#childsafety | Teachers Union Worried As Montclair Schools Prepare To Reopen


MONTCLAIR, NJ — The plan to reopen Montclair’s public schools with a “hybrid” model, including some in-person classes, is still on schedule for November, administrators say. But some staff members, including the local teachers union, are questioning whether the district is doing enough to protect students from the coronavirus.

Recently, officials in the Montclair Public School District released their Return to School Plan, giving local parents the option to bring their kids back to brick-and-mortar classrooms for half a day at a time, or stick with all-online learning.

See the full plan here.

The district was one of several in Essex County that decided to start the school year with remote-only classes. Administrators have said that the decision is working, with many parents lauding teachers and staff for making the best of a tough situation.

But when Superintendent Jonathan Ponds made his original announcement about going all-remote, he added that the hybrid model was being kept ready to roll out when “the time is safe.”

That time has come, Ponds told parents and staff in a letter last week.

The Montclair school district will begin hybrid instruction on Monday, Nov. 9 for grades pre-K to 5. Administrators will keep tabs on the situation, and if “health concerns remain stable,” will bring back grades 6 to 12 about two weeks later, Ponds said.

Fully remote students will be getting the same instruction and have the same teachers as the hybrid, in-person students, the superintendent said.

“The integrity of the remote learning will not change and teachers will be actively engaged with their in-class students as well as their remote students,” Ponds stated, adding that – like all new systems – there will be a learning curve.

Parents who choose to try the hybrid model and want to reverse their decision can do so, but only at the end of a marking period.

“Please note that school start times are not changing,” Ponds pointed out. “All students will begin classes at their schools’ regularly scheduled time and will have live instruction for four hours. Snack times will be incorporated during this four-hour block, as well as needed breaks.”

According to Ponds, since remote and in-person students will be attending the same classes at the same time, the district’s plan will give all of them the chance to “experience a classroom with their peers.”

Each school principal will be able to answer questions regarding specific scheduling in their buildings, Ponds said.

While some parents have questioned the safety of bringing students back for in-person classes, others have been pushing the district to roll out the hybrid plan. An online petition towards that end has gained almost 600 signatures as of Thursday.

“We see no reason that Montclair’s much-lauded public school system cannot do the same as our neighboring towns,” the petition reads, suggesting that the district explore “outdoor learning” options for schools that still need to work on their ventilation issues.

“Forced remote learning for all was not inevitable and it does not have to persist,” the petitioners wrote.

TEACHERS UNION QUESTIONS RE-ENTRY PLAN

Some Montclair students with special needs have already begun returning to the classroom, a process that’s gotten mixed reactions from administrators and teachers.

Students in the Applied Behavior Analysis program (ABA) returned for in-person learning on Oct. 15 at the Charles H. Bullock School, a move that was mandated by the New Jersey Department of Education.

There are 25 teachers and paraprofessionals that work with about 30 students in the ABA program.

According to Ponds, 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,” the superintendent wrote.

But according to the Montclair Education Association (MEA), the union that represents the district’s teachers, many of the students are medically fragile, non-verbal and are frequently unable to don masks or other protective gear.

And it all adds up to a “non-safe re-entry,” the union said.

Accusing district administrators of meeting their questions about safety procedures with “silence,” MEA educators in the ABA program ultimately decided not to return to the classroom at Bullock School last week. Substitute teachers appeared in their places.

“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 protocol, or communication,” MEA President Petal Robertson said.

Robertson continued:

“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 added:

“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.”

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