools to issue a bond for $17 million of further repairs before a November referendum that could change Montclair from what’s called a “type I” district to a “type II” district. That would change the entire process for bonding, from one where bonds are ultimately approved by the Township Council to one where voters OK them in referenda themselves. But Councilman Peter Yacobellis and others have been pushing the board to reconsider that decision. The board is set to meet again Monday night. “We have a commitment in our district, a commitment to improving our facilities, and we’re working every day toward getting that done,” Ponds said.

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