MONTCLAIR, NJ - When Montclair's most vulnerable special needs students arrived to school on Friday, they were greeted by substitute teachers. Educators had made a unanimous decision, the night prior, not to return until district officials outlined safety precautions.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools in March, school districts across New Jersey have been given the option on how they choose to reopen schools. Gov. Phil Murphy, via executive order, closed schools statewide since mid March and just recently informed districts they can reopen in the fall with their own individualized plans.

New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) officials stated that a decision was made on Thursday evening after 8PM, for their teachers and aides to not return to in-person instruction in Montclair. Teachers blamed the Montclair leadership for lack of direction and transparency regarding safety precautions.

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NJEA officials stated that the district was asked to notify parents, but that the staff would not be going in. Without the staff, students still arrived for class.

Meredith Barnes, a spokesperson for the NJEA, said that Montclair teachers and paraprofessionals of the Applied Behavior Analysis Program were given a directive to return to in-person instruction in the Montclair Public Schools.  

She said, "These students are medically fragile, often non-verbal, and often not able to don masks or PPE (personal protective equipment) within their comfort zones adding to the duress of an already stressful situation."

The outbreak and strict safety precautions, have forced nearly 200 public school districts in New Jersey to draft plans to reopen with all-virtual instruction. According to an earlier plan in September, nearly 60 districts opted to fully reopen, while other remaining districts opted to start the new school year with a hybrid mix of in-person and remote learning, since the infection rate remains on track and manageable in the eyes of the New Jersey officials.

Prior to in-person instruction, many districts had purchased masks, face shields, and hand sanitizers for teachers, and desk shields for staff and students. However, Montclair educators state that the school district has left them in the dark regarding what safety measures are in place and if PPE will be provided.

Barnes stated that District officials had not put in the proper protection measures, in order for staff to safely return to school. She also stated that the district leadership failed to communicate with staff or union officials regarding return-to-instruction plans. 

Therefore, a decision was made by the Montclair Education Association (MEA) on the evening before the return to in-person instruction, for staff not to arrive the next morning.

Barnes stated that initially students were not set to return for another two weeks. However, she stated that the district suddenly reversed course and pushed re-entry up by two weeks, without consultation with the MEA. She also stated that staff had never been informed if protection equipment would be made available to the educators.

Barnes added, "The MEA believes that this was an irresponsible decision on the part of district administration to ramp up the re-entry plan by two weeks, given that the MEA has repeatedly asked for information regarding the safety of schools for all students and staff, and has received no response."

She continued, "Staff have been given no assurance that PPE is available, and the MEA believes that any training the staff has had regarding student safety has been incomplete and insufficient. With the full support of the MEA, the 30 teachers and paras voted to continue teaching remotely until such time as the schools are safe for their students."

Petal Robertson, President of the MEA sent a press release stating that the district notified the MEA on October 5 that staff and students of the Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) program would return to in-person instruction starting October 12 eventhough staff was initially told November 9.

Since September, Superintendent Jonathan Ponds has been asking for parental input regarding return to in-person instruction.

Ponds reported a positive experience for students, stating, "We welcomed ABA students to Bullock School on Thursday and Friday. Families and students reported
having a positive experience. We are delighted to be able to return our most vulnerable learners to an in-person environment." 

He has extended a recent survey to October 22, asking for parental feedback. Ponds also informed families that hybrid instruction will begin on November 9 for Grades PreK - 5 and that nearly two weeks later, grades 6-12 will resume.

Robertson stated, "Despite repeated requests for more information, the superintendent and board of education failed to respond. The Association requested specifically what
precautions have been made regarding health and safety. Instead, the district issued a revised re-entry plan, which continued to be vague about certain procedures and requirements. When pressed for more clarity, the Association’s requests were met with silence."

The ABA program provides services to students identified as special education with autism and what the MEA describes as "severe medical constraints."

There are only 30 students in the ABA program. The shift to have ABA students to return, was seen by district officials as a phase of the transition plan back to in-person instruction.

“The MEA has presented our concerns to the administration several times and still we have received nothing. Our requests to have our medically fragile and special needs students reevaluated for their IEPs and 504 plans, to accommodate these changes has gone unanswered. Our requests for the safety documentation of the very buildings the Superintendent deemed the ventilation to be inadequate, has gone unanswered. Our request to have the questions and concerns of staff addressed, has gone unanswered,” she added.

Re-evaluating IEPs, as requested by the MEA, is a serious undertaking that would require parents students and staff to arrange for testing, IEPs meetings. This generally takes time for reports to be drafted and decision, based on collected data, to be made.  

Robertson added that primarily, safety of staff and students is of utmost concern and that her members need assurances from the leadership, that they haven't received yet.

Robertson continued, “We are not just concerned for our ABA students and teachers but the entire Montclair school district population. School reopening during a pandemic should be done in a series of safe, thoughtful, and collaborative steps that are explicitly communicated to those that are meant to undertake them. It is irresponsible to simply ask parents if they would like to send their child back to return for in-person instruction without being honest and transparent regarding the safety of the school buildings and the effectiveness of the academic plans.”

Barnes acknowledged that surrounding school districts, such as Clifton and others, have returned to in-person. However, since some districts are reporting outbreaks of COVID-19, forcing districts or schools to re-close and for students to return to temporary remote instruction, then educators statewide are taking precautions.

MEA leaders wrote:

On October 5, 2020, the district notified the Montclair Education Association that the district intended to bring staff members and students of the Applied Behavior Analysis program back for in-person learning at the Bullock School on October 12, running contrary to the expected November return date that was announced in August. Despite repeated requests for more information, the superintendent and board of education failed to respond. The Association requested specifically what precautions have been made regarding health and safety. Instead, the district issued a revised re-entry plan, which continued to be vague about certain procedures and requirements. When pressed for more clarity, the Association’s requests were met with silence.

The Applied Behavior Analysis program provides services to students identified as special education with the most accommodations needed. These students often have severe medical constraints, many are non-verbal, and may be unable to wear masks or other personal protective equipment. The district’s re-entry plan provides students with a specific waiver from the district’s medical team, however the evaluations of whether a student could or could not wear a mask were made by teaching staff.

“What is most alarming, is the decision of the district to begin an in-person instruction re-entry plan with our most vulnerable student population without sufficient planning, training of staff in Covid-19 protocols, or communication,” said Petal Robertson, Montclair Education Association President. “The MEA has presented our concerns to the administration several times and still we have received nothing. Our requests to have our medically fragile and special needs students reevaluated for their IEPs and 504 plans, to accommodate these changes has gone unanswered. Our requests for the safety documentation of the very buildings the Superintendent deemed the ventilation to be inadequate, has gone unanswered. Our request to have the questions and concerns of staff addressed, has gone unanswered.”

Robertson went on to say, “We are not just concerned for our ABA students and teachers but the entire Montclair school district population. School reopening during a pandemic should be done in a series of safe, thoughtful, and collaborative steps that are explicitly communicated to those that are meant to undertake them. It is irresponsible to simply ask parents if they would like to send their child back to return for in-person instruction without being honest and transparent regarding the safety of the school buildings and the effectiveness of the academic plans.”

At this point, the members of the ABA staff, with the full support of the Montclair Education Association, have continued remote instruction with their students.