2,000+ cases, 68 deaths: Montclair’s first year in the coronavirus pandemic
Compiled by LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
Based on previous reporting by Montclair Local staff
The novel coronavirus has been among us for a year.
New Jersey announced its first case of the virus on March 4. By March 12, the count had risen to 29 — including the first announced case in Montclair. The following list summarizes some, but not all, of the many notable events, milestones, difficulties and developments specific to Montclair in the pandemic’s first year.
Montclair’s first case: A 66-year-old woman became Montclair’s first presumptive case of COVID-19 on March 12, 2020 — one of six cases New Jersey officials announced that day. The woman, an employee of Montclair State University, was hospitalized at Mountainside hospital. She was also Essex County’s first announced case.
Schools prepare for remote learning: Montclair Public Schools canceled classes for March 13, to allow staff to prepare lessons online in the event that in-person classes would be canceled. The district also canceled events in the schools that included community attendance for the month of March. Just days later, Montclair schools moved to remote learning on March 16 for a period that was then expected to last at least two weeks. A year later, students haven’t yet returned to in-person learning, but are expected to do so next month under a settlement between the district and the Montclair Education Association, which had contended school buildings weren’t yet safe.
First events called off, or moved online: Starting in early March, a host of Montclair organizations announced the postponement or cancellation of upcoming events out of concern over COVID-19 spread, including the Montclair Literary Festival, which had been scheduled for March 25-29, and the Montclair Film Festival, slated for May 1-10. Many, like the film festival, eventually moved some activities online. Organizations including the Montclair Art Museum, the YMCA of Montclair, the Montclair Public Library and Edgemont Park House closed facilities and canceled activities while they tried to get a handle on the risks the pandemic would pose. Winter banquets for athletic teams were canceled. Catholic churches inside the Archdiocese of Newark did not celebrate Mass March 14 and 15. Several houses of worship began making changes for online services, a trend that would continue throughout the pandemic.
Montclair closes all town parks and recreation facilities: The closures came on March 15, as the township also declared a state of emergency. The parks reopened May 2, with masking and social distancing requirements.
Montclair Public Schools see their first case: A teacher at Renaissance Middle School tested positive, officials announced March 18.
Two Montclair residents die of the coronavirus: Their deaths, the first known in the township, were announced March 19.
Montclair State University empties out: The university announced March 20 all students would be asked to leave their dorms unless they had nowhere else to go. The school was on spring break and would have been set to reopen March 23; all classes had already been moved to online-only.
Montclair sees its 20th death: As of April 5, Montclair counted 165 people testing positive for the coronavirus, and 20 individuals who did not survive the illness.
A Montclair landlord gets the governor’s attention: Gov. Phil Murphy praised Montclair landlord David Placek for freezing rent payments for his tenants for several months. “Now certainly not every landlord is in a position to do the same. We get that. But David exemplifies the spirit we need to see right now, of people stepping up to make sure others can come out of this emergency stronger, and so we all come out of this stronger. Hats off, David,” Murphy said at his briefing on Saturday, April 11.
Landlords sue over rent control: A group of Montclair landlords won a court order to block the township’s then-new rent control ordinance April 20. That set off a lengthy (and continuing) legal battle that saw the landlords conduct the first electronic signature-gathering petition in the state. Most recently, a judge has told Montclair to either repeal its ordinance or put the matter before voters, as the landlords petitioned to do.
No Fourth of July Parade: The township canceled its annual Fourth of July parade due to ongoing restrictions on public gatherings.
A county testing center opens in West Orange: As testing expanded throughout the state, Essex County officials announced testing locations at Essex Golf Center in Roseland, the Essex County Public Works fleet maintenance center in Cedar Grove and the Richard J. Codey Arena in West Orange on May 19.
Montclair municipal elections are held: The elections on May 12 were mail-in vote only.
Our Lady of Mount Carmel closes: The Archdiocese of Newark announced June 17 Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church on Pine Street, which has faced funding issues in recent years and closed during the pandemic, will not reopen “for the foreseeable future” due to safety issues.
Montclair High School students graduate in online ceremony. The virtual-only graduation was held June 24. “To the extent possible, the virtual graduation ceremony will replicate as many components of an in-person graduation ceremony, including the processional, student speeches along with honors and student recognition,” MHS Assistant Principal Reginald Clark wrote to the school community in advance of the ceremony.
A first plan for Montclair public schools to open: In July, Montclair public schools announced a plan for hybrid learning in the fall, only to later see several delays.
Schools reopening put off for the first time: Schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds announced Aug. 13 Montclair students would not go back to their schools in the fall, and would instead continue to learn remotely. “Based on the information I have been communicated by my team, it is my judgment that we need to begin the school year in a fully remote model,” Ponds said. School began remotely on Sept. 10.
Private schools set reopening plans: In August, Montclair Kimberley Academy and Immaculate Conception High School announced plans to begin hybrid learning in September. Unlike the public schools, both schools have continued with some form of hybrid learning, making adjustments as needed over the school year.
Positive test on tennis team: The Montclair High School girls tennis team was supposed to start its season on Sept. 28, but the Mounties paused until October because a player tested positive for coronavirus.
Cuts at the library: Facing the loss of more than $500,000 in budgeted funding, the Montclair Public Library laid off 21 employees in October. It reopened its main facility on South Fullerton Avenue, but its Bellevue Avenue branch remains closed.
More delays for reopening public schools: The district pushed off plans to begin reopening elementary schools on Nov. 9, and its middle and high schools on Nov. 23 — first postponing each by a week — after an individual at Watchung School was found to have tested positive for COVID-19 on Oct. 29. Ponds later announced openings would be delayed further, telling parents the district would reassess in a few weeks. “Please do not take the postponement of hybrid learning as an indicator that we do not want to get students back to the classroom. All of our work is in place to achieve a goal of providing a hybrid in-person option,” he wrote to the school community at the time. “While this decision to postpone hybrid learning may be frustrating, our primary concern is for the health and safety of our students, staff and greater community.” The district ultimately set a new reopening date of Jan. 25 for elementary schools.
School ventilation problems outlined: The Montclair schools have extensive ventilation system problems that would cost an estimated $26 million to fix, at minimum, over the long term, a consultant’s report in November said. Those issues and other structural concerns were key factors in dispute between the Montclair Educational Association and the public school district over returning to in-person learning. The district has since purchased hundreds of air purifiers and made other adjustments it says aid with ventilation and make buildings safer.
Mayor Sean Spiller forms Recovery Task Force: The 25-member group, announced in November, is chaired by residents Shante Palmer and David Pascrell, and includes representatives from nonprofits, community groups, business associations, township departments, the Montclair schools and the offices of Reps. Donald Payne and Mikie Sherrill. The task force, charged with working alongside community stakeholders and liaisons from all levels of government to identify and implement innovative solutions to help Montclair residents, had its first meeting Nov. 17.
Vaccinations in West Orange: The site of the former K-Mart building in West Orange became a county-run vaccination center in December.
Montclair doctor gets vaccine: Dr. Rovie Mesola of Montclair got vaccinated on Dec. 15, making her one of the first people in the area to do so. She reported to work at University Hospital Brooklyn/SUNY Downstate Medical Center, and became the facility’s first vaccinated physician.
Vaccine comes to Mountainside: Mountainside hospital received its first shipment of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 17. Steven Sokolowski, a respiratory therapist, marked the historic occasion by receiving the first dose.
Teachers refuse to come to school buildings: A plan to resume some in-person learning was shuttered when, on Jan. 25, staff in the Montclair Education Association refused to show up and instead chose to continue teaching classes remotely. The district and MEA entered mediation, and the district eventually sued the union, alleging an illegal teachers strike. Tuesday, they announced a settlement that would allow some in-person learning to resume in April.
MKA ice hockey positive test. Montclair Kimberley Academy ice hockey players quarantined in February after a player tested positive for coronavirus.
Montclair High basketball season ends early: Montclair High School’s boys basketball team found its season cut short due to a positive coronavirus case. The team’s 59-55 win over Newark Tech on Feb. 25 closed out its season.
Recycling suspended: Montclair announced Feb. 24 it was suspending recycling pickup indefinitely because of coronavirus cases among its Department of Public Works staff. On March 8, it sent a notice to township employees about increased outbreaks among township personnel, but it wasn’t immediately clear if other department operations were affected.
The toll after one year: As of Tuesday, March 9, Montclair had suffered 68 deaths and seen 2,040 cases, according to the municipality's daily counts. The most recent death occurred that day.
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