Every Friday morning, I roll out of bed, unscrew a small plastic vial and spit into it. Later that morning, my wife takes that vial and three others just like it (from her, our son and our babysitter) and drops them off at the K-5 learning support center our son attends twice a week.

By Sunday evening, we get an email from the center’s owner letting us know that COVID-19 tests for families enrolled at the center are negative. We breathe a sigh of relief and continue getting the family ready for another week. 

The testing is managed by the Montclair Learning Center, which started doing weekly testing in November as part of its safety protocols.

Montclair’s public schools are nearing a planned reopening on Jan. 25 and regardless of whether you think that timing is right, it is hard not to feel a sense of unease and trepidation. The virus is spreading rapidly, hospitals are filling up (including right here in Montclair where Mountainside hospital reports 97% of hospitals beds taken, and 61% of ICU beds – both well above state averages) and the CDC expects a much more contagious variant could accelerate the problems.

Nonetheless, remote schooling is an incredibly poor substitute for school, and districts elsewhere, including here in New Jersey, have found ways to reopen safely. The inequities and academic, social and emotional problems posed by forcing children, particularly young children, to learn through online classes are well documented. Moreover, remote education requires many parents and caregivers to somehow balance their jobs while they provide instructional, tech and moral support for their children. Meanwhile, some parents and caregivers, including essential workers, are unable to do both and face the impossible choice of their jobs or their children’s education. 

We need to get our public schools open, but to do that most effectively, we as a community should be working together, parents and caregivers, teachers and staff, administrators, and our township elected officials. One tool that has helped in other places is regular, ongoing COVID-19 testing. Testing provides data that supports prudent and transparent decision-making for schools, parents and administrators. 

Testing is not free and, particularly in a socioeconomically diverse community like Montclair, the costs should not be borne by families who are not able to bear it. The weekly tests cost our family $15 per person per week, and we are fortunate enough to be able to handle that cost because we have maintained our two white-collar desk jobs despite the pandemic. However, our district should be able to work together to develop a program that would work for all families.  Whether it’s the PTAs or the invaluable Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence, or some new parent/school district entity, our town has the resources to work together to develop a plan. 

Under the April 2020 CARES Act, the Montclair school district was eligible for $461,000 in federal grant funding to support COVID-19 response. Much of that has likely been allocated to support the district's reopening plan. including PPE, ventilation work and air purifiers. But more funding is on the way. As a result of the December 2020 stimulus bill, the district is in line for three to four times more than that in additional funding. 

And while our township faces fiscal challenges, budgets are about priorities. Getting our schools reopened and keeping them open safely surely must be one of the highest ones right now. In Montclair, although there are multiple entities involved in these decisions, including the Board of Education and Board of School Estimate, through appointments and membership, the council and the mayor have a clear role and direct responsibility for our public schools. It’s time for the Montclair local government to step up and help the district reopen safely, working with parents and teachers.  

The approach our support center uses is just one of several ways to build a testing program. New York state requires sample testing for most open school districts; many independent schools, including several here in Montclair make regular testing part of their protocols; and the incoming Biden-Harris administration is currently evaluating testing research recommendations from the Rockefeller Foundation. This is a complex issue, with many options – stakeholders in Montclair should start considering those issues and moving this potential piece of the puzzle forward. 

We, as a community, all have a role in getting our public schools reopened, and helping them stay open safely. Testing should be part of the plan to make that happen. 

Eric Kim and his family have lived in Montclair since 2013. He and his wife are parents of two young children, including one in the public school system. He is also a member of the Charles H. Bullock School PTA.

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