By TALIA WIENER
The Montclair Public School district returned from winter break Jan. 3 with no in-school coronavirus testing after its vendor contract expired in December, even as case numbers locally and nationally surged. A formal proposal from a new vendor won’t be presented until Jan. 19, officials say.
In the meantime, Superintendent Jonathan Ponds asked families during a Jan. 5 school board meeting to “please go” to the district’s after-school testing events, held from 4 to 6 p.m. on Jan. 7, Jan. 14 and Jan. 21 at Montclair High School’s George Inness Annex Atrium. Testing will be run by Medi Mobile of Livingston.
In the last weeks of the year, Montclair public schools have seen a coronavirus surge, alongside the larger community and a national trend. All 21 New Jersey counties are considered areas of “very high” coronavirus activity in the state Department of Health’s weekly COVID-19 Activity Level Report; the map is entirely red. The township health department is seeing daily new case levels about 30 to 40 times as high as it did in early November.
In the two weeks leading up to winter break, the district’s tracking registered 142 new student cases and 43 new staff cases — out of 201 student cases and 60 staff cases total up to that point. The accounting only includes cases registered through the district’s own testing.
But the district’s near-$300,000 contract with vendor Ginkgo Bioworks, first approved Oct. 6, had been “unsustainable,” board president Latifah Jannah said at the Jan. 5 meeting. That contract had the vendor scheduled for 11 weeks beginning Oct. 7. The contract also gave Ginkgo and the district an option to extend the testing program, which the district didn’t do in December.
The district knew winter was coming and could have prepared better, board member Crystal Hopkins said during the Wednesday board meeting.
“We’ve wasted the time that we should have been testing our students,” Hopkins said. “We knew the surge was coming in the winter; we talked about it in September. And we’ve done poor planning. We’ve become, unfortunately, more reactive rather than proactive.”
Jannah said she “personally felt that we saw this as ending, and it’s not ending, it is ongoing. So how do we now move forward with testing that also financially makes sense, and so that we’re not overextending ourselves?”
Ponds deferred questions about the cost of tests to business administrator Nicholas Cipriano Thursday. Cipriano has not yet responded to Montclair Local, after Ponds forwarded a message to him that morning. Jannah, board vice president Priscilla Church and board member Eric Scherzer have also not yet responded to emails sent Thursday to their district address with questions about testing costs.
Testing in Montclair schools was slated to start for this academic year in early October, but postponed a few weeks after district officials were sent an article published in BioSpace about an activist short seller’s accusations that testing provider Ginkgo Bioworks was engaging in a financial “shell game.” Ginkgo continues to be a state-approved vendor and is used in several communities.
The district implemented voluntary pooled tests for students and staff, with testing taking place outdoors, under tents. Participating students and staff members self-administered nasal swabs, and all swabs from any given pool were placed in a combined container. If a positive test was found in a pool, the students in the pool were given rapid antigen tests and parents were notified.
Students were tested each week on Mondays and Tuesdays, with antigen tests administered on Wednesdays and Thursdays if a positive test is found. That schedule was considerably stepped up from less frequent possibilities district officials had originally proposed as the start of the school year approved.
During the school board meeting, a new testing contractor, Sunrise Group of Companies, informally shared details of a testing plan for the district. Under Sunrise’s testing protocols, students would be given nasal PCR tests, with swabbing administered by Sunrise staff, Anwer Qureishi, the company’s managing director and chief operating officer said.
The testing would also be individualized, a change from the pooled testing system used previously in the district. Test results would come back within 24 to 72 hours, Qureishi said.
Sunrise is expected to make a formal presentation at the board’s Jan. 19 meeting.
The district plans to continue with its opt-in testing strategy, Ponds said Wednesday. With about 3,100 students opted-in as of the meeting, testing data would be available for about half the district’s student population, he said.
Sunrise plans to present a complete testing proposal at the next board meeting, Jan. 19, after receiving more information from the district regarding number of students, school run times and possible testing locations.
The conversation about a new testing contract could have and should have occurred before break, parent Lani Sommer-Padilla said at the Wednesday board meeting.
“I’m really baffled as to how we’re here,” Sommer-Padilla said. “I know a lot of people are tired of these board meetings being about COVID safety protocols, as am I and I would say, everyone [is]. But how can we move on if very basic stuff like this has not been established?”
Sommer-Padilla was one of a group of parents who organized weekly COVID-19 testing sites near schools in the fall. She is also fundraising for air purifiers to be placed in schools across the district.
Parent Heather Miller said her son suffered greatly during remote learning last school year, and she doesn’t want the district to return to that format due to inadequate testing.
“Testing is an integral part of keeping the virus out of schools and keeping our schools open and safe,” Miller said. “I don’t understand why this contract was allowed to expire without a new contract in place.”
Church and Scherzer asked that the district also reconsider its decision to run its own testing program with costs reimbursed by the state, instead of using a state-contracted vendor to administer testing, with costs covered by the state. Statewide, 81% of districts chose that option, state Department of Health communications manager Nancy Kearney told Montclair Local in December.
Kearney has not yet responded to an email sent Thursday asking if districts are able to switch to the state-contracted vendor at this point in the 2021-2022 school year.
The district did apply for a state-contracted vendor twice in August 2021, but the testing was not yet available so the district opted to pursue its own testing vendor, Ponds said Wednesday.
Ginkgo and Sunrise are also on the list of state-contracted vendors.
Many Montclair students are out of classrooms, after the district gave families the option of 10 days of remote learning, starting Jan. 5. The option was first announced Dec. 31, the Friday before students were slated to return from winter break on Monday, Jan. 3, but Ponds said at the time the district would need a few more days to get remote instruction ready. Any absences on students first two days back — Jan. 3 and 4 — wouldn’t be counted against them, he’d said.
Several other districts had announced entirely remote schedules for early January several days before that, in some cases before their own winter breaks. East Orange will hold remote learning until Jan. 18, that district has announced. The South Orange and Maplewood district will be remote until Jan. 10.