Principal Jeffrey Freeman greets students for the first day back at Montclair High School, May 19, 2021. (KATE ALBRIGHT / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL)

By MELANIE ROBBINS
For Montclair Local

After the Montclair Public Schools reopening town hall and the following Board of Education meeting where the board chose to not respond to public comments, I am outraged — and outraged is putting it nicely. I am an immunocompromised mom with two special education kids in the Montclair schools and expecting a baby. The current schools opening plans have me up at night terrified.

Based on the reopening plans, I am extremely concerned that my children will likely be exposed to coronavirus, and could easily bring it home to me and my new baby. It does not have to be this way. 

The Delta variant is extremely transmissible, and the situation this school year is not the same as last school year.




Julie Swann, a North Carolina State University professor and health systems engineer, wrote this month in The Hill that she and her students estimate a typical elementary school without testing should expect 70% of its students to become infected within three months, and 40% of students at a middle or high school would become infected — though they said masks and frequent testing would cut those numbers in half.

Modeling from the school’s COVID-19 Simulation Integrated Model for North Carolina also found that without masks or regular testing, 90% of students could become infected by the end of the semester.

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that of 6,280 households with a pediatric case of coronavirus, 27% experienced secondary transmission in the home. 

I am not being alarmist. The risk to me and my family is very real. 

Montclair students getting coronavirus seems inevitable given the reopening plans, where there is, at best, a lackadaisical approach to masking, a basically non-existent testing plan (once every 26 weeks, for those who opt-in), and a bunch of “maybes” and “to the extent possible” statements about other potential mitigation strategies — maybe outdoor lunch, maybe 3 feet of distancing.

At the Aug. 16 school board meeting and the town hall before that, many other parents and I demanded clarity and answers about ventilation and other issues. Once again, we were ignored and offered meaningless platitudes (along with a healthy dose of mansplaining). 

I want my kids in school. I don’t have the means nor do I want to pull my kids into private schools. I believe in the importance of our public schools. I don’t have the privilege to homeschool or pod my kids, especially since it would result in the loss of access to their IEP services, which they need. 

Earlier this year, the district spent more than half a million dollars on bipolar ionization machines that do nothing to protect anyone from COVID and could expose our kids to dangerous chemicals like formaldehyde. The district told us we should trust the manufacturer of these machines because the company said it’s “safe.” As I said then, that’s like asking Phillip Morris if cigarettes were safe. With a class action lawsuit filed in Delaware against the manufacturer alleging deceptive practices (and the knowledge that the district is liable for any damages should children or teachers get ill), the machines are “turned off.” We still have no evidence that the machines are off. 

Meanwhile, according to the district, a series of ventilation upgrades approved this year won’t be finished until November — two months after the start of school. We are weeks away from opening, and we still have no upgrades to our ventilation. Why? It seems to me the district still expected to use these machines and only recently realized they were a danger to our kids (or too much of a liability?).  

Schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said previously that the state of the buildings keeps him up at night. On the other hand he tells us it will be safe. Which is it? Parents still have no answers.

Parents have been asking the district to answer specific questions about ventilation, such as: What air exchange rate standard are you using? How will these air exchanges be met? Which rooms meet this standard? How will you meet these standards in all locations? Why are there no updated facilities reports to the public? When and how will parents receive information about the state of ventilation in our district? 

Board comments came, the town hall ended, and all we got was more generalizations of “we are opening,” “things will happen” and “trust us.” 

Let’s be clear: None of the COVID mitigation strategies that we know work can be successful if there are classrooms that do not meet appropriate air exchange rates. 

We, the families of Montclair, are funding these “plans” and are being asked to risk our children and families’ health. This is a democracy, not an autocracy. The district is mandated to provide transparent details, yet here we are again with no concrete information or reasonable answers to basic questions.

We are being asked to blindly trust the district without the information we need. They are asking us to send our children into schools that already have a myriad of other maintenance issues (like asbestos, mold, previously faulty/no ventilation), without any concrete information about how Montclair will use ventilation to stop coronavirus from spreading in our schools. We received little to no meaningful information on what happens when our children are exposed, or God forbid, get COVID. All we know is that our kids get Chromebooks in school. Well, isn’t that wonderful? We are allowed to go back to school, risk their health, our health, so they can sit on more screens inside a classroom? 

So what does a mom like me do? Right now, it feels like I am a sitting duck, waiting for the positive test to eventually roll into my home. I feel like I am being forced to choose between the educational and developmental needs of my children and their health and safety.

How did we get here, Montclair?!

Melanie Robbins is a parent of two children in the Montclair Public Schools district.

Editor’s notes: Montclair schools plan opt-in pooled coronavirus testing, a tool used to determine the presence of coronavirus among a population but not to diagnose an individual. School officials at a recent town hall described one scenario involving testing a single grade level every other week — which would take 26 weeks for a full cycle of all grades — but said that schedule is a work in progress. 

Montclair schools made a series of interim remediations to address ventilation last school year, but recently approved a project for further work that will not be completed until November. School officials are also asking the Board of School Estimate and Township Council to authorize a $60 million bond for more elaborate district-wide renovations.


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