MONTCLAIR, NJ - Citing health and safety concerns, Montclair educators have publicly announced opposition to in-person learning.

With the district set to reopen for in-person hybrid learning on January 25, nearly a week away, the Montclair Education Association (MEA) is blasting Superintendent Jonathan Ponds for his decision to move forward with reopening plans. Montclair Education Association and their larger New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) says that it’s not yet safe to return teachers and students to school buildings and are pushing for another delay.

“We are calling on Superintendent Dr. Jonathan Ponds and the Montclair Board of Education to make the pedagogically sound and the safe decision to continue remote instruction,” said MEA President Petal Robertson. “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. It will also allow our district to develop and disseminate an explicit and comprehensive plan for all staff returning, and allay any parent  concerns for their student’s safe return.” 

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Prior to the winter break, Ponds announced detailed plans to return students to a mix of in-person and remote learning. Students would be on a schedule to reduce the amount of traffic in the building/classrooms. In his plan, Ponds stated that teachers and staff would return to buildings on Tuesday, January 19, ahead of students. 

When students return, they will attend school in two cohorts: “Mounties” and “Bulldogs,” with the two groups taking turns attending class in person during the week. The cohorts will attend school for four hours a day, two days a week, and have virtual learning for the remainder of the week. However, students who wish to remain virtual, may do so.

“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,” the Montclair Education Association wrote in a release.

With the deadline upon them, Ponds reassured parents that schools would reopen for hybrid learning for pre-K through fifth-grade and students with special needs on January 25, followed by grades six through twelve on February 8. 

During the past few Board of Education meetings, the MEA has blasted the Board for moving forward. However, parent advocates have also gotten involved on the other side of the debate, in calling for the reopening of schools. In December, there was a rally in several locations throughout Montclair, of parents pushing for reopenings.

According to Ponds, there have been modifications to school ventilation systems and following inspections by engineering consultants, they're ready to go. In his latest bulletin to parents, classrooms have also been updated with technology to make hybrid learning possible.

Throughout the state of New Jersey, Governor Phil Murphy had given districts the ability to choose how to reopen. For schools that have chosen to reopen with hybrid learning, there have been some closures due to outbreaks of COVID-19, prompting sporadic closures, while other districts have conducted all-remote learning.

Since March of last year, Montclair Public Schools have been fully remote, prompting parent advocates to protest and push for reopening measures and in-person instruction to be implemented.

In November, the district had reopened for special needs students. However, students were left in classes with only substitutes when no teachers showed up. When COVID-19 cases emerged in several schools, closures were prompted and reopening plans pushed back to January.

The MEA states that the infection rate has risen and they do not feel safe returning. Citing lack of communication and health and safety concerns as reasons for a delay, they wrote, "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, 2021." 

The entire release issued by the MEA is below: 

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, 2021. 

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 100k people. The rate of  infection today is 1.15, and the cases per 100k 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 eleven 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. Members are apprehensive about last-minute disseminations of changes and updates and the lack of clear protocols and safety measures. 

“We are calling on Superintendent Dr. Jonathan Ponds and the Montclair Board of Education to  make the pedagogically sound and the safe decision to continue remote instruction,” said MEA President Petal Robertson. “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. It will also allow our district to develop and  disseminate an explicit and comprehensive plan for all staff returning, and allay any parent  concerns for their student’s safe return.” 

The Montclair Education Association is the inclusive union representing more than 1,000 Montclair Public School District employees, including teachers, paraprofessionals, nurses, secretaries,  operational aides, certified support staff, custodians, and buildings and grounds staff.