MONTCLAIR, NJ - Parents and students shared their desire for schools to reopen in the Board of Education meeting on Jan. 20, which was conducted remotely.
The majority of the discussion focused on how the district plans to have students return to in-person hybrid learning, including various “fixes” made to facilities and the health protocols to be followed by students and faculty. Schools are set to reopen on Jan. 25.
A handful of students, and many parents, voiced their concerns about the Board of Education possibly delaying the reopening of schools, while some teachers and members of the Montclair Education Association (MEA) opposed reopening on Monday. These members cited concerns for health concerns and lack of transparency from the Board and Mayor Sean Spiller as reasons for their opposition.
President of the Board Latifa Jannah started out by acknowledging all the emails from the community before diving into discussion of the following.
Air Ventilation in School Facilities
According to Superintendent Dr. Jonathan Ponds, over 400 air purifiers have been purchased for school buildings. However, some parts of the school buildings do not have mechanical ventilation, though all rooms do have a source of ventilation, such as windows.
Board Secretary Emidio D’Andrea pointed out that ventilation comes in the form of air conditioning, which brings in fresh air, as well as exhaust systems to filter air out of buildings. These sources of ventilation, along with opened windows, will be used when schools reopen. He also noted that windows will be opened and ventilation systems started up two hours before the start of the school day, and will be closed and ended two hours after. Air purifiers will also run within the same timeframe.
There will be a spreadsheet sent out in the principals’ newsletter that detail the exact locations of air purifiers in each room. Rooms that still need work will be closed off to staff and students until they have proper ventilation.
Staff and Student Protection from COVID-19
Personal protective equipment, or PPE, will be provided to staff members; this includes a face shield and two washable masks, according to Superintendent Ponds. Special education teachers will receive clear face masks so that their students can see their facial expressions.
Vice President of the Board Priscilla Church participated in a walk-through in a few of Montclair’s school buildings. She noticed that there were health checks at building entrances to take the temperatures of adults and children, as well as questionnaires asking if an individual has recently traveled or been experiencing a fever, or other symptoms of COVID-19. Desks are spaced apart, and in special education rooms, clear partitions are put up as well.
If a child does come down with COVID-19 while at school, each building has an isolation room for the child to stay until their parent or guardian picks them up. According to President Jannah, parents must pick up their child within 30 minutes in this situation.
Anthony Bispo, Director of Montclair Public Schools’ Buildings and Grounds Department, explained that schools will be sanitized with cold foggers, which use a highly-pressurized mist, and thermal foggers, which is heat-based.
Custodians have seminars and webinars to learn how to use said cleaning products.
Dr. Ponds also explained that students will be instructed to use wipes to clean the surface of their desk before leaving the classroom. Eventually, teachers will also use spray bottles to clean the desks, as wipes are apt to run out quickly. This idea follows the model that schools in Livingston are using.
Testing for COVID-19
According to Superintendent Ponds, if one student comes down with COVID-19 inside the classroom, then that classroom must close down. If two individuals come down with the virus, then the building closes down. If these situations occur, then a process of cleaning, and tracing in conjunction will occur to see who the student has been in contact with. Parents and the public will be informed of which building the virus was contracted in.
As of now, there is no protocol for testing students and staff for the virus. This is under consideration within the Board, and according to Dr. Ponds, they planned to hold a meeting about the possibility of employing “batch testing.” This is a consent-based form of COVID-19 testing which processes multiple tests at once. For example, if four individuals are tested, and one turns up positive, then all will be tested again individually. However, if tests collectively turn out negative, then those individuals are in the clear. The Montclair Kimberley Academy currently employs this method.
Concerns from the Community
Multiple students, ranging from kindergarteners to juniors at Montclair High School vouched for returning to school on Monday. Reasons included fatigue from long hours on the computer and disengagement from lessons.
Miles, a seventh grader at Renaissance, explained that they felt little sense of accomplishment from remote learning and that the medium offers too many distractions.
Other commenters voiced confusion over pushback from the MEA on returning to schools on Monday, as they have cited poor ventilation and lack of safety precautions for custodians.
One parent, who has a daughter entering kindergarten, requested that the Board uphold the decision to reopen schools in spite of the teacher’s union’s pushback. Eric Kim, another parent, also expressed frustration over the tug-of-war between the MEA and the Board when it comes to settling on a proper reopening date.
In defending the concerns of the MEA, one history teacher said that the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) in schools in the south side of Montclair, such as Glenfield, needed work. Margaret Saraco, teacher at Buzz Aldrin, argued that the Board has not been communicating enough with the MEA when it came to providing specific reports.
To the comments of the teachers in particular, Dr. Ponds responded, “I am here to partner. I am not here to argue about what to do and what not to do.” The focus, he stated, should be on getting back into school.
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