What we know: Montclair elementary school students didn’t return to school for hybrid learning Jan. 25 as expected. What we don’t: When or if that will change.

Schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds and the Montclair Education Association, which represents the district’s teachers, remained mum this week on mediation talks that began over the weekend after union members voted against returning. 

“The decision to delay our opening of school buildings is disheartening,” Ponds wrote in a community letter on Friday, Jan. 22, saying for the first time schools wouldn’t open the following Monday because not enough staff would come back. “For all our families and students who were anxiously awaiting the return to in-person instruction, I realize how unsettling this news is.”

The announcement came amid building tensions between the district and the MEA, while parents and students alike remained divided — with some demanding schools reopen for the emotional and educational well-being of their children, and others siding with teachers worried about coronavirus safety.  The dispute also calls into question whether students and teachers will return to Montclair’s middle schools and high school on Feb. 8 as planned.

MEA Chair Petal Robertson said on Jan. 25 that the mediation process with the Board of Education and Ponds could not be discussed due to confidentiality. But her message did indicate it was continuing.

“I can assure our school community that we want what we have always wanted — safe educational spaces for our students to learn in and safe for our staff in their workplace. We have asked for these remediations, restorations and an organizational plan rooted in good practice since the beginning of the school year,” Robertson said.

Neither the district nor the MEA responded the next day to questions from Montclair Local on the next steps after mediation, or any expected time frame. The union has cited among its concerns ongoing community spread of the coronavirus it says is no better than when Ponds himself pushed off a planned reopening in November, and problems with school ventilation systems that a report in the fall said would ultimately take $26 million to fix. Some union members have said it is premature to return students and teachers to schools when the state government might soon open up coronavirus vaccinations to teachers. 

Mayor Sean Spiller is also the vice president of the New Jersey Education Association, which represents teachers statewide. As mayor, Spiller appoints school board members. But he told Montclair Local in an email his role “is not to dictate policy for either the Board of Education or the MEA, however I have encouraged all parties to come together to see if they feel safe conditions have been met at this time.

“As those charged with making sound educational decisions for our kids, I would be supportive of their collective conclusions, including whether or not vaccines are a prerequisite. They can determine if, like 414 other New Jersey [school districts], they can safely offer a hybrid of in-person and remote instruction, or if like 270 [districts], all-remote is the safe route at this time,” Spiller wrote.

He said Montclair must “remain flexible and make changes based on conditions as they exist.” “Whatever we do, with 63 of our family members, friends and neighbors lost to this virus, we must have safety as our top priority,” the mayor wrote.

The MEA’s members didn’t return to schools for a planned professional development day Jan. 19, after voting the night before to continue working from home. In a statement earlier this week, the MEA criticized the school district for “vague procedures and hybrid building plans,” and said any number of health safety issues were identified during walk-throughs of school buildings.

Ponds, for his part, said at the Board of Education meeting Jan. 20 that he’s answered hundreds of questions in recent weeks though many MEA members attending said those answers had never gotten to their leadership.

On Monday, Jan. 25, the day elementary schools were expected to open, about 100 parents and students gathered outside Edgemont Montessori School. Children’s backpacks were piled on the lawn and a banner was hung at the school entrance proclaiming it had been 318 days since children were last inside a school building. The protest was organized by the group Montclair FAIL, which was organized months ago to advocate for opening school doors again.

“We keep hearing these dates thrown out, and right before that date comes, it gets pushed again. And it’s disheartening, for the parents and the kids,” said Ryan Coakley, who has three children, in eighth, seventh and second grades. 

Jake Lewis, who has a second grader at Northeast School, said he had hoped the community could come together in productive talks to get the schools reopened. “I would think Montclair would be a leader in that respect,” Lewis said.

A contentious meeting

At the 4½-hour Jan. 20 school board meeting, the union itself faced harsh criticism from some parents who said the MEA’s insistence that schools aren’t ready or safe was unfair, misleading or ill-timed. 

At that point, Ponds spoke of the plan to return Jan. 25 as if it were moving forward. It wasn’t until days later that he conceded it wouldn’t be possible because the staff was declining to return.

Some parents spoke of their own children doing badly, academically and psychologically, in remote learning, and said further delay would cause more harm. Margie Saraco, a teacher, urged opponents of the MEA’s action to “please stop demonizing us. We can’t return to in-person learning until it is safe to do so,” she said.

Several teachers told school officials they haven’t received documentation showing buildings are safe, and asked for specifics on what work had been done with the ventilation systems. Ponds, who described the purchase of 400 air purifiers as well as other temporary upgrades such as repairs to windows to let them open and increase ventilation told teachers they’ll have the reports. Ponds also described cleaning procedures, social distancing and masking rules, screening procedures and other measures meant to reduce risk of coronavirus spread.

“What hurts me at times, quite frankly, is the attacks for what people think we’re not doing,” Ponds told one speaker. 

Parent Kristin Wald said she was concerned about the “rhetoric” at meetings by the differing parties. “And our children hear us, and that adds to anxiety,” she said.

Wald said a lack of information from the district was leading to anger directed at the teachers. “These are our neighbors. These are people we see every day. And it’s harmful to all of us.”

Spiller said Ponds, coming on as superintendent just as the pandemic hit, stepped into an extremely difficult situation. He also praised parents, teachers and students.

“[They] also deserve high praise for going above and beyond to continue the work of teaching and learning. It is from that starting point that we need all parties working together,” he said.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Mayor Sean Spiller had not appointed any current members of the Board of Education.