By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
hochman@montclairlocal.news

A pair of executive orders announced by Gov. Phil Murphy Monday renders Montclair Public Schools' vaccine-optional-but-encouraged policy for staff — as well as a similar policy at Montclair State University — moot.

In all New Jersey K-12 school systems, public or private, all staff will be required to be vaccinated or submit to regular testing, Murphy said at his weekly coronavirus press briefing Monday. The same requirement is going into effect for all state workers, including employees of public colleges like Montclair State University.

Both requirements go into effect Oct. 18. Murphy said those opting out of vaccines would need to be tested once to twice a week "at minimum."

"We are aware of the mandate from the governor," schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said in a brief message to Montclair Local Monday. "And like all districts, we will comply with it, and work with the [Montclair Education Association] to make sure we meet all the needs collaboratively."

His message — sent while the news was still rolling out, before the governor had wrapped up his press briefing — didn't describe any plans for implementation of the requirement, or how the district might need to adjust its plans for staffing if some employees don't comply.

Montclair Public School district officials said at a town hall meeting earlier this month they couldn't mandate vaccines or testing for teachers, though the New Jersey School Boards Association, in a message to Montclair Local, suggested otherwise — noting employers could institute vaccine requirements. And the idea of an in-district requirement had the support of at least some Montclair school board members.

“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 at a meeting earlier this month. “I know that’s been done elsewhere. ... I think that we should do that here in Montclair and move forward on that as strongly as possible.”

Montclair State University officials had also said they couldn't mandate vaccines for staff and faculty, though returning students must be vaccinated. Several other higher education institutions in New Jersey had planned mandatory vaccinatinos for staff, including Princeton University, Seton Hall University, New Jersey Institute of Technology and Stevens Institute of Technology. MSU officials had said previously they were seeking guidance from the state on whether they could do the same.

Steven Baker, communications director for the New Jersey Education Association, had told Montclair Local the union supports a mandate, but prefers a uniform one from the governor's office over a variety of rules from individual districts. The National Education Association also supports mandatory vaccinations for educators, and says 90% of its members report they’re vaccinated already.

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“From the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have called for following the guidance of public health officials to keep the students and staff in our public schools safe," the NJEA said in a statement from its officers Monday. "Gov. Murphy has been a great partner in that effort to ensure that our students continue to learn and grow while remaining as protected as possible."

The officers include Spiller, who is the NJEA's vice president and set to become its president in September. The message was additionally from the NJEA's incoming secretary-treasurer, Petal Robertson, who recently resigned her post as president of the Montclair Education Association to take the role.

Earlier this month, California Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered all teachers in that state to be vaccinated or tested weekly — making his state the first to put in place such a requirement.

Montclair schools had been planning a voluntary survey for personnel, asking if they’ve been vaccinated. District human resources director Damen Cooper said at the town hall officials were still working with their attorneys on what information might be shared from those answers.

Murphy's Oct. 18 deadline leaves open a window of more than a month between the opening of schools in Montclair and the requirement staffers be vaccinated.

Montclair Local is reaching out to school district and MSU officials for more details on their plans to implement the governor's requirement, as they develop.