The Montclair School District is planning to institute voluntary COVID-19 batch testing as part of its safety protocols once buildings are reopened to in-person learning.

With batch testing, students in a classroom will swab their noses, and put all the swabs in one tube that will be tested all at once — rather than individually. 

“These testing processes are another layer of health and safety protection for all,” Superintendent Jonathan Ponds wrote in a March 12 announcement to families

Matt McKnight of testing company Concentric told the public at the March 15 Board of Education meeting that batch testing helps lessen the burden on teachers and school staff. 

“We can’t ask teachers to become nurses and doctors like nurse Betty Strauss’ team,” he said, referring to the district’s nursing supervisor. 

Montclair’s swabs will be tested at a lab at Rutgers University.

Participation in batch testing is voluntary, and a student will only participate if his or her parents have signed a consent form prior to the testing day. 

If the tube is found to contain a positive result, Ponds said, the district will follow state and CDC guidelines as to any room or building closures, and further testing.

Under state guidance, any school in an “orange” zone — such as Essex County — should consider closing classrooms if at least two students or teachers test positive. 

The contingencies

The Montclair school district and the Montclair Education Association reached a settlement last week to end 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 elementary students to return, contingent on the district first providing the union more information about facilities and safety precautions, and holding building-by-building walk-throughs. 

But the settlement didn’t set a date for Montclair’s middle schools or high school to return to in-person learning. Ponds said 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. 

The MEA said in a press release after the settlement was announced that 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 walk-throughs completed to ensure remediations were made; now, they must be held the week of March 22. We wanted meetings [about] each of the buildings before reopening; now, it is part of the agreement to collaborate with the association regarding reopening issues.”

Who’s returning, who’s not

Under executive orders from Gov. Phil Murphy, parents can choose to keep children on all-remote learning in any district that has some level of in-person instruction. Families previously planning to keep their children remote had until Wednesday, March 17 to inform the district if they expected to switch to hybrid in-person education.

Families already planning to send their children back to school buildings can switch to remote learning at any time.

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.

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, as of that point: 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.

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.

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, and what precautions would be in place for students with special needs. 

Ponds responded 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.”