Masking in Montclair public schools will remain optional, despite recent increases in coronavirus cases in the district and Essex County being classified as an area of high transmission by the state.

School officials say they're seeing a drop in cases that isn't yet reflected in state figures.

Masks became optional in the district on March 7, the first day since the start of the pandemic Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration allowed districts the option of forgoing mandatory masking.

“We have been in constant consultation with the Montclair Health Department, and at this time, we will follow the Montclair Health Department’s opinion that masks remain optional,” Ponds said in the message, schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said in a message to district families May 15.

The district did require a 10-day mandatory masking period at Montclair High School and Buzz Aldrin Middle School after an uptick in COVID-19 cases. That period ended May 13.

In the most recent COVID-19 Activity Level Report from the state Health Department, Essex County — like most of the state — is marked as having a “high” level of transmission. The county has not been marked at a high level since the Jan. 29 report. Only Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties, in the far southeast of New Jersey, are marked as having “moderate” levels.”

In a Tuesday, March 1 community message announcing the change to optional masking, Ponds said the policy “would be subject to change if the case rate and risk level were to rise to the high or highest levels according to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and New Jersey Department of Health.” He also said the district would review activity levels weekly.

But in his May 15 message, Ponds said the CALI score does not reflect the most recent data.

“The CALI scores are one week behind, and we have noticed a drop in the number of COVID-19 cases reported this week,” the message said.

Between May 2 and May 6, 151 students and 16 staff members tested positive, according to the district’s COVID-19 data dashboard. During the following week, May 9 to May 13, leading up to the message from Ponds, 138 students and 21 staff members tested positive, according to the dashboard.

Over that two-week period, May 2 to May 16, 313 students and 41 staff members tested positive. Those two weeks account for more than 30% of the student cases and over 20% of staff cases since the beginning of the 2021-22 year.

School officials have also contacted neighboring districts and heard they plan to continue with optional masking as well, Ponds said in the message.

Apples-to-apples comparisons of positive cases in Montclair schools are difficult, because testing practices have changed over the course of the  school year.

The district conducted opt-in, pooled in-school coronavirus testing in the fall through vendor Ginkgo Bioworks, but the contract was allowed to expire in December. At its March 2 meeting, the Montclair Board of Education approved a contract with Sunrise Diagnostics Lab to conduct in-school testing, but testing has yet to begin.

Ponds has not yet responded to questions sent Monday, May 9 about the status of the Sunrise contract and in-school testing. Montclair Board of Education President Latifah Jannah forwarded questions about the contract to Ponds. A message left Monday with the Sunrise Diagnostics office has yet to be returned.

The district provides PCR and rapid antigen testing through Medi Mobile on Tuesdays and Friday from 4 to 6 p.m., outside of classroom hours, at the George Inness Annex of Montclair High School.