Montclair Education Association members were informed of the district’s 10-day hybrid education plan Dec. 31, at the same time as families, leaving teachers scrambling during the last days of winter break, Montclair Education Association members said at the Jan. 5 Montclair Board of Education meeting. MEA Vice President Natale Burrell is seen here at a Dec. 21 board meeting. (TALIA WIENER/STAFF)

By TALIA WIENER
wiener@montclairlocal.news

Some Montclair school district teachers say the plan to offer 10 days of hybrid learning after winter break was made without their input, and lacking communication left staff “scrambling” to prepare for remote instruction. 

A New Year’s Eve notice to district staff and families announced that Montclair schools would allow students to temporarily, optionally attend class remotely beginning Wednesday, Jan. 5, as coronavirus cases in the township and throughout the country continued to rise quickly. The option would be offered alongside full in-person instruction for those who chose to return to school buildings, schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said in the message.

The timing of the decision left the district with little time to prepare before the end of break, and schools returned with in person-only instruction on Monday, Jan. 3. Absences that day and the next wouldn’t be counted against students, Ponds said.

But the Montclair Education Association was not consulted during the decision-making process, and staff were left to find out about the hybrid plan at the same time as families, union Vice President Natale Burrell said at a Jan. 5 Montclair Board of Education meeting. 

“Not only did we not have a seat at the table at this decision, but the communication served as a trigger to the harm that was done to the membership last spring, when you took us to court and sued us,” Burrell said. “We were again reminded that you do not value the MEA staff.” 

In February 2021, the Montclair Board of Education filed a lawsuit against the MEA, after members refused to return for a hybrid learning schedule that January; Montclair schools had been entirely remote for the school year up to that point. The MEA contended the district hadn’t demonstrated facilities were safe enough from the coronavirus. A settlement was reached in March, and students began returning on a staggered schedule April 12, with some older students not in classrooms until nearly the end of the school year. 

“The [MEA] membership should be heard,” Burrell said at the Jan. 5 meeting. “They should be able to thrive in their working environment because without the MEA, there is no school district.”

In response to questions about the hybrid plan — how it was decided, who was involved, why it was shared with teachers and families at the same time — Ponds told Montclair Local Monday the district is “working diligently to support all our stakeholders.”

“We ask for patience and understanding because it is not only our community, but the country that faces these ongoing challenging decisions,” Ponds said. 

The superintendent hasn’t answered multiple messages asking how many families opted for remote learning, or what sort of attendance the district saw after the return from break.

District staff were assured several times via email that schools would return for in-person learning after winter break, Buzz Aldrin Middle School science teacher Daniel Taylor said at the Jan. 5 meeting. 

So when teachers received notification of the remote option on New Year’s Eve, they were not only surprised but had to “scramble during the last days of their well-earned and authorized vacation time,” trying to plan for the coming weeks, Taylor said. 

“There are too many instances where staff and building employees have been left hanging out to dry and been asked to absorb the last-minute decisions of our central office administration, as well as absorb the retaliation by uninformed and misinformed families,” Taylor said at the meeting. 

Staff are not permitted to work remotely during the 10 days of hybrid learning, scheduled to end Jan. 18, Montclair Education Association communications and social media chair Candice Pastor told Montclair Local. She said policies regarding quarantine periods for staff are inconsistent — that there was no written directive from the central office about whether staff members could teach remotely during their own quarantine periods. 

“What we do know is that some teachers who have tested positive can and have worked remotely, and other teachers have had to use their sick days, and they were not permitted to teach remotely,” Pastor said. 

Anthony Colon, a physical education and health teacher at Renaissance at Rand Middle School, requested five sick days when he tested positive for COVID-19 test in late November, he said at the Jan. 5 board meeting. But then he found out some colleagues, also observing quarantine periods, were permitted to teach remotely, he said. 

Colon began sending emails to the district’s human resources department Dec. 2 and as of the day of the meeting, he had not heard back, he said.

“I’m hoping to get some answers from the board, from the admin,” Colon said at the meeting. “I’ve sent emails, and no one is responding. This is my last hope.”

Colon has not yet responded to an email sent to his district address Tuesday asking about his quarantine sick days.

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