MONTCLAIR, NJ - Montclair Public Schools will not be reopening on January 25, as planned. According to Superintendent Jonathan Ponds, limited staffing is a concern that prompted the abrupt decision.

“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,” Ponds wrote in an email to families on Friday.

Ponds and the teacher's union have been locked in a public battle over reopening plans, for months. 

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“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,” she wrote in an earlier statement last week. 

According to the union, there has been little to no communication from the Board on reopening plans. Now, it appears that Ponds is willing to talk. Without educators to man the classrooms, he has no other choice, but to sit down and come to terms with the union. The result: A mediator will be brought in.

In his release, he stated that he intends on meeting with the Montclair Education Association (MEA) and a mediator to come to mutually agreeable reopening terms. During the Board of Education meeting Wednesday, parents and students urged reopening and teachers spoke out against reopening until more information is provided. 

During the Board meeting, Ponds stated that ventilation systems have been updated and personal protective equipment (PPE) will be provided. Students were also slated to return only two days per week, to ensure that the capacity of classes was reduced enough to allow for social distancing.

Ponds mentioned that over 400 air purifiers have been purchased for school buildings. He acknowledged that some parts of the school buildings do not have mechanical ventilation, but all rooms do have a source of ventilation, such as windows. 

These sources of ventilation, along with opened windows, will be used when schools reopen, the Board added. Air purifiers will be used two hours before and two hours after school opens and closes. In addition, the Board stated that rooms that still need work will be closed off to staff and students until they have proper ventilation. 

As for staff protection, the Board stated that PPE, will be provided to staff members. This would include a face shield and two washable masks. Likewise, the plan is to provide special education teachers with clear face masks so that their students can see their facial expressions. 

In addition to plans above, the Board has planned for health checks to be located at building entrances to take the temperatures of adults and children, as well as questionnaires asking if an individual has recently traveled or experienced a fever, or other symptoms of COVID-19. As for the classrooms, desks would be spaced apart, and in special education rooms, clear partitions would be put up. 

In a statement issued by the teacher's union, the staff has cited lack of communication from the district and health and safety concerns as primary reasons for the pushback. For parent-advocates, they have raised concerns regarding possible regression in learning, as well as, highlighting other New Jersey districts who have reopened successfully.

In a release sent on Friday, the MEA stated, "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. "

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. The students in grades 9-12 were set to return the following week, February 8.

Ponds said, “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.”

According to the memo, students will remain fully remote until an agreement has been reached with the teacher's union.

Ponds and the Board have made prior efforts to reopen since September. In November, students with special needs had returned to classrooms with subs. However, COVID-19 outbreaks caused the district to postpone reopening until after the holiday. Then, on December 2, Ponds announced his decision to open for hybrid/in-person learning starting Monday, January 25.

Parents advocating for reopening have held rallies and circulated petitions, to no avail.

Below is the full statement from Ponds: 

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. 

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. 

All students in all grades will remain fully remote during this time, continuing to follow their original  remote schedules. They will participate in live, synchronous teaching and learning until personnel  and staffing issues are resolved. 

We remain concerned for the emotional well-being of every student, please be sure to reach out to your principals and counselors for any support you need. The district has access to resources,  information, and counseling services to meet the social and emotional needs of our students.  Additionally, the Counseling Corner and Community Resource Guide on our website contain a host of  useful resources, including hotlines, local health agencies, educational materials, articles, videos and  more. 

We will communicate as soon as possible when in-person learning can begin, and we will continue to  provide weekly updates. 

Please see below for some additional important information: 

Food Service 

Beginning January 25, meals will be distributed Mondays and Thursdays 11:30 AM to 1:30 PM  at Bullock, Nishuane, Northeast and Montclair High School.

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. 

I want to emphasize that educating children is the district’s primary focus, and we will continue to work  tirelessly to expedite in-person learning. Despite challenging circumstances, our children (many of  whom are featured in our Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., website article) have been impressively resilient.  We are committed to their continued health and academic success. 

  

Sincerely, 

Dr. Jonathan Ponds 

Superintendent

 

Below is the statement from the MEA released on January 22:

  

"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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