By TALIA WIENER
wiener@montclairlocal.news

Montclair schools will have their first COVID-related abbreviated schedules and remote instruction of the school year this week, due to the ongoing surge of coronavirus cases throughout New Jersey.

An announcement from schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds late Tuesday reversed course on a statement he’d made at a board of education meeting the night before — saying at the time school buildings would stay open, even as some neighboring districts shifted to virtual learning.

Ponds said in a message to the school community Tuesday that “out of an abundance of caution” the district, working with health officials, decided all elementary and middle school students would have an abbreviated day Wednesday, Dec. 22. Thursday, Dec. 23 was already set to be an abbreviated day.

On both Wednesday and Thursday, Montclair High School would have full-day synchronous remote instruction.

The district’s Developmental Learning Center schedules were not affected by the announcement. Ponds also noted the Montclair YMCA had morning- and after-care available. 

Friday begins the district’s winter break.

“Please note that we are staying focused and following safety protocols, and we will be back for full-day, in-person instruction on Jan. 3,” he wrote. “Thank you and stay safe.”

Cases in Montclair have risen sharply in the past couple weeks — with 52 new cases Monday and 222 over the week, according to the township tracking. By contrast, on Nov. 20, there were just three new cases, and 29 in the week leading up to that date.

The district reports 124 student and 31 staff cases this school year to date — with 53 of those student cases and 9 of the staff cases in just the last week. On Monday alone, the district reported 22 student and four staff cases.

Up until mid-December, the district’s newly reported positive cases, for staff and students combined, remained below five cases on any given day. The district’s tracker does not include positive cases identified outside of school testing. 

The surge isn’t limited to the Montclair area. The state’s coronavirus dashboard shows cases nearly doubled in schools throughout New Jersey the week ending Dec. 12, compared to the week prior. And Monday was the fifth straight day New Jersey announced more than 6,000 positive cases, exceeding records from early in the pandemic, though lacking test availability at that time likely kept numbers artificially low. Lagging reporting makes it hard to tell how much of that is due to the omicron variant of the virus, though the Centers for Disease Control reported Monday omicron accounted for 73% of all new infections nationwide last week.

Neighboring district East Orange announced Tuesday it would switch to remote learning until Jan. 18. The South Orange and Maplewood district announced Monday its middle school would pivot to remote instruction for the remainder of the week. Plainfield Public Schools and Hunterdon Central Regional High School also announced a switch to remote learning this week

Tensions at board meeting

At the Monday night meeting, Ponds had asked that students and staff be vigilant as the district expected to keep students in classrooms. 

“My three boys will not be going to Alabama to see my mom for the second Christmas in a row because I am concerned that I won’t come back able to do what we need to do to make sure we’re being safe here in the school district,” Ponds said at the meeting. “I’m not telling you what to do. It’s a personal choice, but I’m sharing what I’m doing on my end to help out.” 

But some students and parents are anxious about remaining in school buildings with the high case numbers reported this week. Even after Ponds’ announcement Tuesday, the district is continuing to plan for in-person classes after the winter break.

Montclair High School parent Ari Laura Kreith said she picked her daughter up from school early Monday because her family made the decision that it was no longer safe for her to attend. 

“What’s evolving is a choice between grades and safety, each family making choices based on limited information, their kid’s own academic motivation vs. fear of disease and their own best guesses about which teachers will allow missed work to be submitted and which will not,” Kreith said. 

Kreith said her daughter is concerned about how her absence may affect her grades and was “in despair this weekend” when the family discussed pulling her out of the building.

“She wants to risk her health out of concern for her future, and I get it,” Kreith said.

District policy as of Tuesday allows remote learning only for students who are undergoing quarantines. 

“If you feel that you are afraid to come to school because of the circumstances that we’re facing, reach out to your principal, your vice principal and let them know,” Ponds said in response to Kreith’s comments. “We want to respond to you.”

Parent Christina Joseph Robinson asked the district to end in-person instruction immediately.  Students and staff are as likely to catch the coronavirus in Montclair as they are while traveling, she said. 

“I beg you, please: We are here. The holidays are approaching. Let's go virtual right now or just suspend before the holiday break and then when people return everybody should at least have two weeks of virtual,” Robinson said. “Please protect our children. They are scared. They are upset and parents are stressed out.”

Edgemont Montessori School music teacher Max Mellman had asked that the remaining days before break be “COVID days,” counted similarly to snow days, to give people time to get tested before visiting families for Christmas. Mellman is also the Montclair Education Association secretary. 

But parent Obie Miranda-Woodley asked that schools remain open despite rising cases. 

“I am having anxiety just thinking about remote school,” Miranda-Woodley said at the meeting. “Please take every precaution to do everything you can to keep our children and staff safe and inside of the schools.”

Schools were entirely remote for most of last school year, amid concerns about coronavirus spread and the district’s aging infrastructure, and then during a dispute with the MEA over whether and when it was safe to return to buildings. Students eventually returned for a phased-in hybrid learning schedule, though in-person learning wasn’t available to some older students until the final weeks of the academic year.

Gov. Phil Murphy and the state Department of Education had pushed schools to resume in-person instruction in the 2020-21 school year, but gave them broad leeway on how and when to sent students back to classrooms. For the start of 2021-22, Murphy required all districts to return for in-person instruction.

There are no state case thresholds for instituting a period of virtual instruction, but the state’s guidance for the year allows it when a building is closed in consultation with a health agency.  

And while the governor has expressed concern about New Jersey’s quickly rising numbers, he’s said closing school buildings would be a last resort.

“I hope we don’t need to do that,” Murphy said Tuesday, NJ.com reported. “We know the impact of learning loss has been overwhelming, particularly in underserved communities. We’re going to do everything we can to stay in person, obviously safely and responsibly.”

He also pointed to a “test and stay” program the state plans to pilot in January. It would allow a student who’d been in close contact with a person positive for coronavirus to take multiple rapid tests over a few days, and stay in class if they come back negative.

Murphy also recently said vaccination mandates for students aren’t expected, but that “nothing is off the table.”

Senior class president Leon Wang told Montclair Local Tuesday that MHS students feel unsafe, but that the last thing they want to happen is for school to go remote.

But some things — stricter masking enforcement, remote instruction options for immunocompromised students, excused absences for students anxious about exposure — have to happen for students to be comfortable, Wang said.

“I want whatever is the safest option, while also allowing students to maximize their high school experiences because we’ve lost so much already,” Wang said. 

Board member Crystal Hopkins said mitigation strategies must be used during winter break so the district can remain in-person in January. 

“I really don't have to go to remote learning,” Hopkins said. “Teachers deserve this time, students deserve this time, but I do really, really want us to be mindful and be cautious.” 

Cases will increase in Montclair as they increase across the state, but the district will continue to follow its COVID-19 protocols and has been in conversation with the local and county health departments, Ponds said. 

“Having your mask on is paramount in our buildings,” Ponds said at the meeting. “Intentionally not having your mask on will have progressive discipline.”

The district is also asking families to voluntarily share their childrens’ vaccination status, Ponds said Monday. Collecting the information will help the district make better decisions moving forward, Hopkins said. 

“I know we keep talking about ‘what are we going to do’ and ‘how to make this work better’ and I do agree that we haven't done the best at planning for this winter coming,” Hopkins said. “But I think getting baseline information, it'll give us a trajectory for the rest of the school year and being indoors.” 

Some parents have been critical of the district’s COVID-19 response, with particular controversy around Ponds’ decision not to mandate students’ participation in the pooled coronavirus testing the district provides. Some board members have objected to that position as well.

Montclair High School physical education and health teacher Tracy Aytch said teachers are constantly exposed, as crowded hallways break social distancing guidelines and masks slide below noses or get taken off. 

“We're running on zero,” Aytch said at the meeting. “I don't really know the answer of what we can do, but I can say if we collaborate and we kind of talk to the people that are on the ground doing the work, get some advice and collaborate, I think we can come up with a plan that may not work for all but it may help us slow down the spread.”

Aytch asked Ponds to come to each school to speak with teachers and administrators to see what the environment is really like. 

“I have confidence that the administrative team as well as the Montclair Education Association is poised to do whatever needs to be done with whatever circumstances we're going to be facing in January,” school board Vice President Priscilla Church said during the Monday meeting. 

With many students receiving remote instruction while in quarantine, teachers have shown they are capable of pivoting to remote instruction, she said. 

“If the worst-case scenario happens and we are forced to close because cases get really crazy, we're going to be able to handle it,” Church said. 

An outbreak on the Montclair High School girls basketball team has resulted in a 10-day hiatus, Montclair Education Association vice president Natale Burrell said. The MHS wrestling team has also paused play.

Ponds has not yet responded to an email sent to his district address Tuesday asking about other student activities affected by the surge. 

Tuesday night, the Montclair Township Council was set to consider an indoor mask mandate for all businesses and entertainment venues

All 21 New Jersey counties are currently considered areas of high transmission by the Centers for Disease Control.