By ERIN ROLL
roll@montclairlocal.news

When Montclair elementary schools reopen to in-person learning next month, they’ll be operating under the same hybrid schedule first announced last summer.

Families that already opted to keep their children on remote learning have until 5 p.m., Wednesday, March 17 to tell the district if they’d like to instead have their children return, schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said in one of his weekly “community bulletin” messages early Friday evening. Families already planning to send their children back to school buildings can switch to remote learning at any time.

The Montclair school district and the Montclair Education Association reached a settlement earlier this week, ending a lawsuit the district filed after union members refused to return for in-person learning in January. The settlement sets a date of April 12 for students to return, contingent on the district first providing the union more information about facilities and safety precautions, and holding building-by-building walkthroughs. 

But the settlement didn’t set out a date for Montclair’s middle schools or high schools to return to in-person learning. Ponds said Friday more information on plans to return to those buildings would be coming in subsequent weeks.

“We recognize the importance of in-person instruction for our secondary students and are committed to bringing them in as soon as possible,” he wrote. 

Ponds said if families revise their choices about whether to return, their children will continue to be “Mounties” or “Bulldogs” — classifications made for the district’s rotating hybrid learning schedule.

Public school students have been away from Montclair classrooms since March of 2020, when the novel coronavirus pandemic first struck New Jersey. Several plans to return students for a hybrid schedule were ultimately delayed, most recently because of the dispute between the district and the union. Classes have been held remotely throughout the dispute.

The MEA said, in a press release after the settlement was announced this week, its members “always wanted to return to the buildings for safe in-person instruction,” but couldn’t get adequate answers about safety precautions until the matter went to court. 

“Ultimately, the MEA’s desired safety and information outcomes are addressed and provided in the settlement reached and placed on the record in open court,” the union wrote. “We wanted documentation; now, the district must provide it by March 19. We wanted walkthroughs completed to ensure remediations were made; now, they must be held the week of March 22. We wanted meetings with each of the buildings before reopening; now, it is part of the agreement to collaborate with the Association regarding reopening issues.”

MEA President Petal Robertson and Ponds joined Mayor Sean Spiller (also vice president of the statewide New Jersey Education Association) and other officials earlier Friday to announce a partnership with Mountainside Hospital to vaccinate about 80 teachers a week. Also joining in the announcement were Montclair Board of Education President Latifah Jannah, County commissioner Brendan Gill and hospital CEO Tim O’Brien.

The district is also planning voluntary batch/pooled and PCR testing for students and staff at the schools. 

Just 53% of Montclair’s public school students intended to return to school buildings for hybrid learning overall, school officials said in a presentation in February. By far the largest racial or ethnic group planning to come back: white students, at 62%. Among every other racial or ethnic group, the majority intended to remain remote. That was most true of Black students, 39% of whom expected to come back. For other ethnic groups, the divide was tighter, but still showed a slight preference for staying remote.

There were significantly more students on free and reduced lunch who wanted to remain remote: 62%. The opposite was true of students receiving English Language Learner instruction: 59% said they’d come back.

Under executive orders from Gov. Phil Murphy, districts that can resume some level of in-person instruction are expected to, but the governor has given districts wide leeway on how they set plans to do so. Parents may opt to keep their children home in any school district in the state.

Montclair Local has sent school officials several questions about procedures and practices for the return to school — including on how hands-on lessons for classes like science labs or art will be handled, what procedures would be in place for snack and lunch periods, or what precautions would be in place for students with special needs. Ponds said in a brief reply Friday that “principals will have particulars in their weekly newsletters, and I will continue to send weekly updates. We are following all of the CDC guidelines for safety.”