Montclair Teachers Leery Of Reopening Schools As COVID Cases Rise

Eric Kiefer
·11 min read

MONTCLAIR, NJ — According to more than 1,000 members of the local teachers union in Montclair, they’re not trying to be adversarial. But it’s just not safe to return to classrooms for in-person learning yet, the Montclair Education Association says – especially with educators in the “on deck circle” for a COVID-19 vaccine.

Last week, the Montclair Education Association (MEA) released a joint statement, calling for school administrators to put the brakes on a plan to reopen for hybrid learning amid the coronavirus pandemic.

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.

Teachers are due back in Montclair public schools on Jan. 19. The hybrid plan starts for PreK-5 students on Jan. 25. Students in grades 6-12 will follow with their hybrid, in-person schedule on Feb. 8.

Some parents in Montclair have been pressuring school officials to reopen for in-person classes, rallying in Edgemont Park and other locations in December. Some said they were having trouble juggling work schedules with helping their kids navigate online classes and stay on task. Other parents, including the mother of a child with special needs, said that distance learning was making their kids fall behind.

But many of the people who will be responsible for looking after their children – the district’s teachers and other staff members – don’t think it’s time to reopen yet.

According to the MEA:

“The health, safety, and well-being of our students, families, staff, and community at large must be our top priority. Over the past week, we have watched the infection rate of COVID-19 rise with each passing day. As the numbers rise in our community, our members' confidence in our buildings' readiness has fallen. There are earnest concerns over the district’s lack of communication and clarity over the decision to go back into the buildings on January 19.”

The MEA continued:

“On November 11, 2020, Superintendent Dr. Jonathan Ponds originally stated in the first Hybrid Announcement, ‘Unfortunately, the data I received this morning demonstrates an increase in community spread of COVID-19. It is with a heavy heart that we must continue with fully remote instruction for all students until it is safe to change course. The health of our community, students and staff is paramount and pausing our hybrid plan at this time is in the best interest of public health due to the increase in the rate of infection.’ The rate of infection on the day of the statement, according to COVID Act Now, was 1.14, and averaging 42.8 cases per 100,000 people. The rate of infection today is 1.15, and the cases per 100,000 people are 65.4. These numbers have been trending up since the holidays, as expected. With limited people in our school buildings, our schools have been shut down 11 different times, making it difficult to feel safe when increasing the buildings' populations.”

“In addition to the numbers increasing daily, the readiness of our buildings presents increased concern for our students, families and members,” the MEA stated. “Members are apprehensive about last-minute disseminations of changes and updates and the lack of clear protocols and safety measures.”

For example, buildings haven’t been “proven to be ready or remediated” after an original walkthrough, leaving many “unanswered questions,” the MEA stated.

Considering that state officials recently announced teachers and educators are next in line for the vaccine eligibility list in New Jersey, it makes sense to wait it out and give them an extra feeling of “safety,” the MEA said.

MEA President Petal Robertson said the union is calling on Superintendent Jonathan Ponds and the Montclair Board of Education to continue with remote instruction.

“Our goal is to never be adversarial but instead to always be advocates … advocates for our staff, educators, students, to not return to buildings until the numbers are mitigated and steady enough for all to do so,” Robertson said.

An online petition to "Keep Montclair students and staff safe, continue remote learning" has gained almost 1,000 signatures as of Tuesday.

SUPERINTENDENT: ‘WE ARE EAGER TO BEGIN’

As part of his weekly update, Ponds offered the school community an update about the preparations to return to classrooms.

“Our engineering consultants have inspected and approved all modifications to our ventilation systems,” Ponds said.

“Also in time for the January 25 in-person teaching and learning, our K-5 classrooms have been outfitted with technology to support the hybrid model,” Ponds added. “We are eager to begin in-person, hybrid instruction, and we respect the choice of families who wish to have their children remain in a fully remote setting as well.”

“There will be challenges, and we are ready to meet them so your children transition smoothly,” the superintendent said.

Other updates from Ponds included:

PreK

PreK students who have chosen in-person instruction are scheduled to begin January 25. They will attend school five days a week from 9:15 AM - 12:15 PM. The remote option will also follow that same schedule. If you have any questions, please refer to the DLC handbook.

Grades K-5

Students begin in-person, hybrid instruction on January 25. Teachers will return to the buildings on January 19 and will begin their lessons using the hybrid schedule even though your children will remain remote until January 25. On January 19 and January 22 there will be asynchronous learning as the teachers are in Professional Development (PD) and setting up their classrooms. There will be no afternoon teacher office hours from January 19-22, as teachers will be continuing PD sessions and setting up classrooms. Please remember, your children will follow their hybrid, Mountie/Bulldog schedules the week of January 19. These hybrid schedules have been sent to you by your principals and/or teachers.

Grades 6-12

Students begin in-person, hybrid instruction on February 8. Teachers will return to the buildings on February 1 and will begin their lessons using the hybrid schedule even though your children will remain remote until February 8. On February 1 and February 5 there will be asynchronous learning as the teachers are in Professional Development (PD) and setting up their classrooms. There will be no afternoon teacher office hours from February 1-5 as teachers will participate in PD and continue to prepare their classrooms. Please remember your children will follow their hybrid, Mountie/Bulldog schedules the week of February 1.

Special Education

The schedule for Special Education students PreK-5 when we begin hybrid instruction will be as follows:

  • All classified students who receive Resource Room or In Class Support will attend school according to their designated cohort, Mounties or Bulldogs. They will follow the hybrid plan.

  • PreK students attend five days a week from 9:15 AM - 12:15 PM.

  • Please note a change for Paraprofessionals. All paraprofessionals are required to be in the building for in-person or remote instruction either assisting students who are in-person or those who are remote.

  • Students in grades 6-12 will not begin in-person instruction until February 8 following the hybrid schedule which is four days a week. Wednesdays are fully remote.

  • Self-contained students in grades 6-12 will follow the hybrid schedule four days a week. Wednesdays are fully remote.

Transportation

Scheduling: Starting Tuesday, January 19, families of students in grades PreK-5 will be able to check their busing assignment in Genesis. Please understand that there may be extenuating circumstances which may result in minor adjustments between now and the start of hybrid learning on January 25. Due to this, we ask that you check back daily to remain informed and to report any issues that may exist. The sooner we are notified of issues, the sooner we can make adjustments to ensure a smooth transportation service beginning January 25. Please call our Transportation Office at 973-509-4062 with any questions.

Busing Policy During Hybrid: We will be taking necessary precautions to ensure the safety of students, bus and school staff alike. Please understand masks are to be worn at all times during bus transportation. Bus staff will not permit students to board without a proper mask. Neck gaiters do not qualify as masks, as they are only single ply and not deemed to adequately block the spread of potential pathogens. Due to the potential for students not boarding a bus for not wearing a mask, we ask that a parent or guardian be present for any child who would not be capable of returning home unattended.

Health and Wellness

Contract in Genesis: For students returning to the classroom for hybrid learning, families must complete the COVID-19 health and wellness contract in Genesis. If these contracts are not completed, your child will remain virtual. If you are having trouble accessing or filling out the contract, please send an email to Parent Access. In addition, please make sure your child’s required health records have been submitted to the school nurse.

Daily Health Screening: A daily health screening form will need to be completed by all students returning to the buildings. The screening is for a basic review of any COVID-like symptoms to ensure that students are safe to come to school. The daily screening form will be located in Genesis and live on Tuesday so that it is ready to use beginning January 25. If you have questions regarding accessing these forms, please email Parent Access.

Instructions from the Nursing Office: In anticipation of our hybrid opening, our district nursing office has created a chart to provide information on how to proceed if symptoms or other scenarios arise due to COVID-19. Please review this chart and email the nurse in your child’s school if:

  • Your child has recently tested positive for COVID-19

  • Household members of students returning to hybrid have recently tested positive for COVID-19

  • Your child is in quarantine due to an exposure to COVID-19

  • Guidelines for out of state (exceptions: NY, CT, DE, and PA) have changed. Students and staff will be required to quarantine for 10 days following return to New Jersey. Testing is not required, and quarantine time will not be reduced due to a negative test.

·Food Service

The next meal distribution is Wednesday, January 20. Beginning January 25, on Mondays and Thursdays meals will be distributed at all elementary schools beginning 30 minutes after school dismissal for a period of one hour for students who are remote. Students who attend in-person can pick up meals upon dismissal from school on Mondays and Thursdays. Middle School and High School students can pick up meals at any elementary school until they return to in-person on Mondays and Thursdays as aforementioned. Food service is available for every child regardless of free and reduced meal status.

·Athletics

Winter sports have begun. Teams are practicing, scrimmaging, and competing following safety and health guidelines. Please keep in mind there are no spectators allowed at any of our winter sports events. We will be live streaming our varsity boys and girls basketball games and the link will be updated on our Montclair Public Schools webpage under theParents tab - MHS Live Streaming.

Student Accomplishments

Due to COVID-19 our fall sports teams could not play for divisional championships. The league decided to use its season records to designate division champions and the following teams were awarded SEC Division Championships:

  • Girls Cross Country

  • Girls Soccer

  • Boys Soccer

Several MHS Model United Nations Team members who competed at the virtual Connect Model UN Conference were awarded distinctions. Students from all over the country debated in a simulated United Nations setting. They wrote position papers in advance of the conference, then worked together to write and debate resolutions.

Recognized students:

  • Best Delegate: Juniper Shelley

  • Distinguished Delegate: Miles Quarterman

  • Outstanding Delegate: Caleb Levine

  • Best Position Paper: Lucy Solomon and Palmer Holland

  • Most Improved: Dominik Bondy

Our Board of Education student representative Genesis Whitlock is offering a weekly online Zoom chat every Sunday at 6 pm for participants to discuss and share what’s happening in the school district and how we can support each other through this difficult time.

Technology

Reminder: The Technology Department is asking all families who are using personal devices to utilize their Google Chrome Browser when participating in virtual learning. Our district has invested in many online tools and various applications that work best with the Chrome browser.

Please call our Technology Support Line (301-259-1510) should you require any assistance. Lastly, please contact your child's building administrator if you are in need of a device.

Send local news tips and correction requests to eric.kiefer@patch.com

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This article originally appeared on the Montclair Patch