What’s Going On in the Montclair Public Schools? A Timeline

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Students in the Montclair Public School system have been out of the classroom since March 2020, when the pandemic first hit New Jersey. The battle currently playing out between parents and teachers underscores the challenges districts are facing across the country as everyone attempts to navigate safely reopening schools for in-person instruction amidst the pandemic. Keep reading to get a better understanding as to what has been unraveling on all sides of this issue in Montclair regarding children returning to the classroom.

montclair public schools covid-19 virutal learning timeline

Update as of 3/9/21

The Montclair Board of Education and the Montclair Education Association reached a conclusion on Tuesday, March 9th that Montclair’s elementary school students will return to school on April 12 for in-person classes.

Montclair Local reported that the two sides had reached a settlement during their five-hour conference. “The settlement is contingent on several “deliverables” — including the district sending the MEA information on cleaning and safety protocols, teacher schedules with a focus on the preparation time, entry and dismissal plans, and best practices for isolation rooms. The two parties will also do walkthroughs of the seven elementary school buildings during the week of March 22,” the report also stated.

Statement from The Montclair Education Association:

“The requests by the association have been very simple and based upon the assurances the district provided. Prior to a return to in-­­person instruction, the district promised the MEA a report from EI following building remediations, collaboration on a sound educational plan, and superintendent informational meetings with each building. The follow-­­through on these items would have gone a long way in building trust and demonstrating a desire for authentic collaboration. Unfortunately, none of these things occurred.” Read the full statement here.

Update as of 3/8/21

A group of families from Essex County and surrounding areas are protesting on Saturday, March 13, at 1:3PM at Rand Park at Chestnut Street and North Fullerton Avenue in Montclair. The purpose of the protest is to mark the anniversary of one year of remote learning in Montclair and to demand that the school district and local politicians allow them to go back to school in-person.

The Background: Montclair Students Remain in Distance Learning

At the start of the 2020-2021 school year, Montclair Public Schools were entirely virtual.

Montclair Public School Superintendent Jonathan Ponds delayed a planned return in November, citing high levels of community spread of COVID-19. The Montclair Education Association has resisted a return, saying coronavirus spread is as dangerous as it was in the fall, and that it’s not satisfied with answers about how the district is dealing with decades-old ventilation systems or safety procedures, according to the Montclair Local. The MEA noted that New Jersey could soon open up coronavirus vaccinations to teachers, making educators feel safer returning to the classroom.

In addition to teachers, the MEA also represents other Montclair Public School District employees, including paraprofessionals, nurses, secretaries, operational aides, certified support staff, custodians, and building/grounds staff.

The decision to return to in-person learning is made more complex in New Jersey, where coronavirus infections have been surging and teachers are not among the first groups prioritized for vaccines — a policy that the statewide teachers’ union, a close ally of Governor Murphy, has refrained from criticizing, reported Patch.

Superintendent Ponds, for his part, has described the purchase of 400 air purifiers, mechanical upgrades to systems, and upgrades that allow classroom windows to open up. He also described screening procedures, masking policies, and social distancing rules intended to mitigate concerns about coronavirus spread, per the Montclair Local.

The district was moving full steam towards another set of reopening dates. Teachers were due back on January 19th, PreK-5 students were due to start the hybrid model on January 25th, and students in grades 6-12 were set to return for their hybrid, in-person schedule on February 8th.

But the classrooms remain empty. Here’s what we know:

How Everything Unraveled: A Timeline Of Recent Events

Monday, July 6th, 2020: The Montclair Public School District released the results of a survey taken among parents amid the coronavirus crisis. More than 3,300 people responded, according to administrators. A total of 55 percent of respondents answered “yes” when asked if they will send their child back to school if buildings reopen in the autumn. About 39 percent said they were “undecided,” and 7 percent said “no,” Patch reported.

Thursday, August 13th: Superindent Jonathan Ponds announces public schools will open for remote classes. “Based on the information that has been communicated to me by my team, it is my judgment that we need to begin the school year in a fully remote model. Although, it is my understanding, that our ventilation system is adequate and appropriate for a typical school year. This clearly is not a typical school year. My determination, however, is based on the current information regarding the ventilation systems in all of our buildings. We need to make some changes to address the enhanced needs that this viral pandemic presents. We are working diligently with our architect and engineers to enhance our building ventilation where needed in response to COVID-19.”

Friday, August 21st: Dr. Ponds makes a statement regarding updates to the ventilation system. The consultants have completed their analysis of our ventilating systems throughout the district, and our district staff is working with them to remediate deficiencies. This work also includes selecting an air filtration system for areas that may require additional support to ensure the air quality in rooms is adequate. We are currently working on short-term solutions that will provide sufficient ventilation to bring back students and staff as soon as possible.

Monday, October 5th: District Announces that the Bullock School will start in October. The district notifies the Montclair Education Association {MEA} that the district intends to bring staff members and students of the Applied Behavior Analysis program back for in-person learning at the Bullock School on October 12th, contrary to the previously announced November start date.

Thursday, October 15th: According to a press release, “The Association requested specifically what precautions have been made regarding health and safety. Instead, the district issued a revised re-entry plan, which continued to be vague about certain procedures and requirements. When pressed for more clarity, the Association’s requests were met with silence.”

Friday, October 16th: Superintendent Jonathan Ponds sent an email to parents in the school district. “We welcomed ABA students to Bullock School on Thursday and Friday. Families and students reported having a positive experience. We are delighted to be able to return our most vulnerable learners to an in-person environment,” reported Montclair Local.

The district receives a 179-page report, by architecture and engineering firm EI Associates, detailing problems in 12 of the township’s school buildings, including ancient and broken equipment and rooms that have no ventilation machinery serving them.

Monday, October 19th: In a virtual Board of Education meeting the results of a second survey sent out to parents was reviewed, citing “64% families who responded are requesting hybrid learning”. However, parents and teachers raised concerns over the lack of information made available regarding building safety.

There was also no response to the issues raised by teachers regarding safety concerns and calls for communication, by Dr. Ponds or the BOE members.

Saturday, December 12th: Record high numbers of COVID-19 in New Jersey.

New Jersey reported a record high of 6,247 new cases and 71 deaths. But cases linked to transmission in schools have been low, especially for younger students, according to studies and health data.

Tuesday, January 5th, 2021: The American Academy of Pediatrics released a statement on January 5th stating “Children absolutely need to return to in-school learning for their healthy development and well-being” and that “the guidance presents new research findings that schools have not been a significant driver of SARS-CoV-2 transmission in their communities when they take safety precautions.”

Monday, January 18th: State officials announced 60 percent of districts and charter school organizations were open for some form of in-person classes.

Friday, January 22nd: 14 cases reported in Montclair. New Jersey reported 4,437 new virus infections; Essex County officials said that day that there were 14 new cases in Montclair specifically.

Friday, January 22nd: Schools to remain closed amid lack of staffing. Superintendent Jonathan Ponds made a statement in which he said: “It is with deep regret that I inform you that I am unable to properly staff our schools for in-person, hybrid teaching and learning on January 25, 2021. As a result, I cannot open our buildings to students as planned. My team and I will be meeting with the Montclair Education Association {MEA} along with a third-party mediator this weekend to facilitate an agreement. We are also working in consultation with our legal counsel,” Tap Into reported. Ponds called the decision disheartening, saying, “The decision to delay our opening of school buildings is disheartening. For all our families and students who were anxiously awaiting the return to in-person instruction, I realize how unsettling this news is.”

Saturday, January 23rd: Union leaders meet with Superintendent Ponds. The superintendent and leaders from the union, the Montclair Education Association, met on Saturday with a mediator and were scheduled to talk again on Monday, according to a township official briefed on the negotiations.

Monday, January 25th: Parents begin protesting outside school buildings, ask students to turn off cameras in an online class. On Monday morning, parents angered by the new delay staged a protest outside Edgemont Elementary School, lining up dozens of backpacks in place of children. A parent group that has been pushing for schools to reopen asked students to keep their cameras off during Monday’s live-streamed classes, according to Patch, and to instead post a background supportive of the return to in-person instruction.

Parents and students through the district have been sharply divided over the question of whether to return students. More than 100 protested outside Edgemont Montessori School Monday, per Montclair Local, seeking a return they say is necessary for students’ education and developmental well-being.

Monday, January 25th: Neighboring teachers’ union halts in-person instruction. On Monday night January 25th, teachers in a nearby district, South Orange-Maplewood, followed Montclair’s lead. The teachers’ union, South Orange and Maplewood Education Association released a letter notifying the superintendent and school board that they would no longer participate in in-person instruction. The union’s action comes only a week after schools reopened for the first time since March.

Wednesday, January 27th: The union representing Montclair’s teachers — locked in a dispute with the school district over whether and when to return to in-person learning amid the novel coronavirus pandemic — told its members Wednesday the district was taking the union to court. “Unfortunately, we have been informed that it is the district’s plan to take the association to court over our advocacy for the health and safety of students and staff,” Petal Robertson, president of the Montclair Education Association, wrote in a message to members this morning. “We always have been, and still are, committed to a mediation process. We will provide additional details when we are permitted to do so,” reported Montclair Local.

To see the official legislative documents regarding the lawsuit of the Montclair Board of Education vs. the Montclair Education Association, see here.

Tuesday, February 2nd:  A report is released by the district, showing the condition of the school ventilation system, which appears better than they did a few months ago. The district provided some information on temporary fixes, in addition to the new spreadsheets. Schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said the district upgraded hundreds of mechanical systems, fixed windows so they can be opened, and installed 400 air purifiers purchased at a cost of $400,000.

Monday, February 8th: Governor Murphy reports on local schools status, Montclair remains closed for an in-person class. Governor Phil Murphy said 95 New Jersey school districts are holding classes in-person full time, up to six from a week earlier. Most districts — 491 — are on a hybrid instruction model, up 21 from the past week. Montclair is one of 190 that remain all-remote. Thirty-five districts remain on some mix of the systems. “We clearly want to get there,” Murphy said. “We also want don’t want to overpromise and underdeliver.” 

Wednesday, February 10th: Lawsuit review by Judge Paganelli found the district hadn’t demonstrated how continued remote learning would not address the harm to the students. “With the required remote learning there would not be the loss of ‘one day’s education.’” And he said the district hadn’t explained its claim that staying remote would open the district up to “potential liability, including potential compensatory education claims.”

Judge Paganelli also wrote that while the district had correctly cited Gov. Phil Murphy’s Executive Order 175 — affirming the value of in-person learning for children and directing districts to resume some level of in-person learning or set a timetable to do so safely — the district “has failed to articulate how it has complied with the health and safety standards” set by the state, “except, perhaps ‘A plan to ensure that indoor facilities have adequate ventilation.’”

What The Parents Are Saying

Parents nationwide have struggled to juggle the demands of having students home during the pandemic and the parents in Montclair are no different. The continued delay in opening schools has been especially hard as surrounding districts open their classrooms.

“There are hundreds of school districts that have opened around us,” Deirdre Carlough, who has children in kindergarten and second grade told North Jersey. “We’ve seen them successfully do it. We can follow in their footsteps.

An issue for students is the seemingly insufficient learning that remote school offers.

“The pushback from the MEA is disrupting [our children’s] learning abilities. It is [our] understanding that staff did not show up for PD days at school {on January 22nd}. Meanwhile [our children] learned asynchronously, which consisted of two seesaw assignments that took 10 minutes to complete,” Patch reported. “And today [our children’s] teachers instructed from home, not at school as planned, on a ‘hybrid’ learning schedule, in which [our children’s] days ended two hours earlier than normal.

One of the biggest concerns parents have is the lack of social interaction children have experienced during the pandemic. 

Daryn Sirota, a former teacher, was so disappointed with remote learning that she transferred her daughter to a private kindergarten program. “Virtual kindergarten is a joke,” said Sirota, who works for an education consulting firm. “Seventy-five percent of lower elementary school and kindergarten is social-emotional learning. They’re not getting that staring at a screen. They need to be in school with their peers.”

Amid the strong feelings, parents ultimately just want what they feel is best for their children. In a joint statement released by members of Montclair FAIL, they said other centers are open and questioned why schools have yet to join.

“[Our] goal, similar to Petal Robinson’s, is never to be adversarial but to advocate for the best interests of Montclair students. If the re-opening date gets pushed back again, it will be close to one year that Montclair students have not physically been in school. Non- unionized workers are going to the YMCA and the Wally Choice Center in Glenfield Park every day to help facilitate learning for many Montclair students. If these learning centers are open, why aren’t our schools?”

While the situation is clearly frustrating for parents juggling work and remote school, some parents feel the frustration shouldn’t be placed on the teachers’ shoulders. 

“Teachers are not in charge of the coronavirus. Teachers are not in charge of the vaccine schedule. Teachers are not the ones in charge of building structural and ventilation safety,” Caitlyn Cade, a mother of two Montclair students, wrote in support of the union. “Yet they are the victims of misplaced anger by a group of vocal parents.” NYT

What The Teachers Are Saying

Current situations aren’t ideal for either side and the teacher’s union is focused on making the best of a difficult situation with the purpose of keeping everyone safe.

The president of the statewide union, Marie Blistan, said she believed that the state should be prepared for “interruptions in learning for maybe another year,” and that schools must ensure that each child has access to a computer and the internet for virtual instruction.

Teachers want to know that they will be safe returning to the classroom and are concerned that the measures to be put into place may be challenged by the conditions of the buildings.

“We all want to be back to in-person instruction,” says Petal Robertson, president of the Montclair Education Association. “We all want to be able to return to our classrooms and return to our students, but we all want to make sure that we are never sacrificing the health and safety of our children, their families, or our members.”

A letter published by the MEA cites 164 sinks that need to be fixed, saying that with the handwashing measure required for students and teachers, the current state of the buildings is questionable. “Reports from our findings with an industrial hygienist … as well as the first engineering report from [engineers] EI, list many areas of concern. Without evidence that these issues have been resolved, it begs the question, how can we be sure the buildings are safe for our students and staff?”

Thoughts From School Administration

Superintendent Jonathan Ponds began his role on July 1, 2020, inheriting this challenging situation of managing a school district just months into the pandemic.

“Every school in New Jersey is mandated to offer in-person instruction,” he said in a statement. He said his goal remained “returning our students to the classroom as soon as possible. Although we have not reached an amicable resolution, we continue our discussions with the M.E.A., the mediator, and legal counsel.”

Representatives from the school district met with members of the MEA to mediate concerns.

“District representatives and I met virtually with a mediator and the Montclair Education Association {on Saturday afternoon},” says Dr. Ponds. “Although we have not reached an amicable resolution, we continue our discussions with the MEA, the mediator, and legal counsel, with the goal of returning our students to the classroom as soon as possible.”

Thoughts From Local Officials

Mayor Sean Spiller is also the vice president of the New Jersey Education Association, which represents teachers statewide. As mayor, Spiller appoints school board members. But he told Montclair Local in an email earlier this week his role “is not to dictate policy for either the Board of Education or the MEA, however, I have encouraged all parties to come together to see if they feel safe conditions have been met at this time.” He said he believed all sides were committed to opening schools in Montclair as quickly as possible once everyone was convinced the schools were safe. “That is what everyone wants,” he said. “I have not seen anyone divided on that.”

Remaining impartial, Spiller says he will support the collection decision. “As those charged with making sound educational decisions for our kids, I would be supportive of their collective conclusions, including whether or not vaccines are a prerequisite. They can determine if like 414 other New Jersey [school districts], they can safely offer a hybrid of in-person and remote instruction, or if like 270 [districts], all-remote is the safe route at this time,” Spiller wrote.


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With two little ones at home, this North Carolina native has worked remotely for the past five years as a freelance writer. Ainsley moved to New Jersey in 2016 and fell in love with the Garden State. She is always on the lookout for what’s going on in the greater New York area, from new restaurants and businesses opening to can’t-miss events highlighting local culture. Outside of writing and being a mother, Ainsley loves to dive into a good book, practice speaking French, and dream up new ways to decorate her apartment.


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