By TALIA WIENER
wiener@montclairlocal.news

Students, staff and visitors will have the option of wearing masks on Montclair public school property come March 7, although informal surveys of Montclair families and students revealed differing opinions on the issue.

The announcement was made Tuesday, March 1, via a community message from schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds.

Optional masking will extend to all indoor and outdoor school settings, as well as on school buses, the message said. 

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 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. 

In his message, Ponds said his decision was based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control, the N.J. Department of Health and the Montclair Health Department. The district’s leadership was encouraged in its decision to lift the mandate by the decrease in cases and low transmission and risk rates in the region, he said.

As of Tuesday, March 1, there had been a total of 433 student cases of coronavirus and 116 staff cases since the beginning of the 2021-22 year, according to the district’s COVID-19 data dashboard. In the past week, the district reported eight student cases and one staff case.

Optional masking is subject to change if the case rate and risk level rise to the high or highest levels, according to guidance from the CDC and state Health Department, Ponds said in the message. COVID-19 activity levels will be reviewed weekly, he added.

“I thank you in advance for coming together as a community to respect the choice of all individuals with understanding and empathy,” Ponds said. “As a district, we will continue to monitor our transmission within the schools, and we will keep you informed should anything change.”

Montclair joins other New Jersey school districts, including Bloomfield, Verona and Nutley, in its decision to make masking optional. Other districts, including East Orange, Plainfield and Newark, will continue to require masks. 

The Montclair Education Association’s executive board met with Ponds on Friday, Feb. 25, Candice Pastor, the union’s communications and social media chair, told Montclair Local Tuesday before the decision was revealed. 

“We expressed to Dr. Ponds our desire for him to follow the science and to communicate the concrete metrics to support whatever decision he makes,” Pastor said. 

She and union President Cathy Kondreck declined to comment Tuesday after the decision was announced.

Student voices are essential to the decision-making process, student school board representative Samara Haynes, a senior, said at the Wednesday, Feb. 23, Montclair Board of Education 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, sent out a survey Feb. 28, asking Montclair High School students to share their thoughts on masking, along with other school issues. Within 24 hours, they received over 600 responses — 58% of respondents wanted the mask mandate to stay in place, 42% wanted the mandate to end. 

One survey question asked students to rate, on a scale of 1 to 5, how comfortable they would feel attending schools if masks were not required — 20% said they would not be comfortable, 23% said they would be very comfortable, and the remaining 57% fell somewhere in the middle. 

The survey responses were shared with Ponds and school board President Latifah Jannah on Tuesday, Comini said. Ponds said at the Feb. 23 meeting he was eager to see the survey responses prior to making his decision. 

The PTA Council also conducted a survey about the mandate and received 1,561 responses. Some 61% of respondents want masks to be optional on school property, 32% want masks to be worn indoors on school property, and 7% want masks to be worn indoors and outdoors on school property. The survey was sent out Feb. 24 through the PTAs.

Board member Eric Scherzer declined to comment Tuesday prior to the announcement. The other members of the board and leaders of the Special Education Parent Advisory Council have not responded to emails sent Monday asking for comments on the decision.

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, according to the guidance, including schools’ ability to regularly test students and maintain adequate ventilation. 

These factors are exactly why the district should continue masking, parent Joanna Desmond-Stein said at the Feb. 23 board meeting. 

The district ended its in-school testing program in December and has been holding optional after-school testing events since January. 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 measure goes to voters, expected 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. 

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 at the meeting. “We should be gleefully announcing that masks will be optional.”