By TALIA WIENER
wiener@montclairlocal.news

As things currently stand, when Montclair students return to school for a full-time, in-person schedule in the fall, they won’t always be spaced 3 feet apart, as the latest Centers for Disease Control guidance advises.

But the school district plans a number of measures to reduce the threat of novel coronavirus spread. Outdoor time, shields between students and masks will all play key roles, school officials say.

“We are aware, very, very aware, of the need to have mitigating factors in our buildings,” Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said at a July 26 Board of Education meeting. 

The CDC guidance recommends schools maintain 3 feet of distance, but acknowledges that isn’t always possible. “When it is not possible to maintain a physical distance of at least 3 feet, such as when schools cannot fully reopen while maintaining these distances, it is especially important to layer multiple other prevention strategies, such as indoor masking,” the CDC’s website says. The advisory was last updated July 9.

Montclair Local Coronavirus Tracker

New Jersey, in its own “Road Forward” guidance for school systems, says districts should “consider” maintaining 3 feet of distance between students in classrooms “to the extent possible while offering full-time, in-person learning to all students.” But the same document stresses that being unable to implement one of the strategies it advises “does not preclude the reopening of a school facility for full-day in-person operation with all enrolled students and staff present.”

Ponds said he expects the students to have normal recess, with outdoor learning and outdoor lunchtime when possible. The district has also purchased desk shields to place between students in school cafeterias, to be used when inclement weather prevents outdoor lunch, he said.

“Students will have a chance to sit in their individual shield area, remove their mask and eat,” he  said. 

All students and staff in school district buildings are currently required to wear masks, unless a disability otherwise prevents it, Ponds said. Montclair schools will follow the Essex County Department of Health guidelines for mask-wearing in the fall, according to the Safe Return to School Plan the district published June 22. Officials have said it’s a living document they’ll continue to update as circumstances and guidance evolve.

Gov. Phil Murphy, for his part, said in mid-July he considers mask requirements for schools this fall to be a local decision — and that it would take a “wholesale deterioration in health data” for him to order them statewide.

As Tuesday, most New Jersey counties — including Essex — showed “substantial” coronavirus transmission on a tracker the CDC updates daily. Only Warren County showed “moderate” transmission. Cape May and Monmouth counties showed “high” transmission. 

In response to growing coronavirus case numbers and the dominance of the highly contagious Delta variant of the virus, Murphy has urged residents, regardless of their own vaccination status, to wear masks in indoor settings where they can’t be sure everyone around is vaccinated. But the governor has stopped short of requiring masks, as New Jersey did earlier in the pandemic.

“We are aware that there may be a mask mandate that comes down,” Ponds said at the board meeting. “Please be prepared for that if it happens.”

CDC guidance issued last week also urged everyone to wear masks while in indoor public spaces in areas identified with substantial transmission, again regardless of vaccine status. It specifically recommends mask-wearing for everyone at K-12 schools, includings adults, regardless of vaccine status as well.

“For me this is not a political decision, it is a medical decision,” Ponds said. “If our doctors tell us we need to have a mask mandate, we will have one.”

Only instructions from the state Department of Health or an order from the governor would cause the district to return to remote learning, Ponds said at the meeting. 

The district will hold a virtual town hall on Aug. 12 to share information about the district’s fall plans and to answer questions from the community. A link to register and attend is on the district’s website, montclair.k12.nj.us. 

The Pfizer vaccine is available to those 12 and older, but no vaccinations are available for those under age 12.

As of Tuesday, 71% of people of any age in Montclair were fully vaccinated, according to state data. Additionally, 84% of those 18 and over were vaccinated. The state’s coronavirus tracker does not break out what percentage of minors or those over age 12 are vaccinated for a given community.

The threat of coronavirus spread and the condition of school buildings in 2020-21 delayed multiple plans to open Montclair schools for some level of in-person learning. Plans to start the year on a hybrid schedule were pushed back to November, and then until further into the school year, due to continued community spread. 

And in November, the district’s engineering consultants identified $26 million worth of needed ventilation work, citing some classrooms that had inadequate ventilation and some that had no active ventilation at all. The district undertook a number of temporary and short-term repairs, such as rehabilitating windows and installing air purifiers.

Montclair Education Association members refused to return to elementary schools for a planned resumption of hybrid learning in January, eventually prompting the district to sue the union. The parties settled after the district agreed to share more information on facilities safety, and elementary school buildings began to reopen in April. Some older students didn’t return until the last weeks of the school year. 

Last month, the Board of Education’s finance committee chair said plans to undertake much more elaborate repairs would be put off until voters decide this fall whether Montclair should have an elected school board, instead of a mayor-appointed one. 

The change would usher in a new process for issuing bonds for capital improvements, putting them before voters in referendums, instead of having them issued by the Township Council. In the meantime, board members anticipate identifying high-priority projects that can be funded with federal grants.