MONTCLAIR, NJ - The debate to reopen Montclair Public Schools is heating up, as Montclair educators have refused to return to teaching in-person, until their demands are met. With school set to reopen on Monday, January 25, Superintendent Jonathan Ponds was forced to abruptly reverse his decision, after the teacher's union notified him that they would not be returning until they can be reassured of their safety.

According to District officials, Montclair Public Schools will not be reopening on January 25, as planned because limited staffing is a concern. With both sides pointing the finger at the other for the breakdown in communication, a growing group of families and students have continued to push for in-person learning.

Ponds' decision to halt reopening has come on the eve of schools being set to reopen on Monday for special needs students and students in K-8, with students in grades 9-12 set to return the following week, February 8.

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With some districts across the state of New Jersey, operating in a hybrid, in-person capacity, Montclair educators may have challenges in making a long-term case for school closures. However, until they have some reassurance of safety, the Montclair Education Association (MEA) has sent a clear message that they will not budge.

Ponds called the decision disheartening, saying, “The decision to delay our opening of school buildings is disheartening,” said Dr. Ponds. “For all our families and students who were anxiously awaiting the return to in-person instruction, I realize how unsettling this news is.”

Ponds stated that a mediator would be assigned to assist him and the MEA to come to an amicable resolution. 

Ponds wrote in an email on Friday, “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."

The public battle over reopening, has extended for months and with no end in sight with COVID-19 outbreaks, there is no definitive answer for when or if Montclair School will reopen. The teachers union has issued several statements, stating that the Superintendent and Board have not communicated with them or provided them with any evidence that schools are safe for reopening. 

“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,” MEA President Petal Robertson wrote in a statement last week. 

With the staff refusing to return, Ponds has expressed that both sides will talk with a mediator present. In November, schools reopened for students with special needs. However, primarily substitute teachers were in the classrooms with students. Once several positive COVID cases emerged, the District was forced to close schools and postpone the reopening to after the holiday break. 

At the Board of Education meeting on Wednesday, there were competing interests apparent during public comment, with parents and students pushing for reopening and staff speaking out against reopening.

During the Board meeting, Ponds assured the public that ventilation systems have been updated and personal protective equipment (PPE) will be provided. He had also revised schedules so that the building capacity was reduced. Under the new schedule, students would return only two days per week for an abbreviated day, to ensure that the capacity of classes was reduced enough to allow for social distancing.

The Board also mentioned that over 400 air purifiers have been purchased for school buildings. For the parts of the school buildings do not have mechanical ventilation, windows would be opened or those rooms would be closed until proper ventilation could be provided. To address concerns regarding air quality, the Board assured the public that air purifiers will be used two hours before and two hours after school opens and closes. Staff would also be given a face shield and two washable masks, with special education teachers provided with clear face masks so that their students can see their facial expressions. 

Upon entry into the building, there would be health checks set up at building entrances to take the temperatures of adults and children, along with questionnaires asking if an individual has recently traveled or experienced a fever, or other symptoms of COVID-19. In the classrooms, desks would be spaced apart, and in special education rooms, clear partitions would be put up. 

The MEA stated that they were given no proof that classrooms were ready to reopen and that their requests were met with hostility from the District leaders. They said, "In the beginning of the meeting with Dr. Ponds and his senior administrative staff, the MEA requested documentation regarding classroom readiness. This documentation was not provided, and the MEA was met with hostility as Dr. Ponds blasted the leadership team for asking questions, inquiring about  engineering reports, and other information about building readiness."

Parents advocating for reopening have held rallies, circulated petitions, and taken to social media, but will be on hold with students remaining fully remote until an agreement has been reached with the teacher's union.

The full statement from the MEA is below:

"The Montclair Education Association was hoping to issue this release jointly with the Montclair Board of Education and Superintendent Dr. Ponds, but unfortunately this is not the case. Recognizing that there are many differences with the district on the issue of reopening, especially building readiness and  organizational readiness, the MEA was prepared to meet and discuss these issues.  

The safety of schools and buildings remains a priority for the Montclair Education Association. On  January 21, 2021, the leadership of the MEA met with Dr. Jonathon Ponds, Superintendent and his  senior leadership team, hopeful that we could discuss our list of concerns, and he would be able to verify their remediations, repairs, and replacements with documentation. The MEA leadership team was  scheduled to meet Dr. Ponds at nine in the morning but that meeting was rescheduled for later in the  morning without explanation. 

In the beginning of the meeting with Dr. Ponds and his senior administrative staff, the MEA requested  documentation regarding classroom readiness. This documentation was not provided, and the MEA was  met with hostility as Dr. Ponds blasted the leadership team for asking questions, inquiring about  engineering reports, and other information about building readiness.  After an hour, the business  administrator sent over a document that listed which rooms would receive air purifiers. This was NOT  the engineer’s report Dr. Ponds referred to in January 21st article in the Montclair Local, rather it was a pdf document created by the district.  In statements from Dr. Ponds previously, the district has about  400 purifiers with a possible addition of 200 more, and in the provided document, over 840 rooms need  some form of remediation as stated within the original engineer’s report. In terms of classroom  readiness, there are many concerns with this report, especially with what’s missing in terms of the  rooms being remediated or repaired as needed. Some rooms that appeared on the original report are  left off of January 21st report in its entirety.  

When we again requested the documentation from the engineering company Dr. Ponds became  frustrated and said both parties should break until 12:15pm. The MEA leadership returned to the Zoom  call and waited for nearly an hour. He never returned. Then the MEA was notified via his secretary that  he would not be returning to the call and he would contact MEA President, Petal Robertson later.  

The MEA concerns and requests for information has remained consistent since the beginning of  October. Dr. Ponds has stated that the engineering reports the MEA are seeking are on the Montclair Public Schools website; they are not. The buildings are not safe and the alleged plans regarding  operations are vague and lack detailed information. 

On January 21, 2021, during the meeting with Dr. Ponds, the MEA proposed the two parties find a  resolution with the assistance of a third-party mediator from the Public Employee Relations Commission (PERC). The MEA received no response from the board until the afternoon of Friday, January 22, 2021.  Mediation is scheduled for Saturday, January 23, 2021.  

“We are just as confused as many members of this community. Obtaining documentation that the  district claims to have, and upholding the meetings the district promised should not be difficult,” stated  MEA President Petal Robertson. “However, it is our duty to ensure a safe and healthy workplace for our staff and a sound educational plan for our students. Dr. Ponds advised the association that we should always, ‘trust but verify’ and that is what we are doing. We have asked repeatedly for meetings, for  reports, for information, and time and time again we are met with silence and obfuscation from the  superintendent but no verification. We are still hopeful and willing, as we look forward to mediation  tomorrow. The MEA is excited to begin the collaborative work of restoring our students, staff and families.” 

Here are is a sampling of our concerns: 

General safety for buildings and staff 

Staff were told they would receive latex gloves and hand sanitizer. The secretarial staff working in the  buildings have gone months without hand sanitizer and the gloves were locked up so they “would not be  stolen.” The MEA has requested documentation regarding the cleaning supplies the district is using,  specifically the application method of one of the disinfectants. The MEA has been told that a non aerosol liquid cleaner is currently being used in foggers, to spray rooms.  As the MEA leadership  understands it, this use violates federal regulations. Additionally, the EPA has stated that foggers should  not be used indoors in any setting except in healthcare settings. However, Anthony Bispo, Director of  Buildings and Grounds, said he's been using this product in foggers within district buildings. At a meeting  in the fall, the MEA requested documentation of products and application methods to confirm they were consistent with regulations. Bispo promised he would share such documentation, but never has. Again, these are just a few examples of the many issues we have encountered with regards to general  safety. 

Building plans for instruction 

The district’s solution to ventilation is to keep all windows in each building open two hours before the  school day and remain open all day long. Not only will this be too taxing on the very old ventilation  system, it will also create less than adequate teaching and learning conditions. The districts suggested  solution to staff was to have students in the classroom wearing coats, hats, and gloves. The district has  yet to give a firm number of returning teachers and students, making confirmations of building  placement difficult if not impossible.  

Unsafe buildings and lack of remediation evidence 

The old ventilation systems and air circulation vents remain a significant threat to our safety. Many are  broken or in disrepair. In one classroom, the motor from an uninvent was pulled out of its casing and  was just sitting atop the unit. And, just recently on January 20, 2021, we learned that a crew from the  Montclair Fire Department responded to a school as a motor was smoking and overheating.

In the fall, after a series of walkthroughs with our industrial hygienist, the MEA found over 164 sinks in  the district that did not function, meaning widespread hand washing would be impossible. We reported  the issue, in the fall, and they remain unfixed. 

These and other questions remain unanswered and unaddressed. We long for the days when we could  walk into a classroom full of students and teach like we did back in February. Right now, the safety of  our students, their families, our school staff, and community must take precedence over ease and  convenience. There is no place we’d rather be than back in our classrooms with our students like normal  times. Unfortunately, these are not normal times. 

The members of the Montclair Education Association stand resolute that students and staff have a right  to know that all steps are being taken to ensure their safe return to in-person instruction. It is our goal  to work towards this in collaboration with the district and we will continue to be open to do so.   

To view our reports, photos, and resources, please visit www.facebook.com/myMEAnj 

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."

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