A Montclair councilman whose ward includes the township's largest Black population says he's "not surprised" to learn the majority of Black families don't plan to return to Montclair school buildings just yet.

“You have to consider the history of America when it comes to science and testing in the Black community, specifically regarding pandemics like COVID,” David Cummings, also a former school board member, said. “There is little trust. The Tuskegee experiment on Black people [a 40-year experiment by the Public Health Service following Black men with syphilis, in which patients weren’t told of their diagnosis and denied treatment] is something we will never forget.”

It’s unclear when any students might return to classrooms for a hybrid learning schedule. The Montclair Education Association and the school district remain in a standoff, with the union saying it’s not yet safe to return amid the coronavirus pandemic, and the district suing the MEA, accusing the teachers of an illegal strike for not coming back as planned last month. Teachers have continued to give lessons remotely, as they’ve been doing since the coronavirus pandemic hit New Jersey in March 2020. 

But in advance of the planned return last month, the district asked families whether they'd stay remote or come back for a hybrid learning schedule.

Just 53% of Montclair’s public school students intended to return to school buildings for hybrid learning overall.

By far the largest racial or ethnic group planning to come back, when the school district asked families to register for hybrid or remote learning: white students, at 62%.

Among every other racial or ethnic group, the majority intended to remain remote.   That was most true of Black students, only 39% of whom expected to come back. For other ethnic groups, the divide was tighter, but still showed a slight preference for staying remote.

Students who have individualized education plans (known as IEPs) were almost 50%-50% on returning. Students receiving accommodations for disabilities under 504 plans (so-called because of requirements of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973) were 54%-46% in favor of returning for hybrid learning.

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.

This story updates an earlier post on the demographic breakdowns of those planning to return to Montclair schools and those planning to stay remote, and includes perspective from community members.

'Not racism. Privilege'

Kalisha Morgan, the Montclair district’s assistant superintendent for equity, curriculum and instruction, presented the data at a Feb. 3 Board of Education meeting. Her presentation didn’t discuss feedback from demographic groups on returning, and schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds on Feb. 9 declined to provide any comment, citing the ongoing litigation involving the return to schools.

Cummings, who this week was scheduled to participate in a call with Gov. Phil Murphy on convincing Black residents to get vaccinated, said to get a sense of the racial disparity in families’ plans for returning, “all you had to do was look at the makeup of the parents participating in all of the public protests.” 

“What’s being discussed with the seniors and residents from my generation is this is an example of the perception of white privilege. Not racism. Privilege,” Cummings said. “What is the makeup of members of the Montclair FAIL? Every parent has a right to advocate for their child, but in this case the public outcry as far as I can tell has not come from a diverse population.”

On Jan. 25, more than 100 parents and students gathered outside Edgemont Montessori School for a demonstration organized by Montclair Families Advocating for In-Person Learning, or “FAIL.” The crowd appeared largely white.

Montclair Local asked FAIL for comment on the data, and the disparities in families’ plans for returns. Member Deirdre Carlough replied by email: “Montclair FAIL has always supported any parent or guardian who chooses in-person learning for their child. Montclair FAIL (and the over 450 members of the group) remains committed to reopening schools for the children who are suffering mentally and emotionally while trying to learn remotely."

Christa Rapoport, the chair of the Montclair Civil Rights Commission, which advises the Township Council on civil rights issues, said the impacts of distance learning and school closures on both minority students and those with disabilities are “primary concerns” for the organization.

“Could the racial divide be due to having multigenerational households, high-risk factors such as asthma, fear of vaccines post-Tuskegee experiments, concern about school safety, etc.? We don’t know the answer,” she said in an email to Montclair Local.

Different kids, different needs

Families of students with special needs weren’t significantly more likely to seek a return to school than the overall Montclair student population.

Alma Schneider, a member of the Special Education Parents Advisory Council — a volunteer group that provides support for parents and caregivers of children with special needs —  said it is important to remember the special education community encompasses a wide range of children with different needs.

A child may need physical or occupational therapy that is best addressed in a school setting, and that parents may not be equipped to handle on their own, she said.

“It is incredibly exhausting. The teachers and staff are trained to deal with this for many hours a day,” Schneider said.

But other children have been doing well in a remote setting, she said. For example, a child who has anxiety about going to school may be doing better learning at home. 

Anxiety over acrimony

Both Schneider and Cummings said they were concerned over the division in the community, and the level of rancor on social media. 

“I just feel that this is unprecedented, that the district is being pulled in a million different directions,” Schneider said. “Everyone is only passionate about this topic because we are concerned about our children.”

Cummings said that when the township established a learning center in December at the Wally Choice Community Center in Glenfield Park, it was the result of discussions and collaboration between township, county and school officials.

“I say that because we were able to do it because we worked together, and focused on helping families,” Cummings said. “I think if the different factions we have now did that collectively there could be a chance of finding a way for all parties to be satisfied. But you have to have empathy for one another, and I don’t see that right now.”

He said it’s important that Montclair residents “focus on making these next four months work for our students, rather than creating hostility and division that will linger for years.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misidentified Alma Schneider's role with SEPAC.