By TALIA WIENER
wiener@montclairlocal.news

An announcement about whether Montclair schools will require masking once a statewide mandate expires is expected Tuesday, March 1. Schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds shared the date of the announcement during a Board of Education meeting Wednesday, Feb. 23, after parents weighed in on both sides of the issue.

Gov. Phil Murphy said Feb. 7 he’d be ending the mandate as of March 7, calling it a “huge step back to normalcy.” The change marks the first time since most schools reopened to some level of in-person learning during the 2020-21 school year that masks won’t be required by a state rule.

But individual districts and day-care centers will still be able to require masks on their own, if they choose to. 

Some New Jersey school districts, including Bloomfield, Verona and Nutley, have announced they will make masking optional. Others, including East Orange, Plainfield and Newark, will continue to require masks. 

“The most important thing is we’ve got to keep schools open,” Ponds said. “Safety is paramount.”

On Wednesday, Feb. 23, the Township Council unanimously passed a resolution ending the township’s indoor mask mandate midnight on Feb. 28, instead of at the end of March.

Ponds said he would make a statement about masks on Tuesday, after he had time to collect more information. On Friday, Feb. 25, he and other school administrators will attend a webinar hosted by the state with additional guidelines for schools. He said he will also be speaking with the Montclair Education Association, the Montclair Principals Association and parents involved in the PTA Council. 

“My fear is to make a decision before [the webinar], it could possibly cause confusion if the guidelines tell us something different,” the superintendent said. “We’re going to go about this in the scientific way.”

As of Thursday, Feb. 24, there had been a total of 426 student cases of coronavirus and 115 staff cases since the beginning of the 2021-22 year, according to the district’s COVID-19 data dashboard. Of those, 114 student cases and 37 staff cases were in the week leading up to Dec. 23, the last day before winter break. The numbers were fueled in part by the omicron variant of the virus. 

On Tuesday, Feb. 22, the state Health Department issued updated guidance for masking in school districts after the expiration of the state mandate. Many factors must be considered in the decision-making process, the guidance says, including schools’ ability to regularly test students, perform effective contact-tracing, maintain adequate ventilation and more. 

These factors are exactly why the district should continue masking, parent Joanna Desmond-Stein said at the Wednesday school board meeting. 

The district ended its in-school testing program in December, after its contract with Ginkgo Bioworks expired. Optional after-school testing events have been taking place twice a week since January and will be increased to three times a week in March, according to a Jan. 28 community message from Ponds. Poor or lacking ventilation has also long been a concern in the district’s aging buildings, and upgrades are not expected until after a bond referendum measure seeking at least $15.5 million goes to voters at the end of 2022. 

“I know that some parents have talked about removing the mask mandate, but as a parent, I really, really feel that it’s the safest to continue that at the moment while cases are still happening and corona is still here,” Desmond-Stein said. 

Parent Obie Miranda-Woodley agreed, citing her concern for young children in the community who are not yet vaccinated. The death of a single child is unacceptable, she said. 

“Both my kids have teachers with babies under the age of 1 in their homes,” Miranda-Woodley said. “I worry about my community members who have babies and young children.”

According to the New Jersey Department of Health COVID dashboard, 0.03% of COVID deaths have been children up to 4 years old — 10 of the state’s 29,840 deaths, as of Thursday. 

But parent Dominick Koher asked that masking in Montclair schools end and said he was frustrated by the district’s lack of communication with parents on the issue.

“We should be celebrating,” Koher said. “We should be gleefully announcing that masks will be optional.”

Parent Dominick Koher asked that required masking in Montclair schools end when the state mandate expires March 7. (TALIA WIENER/STAFF)
Parent Dominick Koher asked that required masking in Montclair schools end when the state mandate expires March 7. (TALIA WIENER/STAFF)
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It seems like the teachers union has the biggest seat at the table for the decision-making process, Koher said. He held up a photo of Mayor Sean Spiller, also the president of the New Jersey Education Association, unmasked at an event in December. The photo was posted by Spiller on his Facebook page. Spiller has not responded to emails sent to his personal and township addresses Thursday, Feb. 24, asking for comment. 

“This is the height of hypocrisy right here,” Koher said. “This man does not deserve a seat at the table. It must be the parents and the children.”

On Feb. 13, Montclair Education Association leaders said the union had not yet been consulted about ending the mask mandate and was told on Jan. 14 that the mandate would stay in place through the school year. Union President Cathy Kondreck has not responded to an email sent to her union address Thursday, Feb. 24, asking for an update. 

Student voices are essential to the decision-making process, as students will be “deeply affected” by the outcome, student school board representative Samara Haynes, a senior, said at the Wednesday meeting. 

“Though everyone longs for a return to normalcy, safety needs to be the biggest priority,” Haynes said. 

She and fellow student representative Justin Comini, a junior, will be sending a survey out to Montclair High School students this week asking for their thoughts on masking, along with other issues. Ponds said Wednesday he was eager to see the survey responses prior to making his decision. 

Board members said Wednesday they were undecided on the issue and didn’t envy Ponds.

Board member Crystal Hopkins said her main concern in removing masks would be contact-tracing protocols, but hoped guidance from the state would provide additional insight on best practices. 

Board member Eric Scherzer asked that community members on both sides of the issue investigate their stances. For those in support of continued masking, he asked, what are the criteria to decide when masking will end? For those who wish for the mandate to expire, he asked, under what circumstances would putting masks back on be warranted?

Board Vice President Priscilla Church said she was conflicted, but that students must be protected. 

Board of Education candidate Noah Gale said Wednesday he supported keeping the mask mandate  — “what Governor Murphy is doing is a huge mistake,” he said. Gale is running in a March 8 election against eight other candidates vying for two open board seats.