If there’s one thing certain about the progression of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s that nothing’s certain about the progression of the coronavirus pandemic.

For Montclair schools, like others, that’s meant the dizzying task of navigating frequently changing and sometimes conflicting health guidance and state regulations — not always to the satisfaction of families and staff who criticize the district for being inconsistent and unclear about communicating its own policies.

Another thing that’s uncertain — whether, if cases again rise to concerning levels (the most recent COVID-19 Activity Level Report from the state Health Department continues to show Essex, and most counties, as an area of “high” transmission), the district could legally repeat the steps it took before winter break, when it shifted Montclair High School to remote-only learning for two days amid the omicron spike. It’s also unclear if it could repeat its move just after winter break, when for 10 days it instituted a districtwide hybrid schedule — with families who were comfortable doing so sending their children for in-person instruction, and others keeping their children home. 

In January, schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds instituted 10 days of optional remote learning for Montclair schools. Ponds is seen here at an April 27 school board meeting. (TALIA WIENER/FILE PHOTO)
In January, schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds instituted 10 days of optional remote learning for Montclair schools. Ponds is seen here at an April 27 school board meeting. (TALIA WIENER/FILE PHOTO)

On Monday, Dec. 21, schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds announced that for Wednesday and Thursday of that week, Montclair High School would be on full-day remote instruction — for the first time this school year.

State law governing aid to districts — requiring a district to be open for at least 180 days each school year — allows schools to institute remote instruction “during a school closure lasting more than three consecutive school days” because of a state of emergency, a public health emergency or a directive by a health agency or officer, Department of Education spokesman Michael Yaple told Montclair Local last month. The MHS remote instruction lasted only for two consecutive days. 

Cases continued to rise over winter break, and Ponds announced just after the return that the district would offer 10 days of optional remote learning.  Montclair wasn’t the only district to do so — Bloomfield and Haledon also offered similar hybrid plans.

But that seems to conflict with instructions from the state.

In May 2021, Gov. Phil Murphy announced changes to Executive Order 175 that allowed for remote instruction during the 2021-22 school year — schools would be required to provide full-day, in-person instruction.

“Remote learning will be permitted in the event that there is a localized outbreak or other emergency,” a press release about the announcement says. “If buildings are open for in-person instruction, parents or guardians will not be able to opt-out of in-person instruction.”

The Wayne Township public school district, in a Jan. 2 return to school FAQ document, specifically pointed to Montclair offering a remote-optional plan, and said it was told that’s not allowed.

“After working with the New Jersey Department of Education last week to inquire about this option, the NJDOE indicated that no school district has this option based on the fact that Governor Murphy’s executive order allowing for parental options for virtual instruction expired,” the FAQ states.

Montclair Local sought Wayne’s correspondence with the Department of Education in a public records request, seeking messages including terms such as “remote instruction” and “virtual learning.” Emails provided didn’t include any discussion of that policy, though some were redacted.

A representative of the New Jersey School Boards Association said her research didn’t turn up an answer to whether such a hybrid temporary schedule would be allowed.

And the Department of Education, in several messages from January to early May, didn’t address the question, despite Montclair Local asking it repeatedly. Shaheed Morris, a department spokesperson, said in January district officials should work with health departments “to determine the most appropriate actions given the local circumstances.”

“If issues arise in a district, we work directly with local school officials, but we don’t address the matter through the news media,” he said by email Feb. 1.

Montclair Local sent Ponds multiple messages with questions regarding the remote-optional policy from January to May, but has not received a response.

Are other policies clear?

Some parents and teachers have expressed frustration over various policies, and the communication around them, since the return to classrooms. Parents questioned a now-abandoned plan to use needlepoint bipolar ionization systems, an air-cleaning technology some worried could be harmful. They’ve said policies about whether and when to open windows have been unclear or inconsistent, and questioned the status of on-again off-again (currently off) testing during the school day.

“I've asked three times formally and in writing for current COVID protocols because the protocols that are posted on the district website are not being followed in all of the schools,” Montclair Education Association President Cathy Kondreck said during a June 1 school board meeting.

One recent policy change regarding classroom windows was miscommunicated, Kondreck said. An April 14 memo from Ponds said custodial staff would no longer open windows each morning, but instead teachers can choose to open windows “as they deem necessary.” Ponds clarified at a recent board meeting that teachers are expected to open windows. The new policy also asks teachers to do manual labor, which is a breach of contract, Kondreck told Montclair Local. 

Masks became optional in the district on March 7, the first day since the start of the pandemic that Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration allowed districts the option of forgoing mandatory masking.

The administration required a 10-day mandatory masking period at Montclair High School and Buzz Aldrin Middle School after an uptick in COVID-19 cases. That period ended May 13. But masking has mostly remained optional in the district despite other temporary increases in coronavirus cases in the district and Essex County's still being classified as an area of high transmission by the state, as it has since May 7. In May, school officials said they were forgoing a mask requirement because they’d started to see a drop in cases not yet reflected in state figures.

Cases in the district spiked in early May, with 151 students and 16 staff members testing positive between May 2 and May 6, according to the district’s COVID-19 data dashboard. During the following week, May 9 to May 13, 138 students and 21 staff members tested positive, according to the dashboard.

Numbers have dropped off considerably since then, though. Last week, from June 6 to June 10, 23 students and 8 staff members tested positive, according to the dashboard.

In a Tuesday, March 1, community message announcing the change to optional masking, Ponds said the policy “would be subject to change if the case rate and risk level were to rise to the high or highest levels according to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and New Jersey Department of Health.” He also said the district would review activity levels weekly.

Ponds has clarified in recent board meetings that the district continues contact tracing, and notification of close contacts when they’re identified. Guidance issued by the state Department of Health Feb. 22 describes a close contact as anyone within 6 feet of someone with suspected or known COVID-19 for 15 or more minutes during a 24-hour period.

But some community members question whether enough people are being informed when cases are discovered, particularly while masking is optional.

“In some school situations, it may be difficult to determine whether individuals have met this criterion and an entire cohort, classroom, or other group may need to be considered exposed, particularly if people have spent time together indoors,” the state guidance says. 

At a May 4 board meeting, parent Joanna Desmond-Stein asked for more details about contact tracing and notification.

“If you’re in a closed room, with the windows closed and someone sprays some perfume at one end of the room, you’re going to eventually smell it on the other side of the room,” Desmond-Stein said. “That would liken in my mind to be the case of someone who has COVID and is breathing out without a mask.”

She asked if the notification policy only included those within 6 feet or if entire classrooms would be informed when a positive case was found. 

“I wanted more clarification because I feel like we don’t have as much clarification as I would like on what exactly the contact tracing is,” Desmond-Stein said. 

Ponds did not clarify at that meeting who would be classified as a close contact. 

Because the district’s coronavirus counts can only include cases reported to it, and policies for testing have varied over the year, it’s hard to compare its coronavirus statistics from one time period to another. 

In the fall, the district conducted opt-in, pooled in-school coronavirus testing through vendor Ginkgo Bioworks, but the contract was allowed to expire in December. The district instead scheduled several optional testing sessions, available to families outside of the normal school day. At its March 2 meeting, the Board of Education approved a contract with Sunrise Diagnostics Lab to conduct in-school testing. Justin Comini, the board’s student representative, told Montclair Local this week that testing has yet to begin.

Board of Education President Latifah Jannah forwarded questions about the contract to Ponds. The superintendent has not responded to questions sent May 9 about the status of the Sunrise contract and in-school testing. A message left May 9 with the Sunrise Diagnostics office has yet to be returned.