BY TALIA WIENER
The Montclair public school district will ask families and caretakers to opt-in for voluntary pooled coronavirus tests for students and staff this fall, set to be administered at each school every other week unless more funding becomes available.
The tests are not individual diagnostics; they won’t tell any one student or staff member if they have the virus. Instead, they’re meant to help spot the presence of coronavirus in a group.
The district will implement pooled testing beginning in the last week of September or first week of October, Felice A. Harrison-Crawford, the district’s director of operations and school support services, said at a Sept. 1 Board of Education meeting.
“This drastically reduces the cost and operational logistics of individual testing,” Harrison-Crawford said at the meeting. “We’re looking at this process taking about 10 to 15 minutes per class.”
Participating students and staff members in a given classroom will self-administer a nasal swab, and all swabs will be placed in a container together. Six of Montclair schools will be tested in any given week, and the other six the next week. That’s a considerably stepped-up schedule from a hypothetical one Harrison-Crawford had described last month, in which one grade level would be tested per week.
The major hurdle to more frequent testing is funding, Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said at the board meeting. The district is applying for funds from the state, and “trying to get all the money we can to help us through this process.”
“We are working constantly to continue to get this moving forward,” Ponds said at the meeting. “Revenue, additional funds, is important for us to be able to test once a week.”
Ponds said he has heard from families offering to donate money for testing, and anyone interested should email his office. Ponds’ email address is email@example.com.
Gov. Phil Murphy last week announced $267 from the Centers for Disease Control would be made available to New Jersey schools for coronavirus testing. Districts can request funding for in-house programs or use state-contracted vendors, he said. Individual districts will need to device testing plans to apply. Montclair Local sent Ponds and Harrison-Crawford messages asking whether Montclair is applying for the funds Tuesday and is awaiting a response.
The school board, at its meeting, approved $1.2 million for the pooled testing by a narrow vote. Board member Eric Scherzer proposed decreasing the funds allocated to testing to $700,000, saying there wasn’t enough information about the program.
“Are we getting results in a day, or are we getting results in a week, like we did last year?” Scherzer said. “I’m fine with allocating some amount of money to get us started … but we don’t know what we’re paying for here.”
Scherzer’s proposal for the decreased funding lost 3-4, with members Crystal Hopkins and Kathryn Weller-Demmings voting in favor alongside Scherzer. The motion for the $1.2 million in funding for testing then passed 4-3, with those same three board members voting no. Board President Latifah Jannah, Vice President Priscilla Church and members Alfred Davis Jr. and Allison Silverstein all voted for the $1.2 million.
The district will require caregivers to “opt-in” students for testing, Ponds said at the board meeting.
“I want families to know they’re opting in to this test,” Ponds said. “Busy people sometimes, unfortunately, forget to opt out. Something as important as medical tests, they should have all the information, true transparency, to be able to opt-in.”
Parent Andrew Gideon asked why caretakers remembering to opt-out is any more of a problem than families remembering to opt-in.
“Testing really needs to be the default,” Gideon said. “It’s the responsible approach for the community, whether the community is classrooms, school or beyond. Opt-in assumes the default strategy of irresponsibility. That just seems a wrong assumption in general and it’s especially wrong for Montclair.”
Parent Debra Caplan asked that testing be run on an opt-out basis to ensure that a majority of students are involved. Caplan also asked that testing begin at the start of the school year.
“Testing is only effective if it’s universal and it’s frequent,” Caplan said. “Families deserve to have the right to know if COVID is circulating in the school.”
Caplan is one of 15 parents who signed on to a list of concerns regarding school reopening that has been shared with Ponds and board members. The parents also cited concerns about the state of ventilation systems and air quality, the district’s attendance policy, its plans for contract tracing and its plans for risk mitigation measures in classrooms and during lunch.
Scherzer also spoke in favor of opt-out testing at the meeting, and said he is “more concerned about people forgetting to opt-in, than those forgetting to opt-out.”
Gov. Phil Murphy announced last month that all school staff, in private or public schools, will be required to be vaccinated or present coronavirus tests once to twice a week by Oct. 18. Montclair public school officials hadn’t originally planned on such a requirement of their own.
As of Tuesday, Ponds hadn’t yet responded to multiple emails sent since Aug. 24 about the district’s plans to implement that requirement. Murphy left it to individual employers whether to provide testing for unvaccinated staff, or require staff members to get tested on their own. Ponds hasn’t yet said whether the district will be providing testing and what costs that might involve, or whether the district yet knows how much of its staff remains unvaccinated.
Before the governor’s announcement, district officials had said they were planning a voluntary survey to try and better understand how much of the school system’s staff was vaccinated.
At Montclair Kimberley Academy, all employees have complied with the school’s own vaccine mandate, Head of School Nigel D. Furlonge said in August. In March, the private school announced that all employees would be required to receive a vaccine before the 2021-2022 school year began, Furlonge said. In April, the vaccination policy was sent out, requiring proof of vaccination by July 1 for staff and by Aug.1 for faculty.
“MKA continues to closely monitor and respond to information and data surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic,” Furlonge said. “The safety of our students, faculty, staff, and families is, as always, our highest priority.”
Immaculate Conception High School’s policy is dictated by the Archdiocese of Newark, which has issued instructions in line with Murphy’s mandate, according to a Sept. 3 press release from the archdiocese. All Immaculate staff are required to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 or submit to weekly testing, and universal mask-wearing is required indoors.
The district’s presentation on the pooled testing process is below: