In three weeks, Montclair students will return to school buildings on a full-time schedule for the first time since March of 2020. Many won’t be vaccinated, because many can’t be — no vaccine is available to those under 12 years of age.

It’s an open question how many of their teachers will be vaccinated. The district says it can’t mandate staffers be vaccinated, under guidance from the state and its own attorneys. But the New Jersey School Boards Association, in a message to Montclair Local, suggested otherwise. And some parents and school board members say a mandate for staff is necessary to keep the school environment as safe as possible.

“I personally believe that we should institute a vaccination mandate with exceptions for health issues and religious exemptions, certainly for all our staff,” Eric Scherzer, whom Mayor Sean Spiller appointed to the school board this year, said. “I know that’s been done elsewhere. And I believe that even though the governor has not yet taken that action, I think that we should do that here in Montclair and move forward on that as strongly as possible.”

Janet Bamford, the chief public affairs officer for the New Jersey School Boards Association, pointed Montclair Local to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidance, saying federal equal opportunity laws don’t prevent an employer from requiring COVID-19 vaccination for employees who enter the workplace, if required reasonable accommodations are made. 

The New Jersey Education Association, in a “Vaccine FAQ” on its website, says employers “are likely legally permitted to mandate that employees receive the vaccine,” though employees with qualifying disabilities, health concerns or religious objections might be entitled to accommodations.

Steven Baker, the NJEA’s communications director, said in an email Tuesday the union would support a requirement for vaccines or frequent testing like the one Gov. Phil Murphy has put in place for health-care workers. And he said the NJEA would continue to encourage and promote vaccination for school employees. But he said a single statewide standard would be best. 

Spokespeople for the state’s health and education departments have not yet returned messages seeking information on any guidance they’ve sent schools about mandates. The Montclair Education Association hadn’t yet returned a message sent Friday seeking comment either.

“I’m outraged, and ‘outrage’ is still putting this nicely,” parent Melanie Robbins told the school board Monday night. “I’m a mom expecting a baby with two special education kids in the Montclair schools, and immunocompromised.”

She said the current status of the school district’s reopening plan, discussed days earlier at a town hall meeting with administrators held online, “has me up at night, scared of what seems inevitable given the current status of reopening plans.”

“My kids are going to be extremely exposed to COVID and can easily bring it home to me and my new baby,” Robbins said. 

The district isn’t currently requiring unvaccinated teachers to get tested regularly, human resources director Damen Cooper said at the town hall meeting.

But schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said the district’s plan for reopening meets all state guidelines. 

The discussion around whether districts can or should require vaccinations, like so much in the pandemic, is a fluid and controversial one. Last week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered all teachers in that state to be vaccinated or tested weekly. Chicago followed suit. Chalkbeat reports Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon told his members to anticipate a mandate in the city’s schools, though as of Tuesday no such policy had yet been announced. The city does, however, require vaccination for its municipal employees.

And Murphy suggested at his Aug. 9 coronavirus briefing a statewide requirement could be in the works, saying, “My guess is within the next two or three weeks, we’ll have something we’ll be able to put out there.”

At Monday night’s meeting, Crystal Hopkins, who also joined the Montclair school board this year, said it’s important to push vaccination availability for students and staff, even without a mandate. She said it’s important students and staff be made to understand that exposures they have outside the classroom could endanger peers who aren’t or can’t be vaccinated.

“I think that we should be harping on the fact that our faculty, while we may not have a mandate — there should be some responsibility, outside of the classroom, that they are being mindful,” she said.

Board member Allison Silverstein noted the National Education Association supports mandatory vaccinations for educators. The NEA says 90% of its members report they’re vaccinated already. 

The particular legal issues can be difficult to sort out, she said, “but if our governor says to do it, it’s done.” And getting more people vaccinated, she said, “is the quickest and easiest way to make sure our students are as safe as possible.”

The district is planning a voluntary survey for personnel, asking if they've been vaccinated. Cooper said the district is still working with its attorneys on what information might be shared from those answers. He didn’t say whether the district might take different safety precautions for contact with a staffer who hasn’t been vaccinated than for one who has.

Pooled testing

The district is continuing to sort through questions about its plans for voluntary pooled testing of students and staff this fall — a tool used not to diagnose an individual with coronavirus, but to spot it in a large group. It began such a system in the spring. 

Ponds said Monday night he’d received more than 100 questions about the plan, and he’s working on memos and emails to communicate with parents further. 

After last week’s town hall, parent Debra Caplan started an online petition, urging the district to instead institute school-based screening tests for students and staff. The CDC recommends localities consider screening tests along with other mitigation techniques as students return to schools.

Caplan argues on the petition the pooled testing “is not a sufficient amount of testing to detect whether or not COVID is spreading in our schools, nor will this be enough to isolate cases and mitigate spread.” As of midday Tuesday, her petition had about 300 signatures.

Under the pooled testing system, students and teachers who consent swab their own noses. Tests are returned within the week, Felice Harrison-Crawford, the district's director of operations and school support services, said at the town hall.

How often those tests will be done is an open question. Harrison-Crawford described a potential system mimicking last school year’s, testing students in one grade level one week, skipping a week, then moving on to the next grade level. At that rate, with 13 grades, each being tested every other week, a full cycle would take 26 weeks. But she said the district is pursuing funding that might allow for more frequent testing.

Ponds said Monday night, “We would like for the state to support us on this testing, but we’re prepared to go on our own if the money does not come.” 

Harrison-Crawford said the plans were still developing: “We might do two grades a week. There’s a lot of things to consider,” including manpower and availability of materials, she said.

Other plans for fall

No remote districtwide instruction: If a student or class must quarantine because of a coronavirus case or exposure, synchronous remote instruction will be provided, said Kalisha Morgan, the district’s assistant superintendent for equity, curriculum and instruction. But remote instruction won’t be used for non-coronavirus-related time away from schools. And Ponds reiterated this week schools would only go to a remote or hybrid schedule if ordered to do so by the state. 

Outside classes and lunches: School activity will be moved outside when possible, Ponds and others said. Tents could be used to allow for outdoor activity in a light drizzle. Morgan said administrators had discussed a lower temperature threshold of 32 to 40 degrees. In inclement weather, lunch will be provided in locations including gyms and auditoriums, Harrison-Crawford said. But it wasn’t immediately clear if district leaders yet had an expectation for what “to the extent possible” — a phrase that came up often at the town hall — might ultimately mean. Ponds’ executive assistant said he would provide further details on that matter and other questions sent to his office by Montclair Local in the coming week.

Accelerated learning: The district will be pursuing strategies to address learning loss that include new federal funding-supported after-school and Saturday programs. Each school will, additionally, have a team dedicated to social-emotional learning, with training provided to all teams by the end of this month, Morgan said. Teachers will be taught skills for self-care first, as a bridge to learning to work with students and families.

Masking and social distancing: Students and staff will be expected to wear masks, including when students are playing outside, Ponds said. But students with disabilities that make it difficult for them to wear masks won’t be required to do so. The schools will aim to space students 3 feet apart, but that won’t be possible in all situations. And Ponds said social distance during recreation is a challenge. He said staff would try to “work with our students in the most emotionally safe way” to encourage social distancing during playtime.

Known coronavirus cases: Contact tracing will be done whenever there’s a known coronavirus case, Cooper said. Letters will be sent to affected families and building staff. “We’re looking to answer all questions with respect to what happens when a student or class goes down with, unfortunately, COVID,” Ponds said Monday. “We do have in place a strategy. We work with our school physician, and [are] led by our human resource director, also our principals. We’ve been working with them on how we react to that and how we move towards that.”

Self-screening: Staff will be required to do mandatory daily health assessments, Morgan said. Students will be required to use the school’s online portal to complete self-assessments twice a week. Students who show up to school without having completed the assessments will be directed to a kiosk to finish one before attending school.

Airflow and ventilation: The district is continuing ventilation work approved this spring, with a “Phase 1” project using federal funds expected to be complete by November. But school board members Monday night also passed a resolution seeking a $60 million bond for a much more expansive overhaul of district facilities, set to go next to the township’s Board of School Estimate and then the Township Council for final approval. “We have a commitment in our district, a commitment to improving our facilities, and we’re working every day toward getting that done,” Ponds said.