Superintendent Jonathan Ponds remembered, on being promoted to his first principal job in Boston, getting a brand-new desk chair for his office.

A colleague told him, “Jon, that’s a nice chair, but you’re never going to sit in it,” he recalled. 

It was a reminder, he said, of just how busy he would be in supervising the running of a school and, later, of a school district. 

Ponds told the story while participating in a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters, in partnership with the Montclair NAACP, on Nov. 18. About 50 people attended. 

It was Ponds’ first town hall-type meeting with the general public, outside of his introduction to the school community at the May 6 Board of Education meeting. 

The forum’s theme covered how COVID-19 affects all aspects of life in the schools, both in the short and long term. 

"I wanted to create an experience that explored the multi-dimensional understandings needed to move forward in what I have identified as the 'Pandemic’s Platform,'" said Jennette Williams, the league's education chair, who moderated the evening's forum.

In addition to COVID-19, the questions posed during the forum included how to address and overcome the achievement and opportunity gaps in the schools, how to address the effects of systemic racism, how report card grades would be done during remote learning, whether Montclair was looking into the prospect of Pre-K, and how the district was improving access to, and the quality of, special services. 

The Montclair schools were set to reopen on Nov. 16. However, the district made the decision to delay the reopening, with a new date yet to be determined, due to the recent rise in COVID-19 cases in Montclair and across the state. 

The township has seen a spike in local COVID-19 cases since September. In August, the township reported only 27 new cases. But over the next three months, case numbers rose, from 55 in September, to 94 in October, and then to 231 for the first 20 days of November. As of Nov. 20, the township had reported 894 total cases. 

“I didn’t anticipate the pandemic lasting this long,” Ponds said. At its outset, he said, people thought it would last for two weeks at most, instead of stretching eight months and counting.

The decision to not reopen on Nov. 16 was met with approval by some parents, but anger from others, who created a Facebook page called MontclairFAIL to call for the schools to reopen. 

Ponds said Montclair, like all other districts, had to make the best decision it could based on the information that was available, with the knowledge that information can quickly change. “It’s like Crisis Leadership 101,” he said. 

Several parents have appealed to the district to institute outdoor learning. To that, Ponds said classroom space set up in an area that wasn’t specifically designed as a classroom has to follow specific guidelines from the Department of Education. 

He said that on Dec. 1, the district will reassess the reopening process, with the reopening date depending on case numbers and the infection rate. He did not give numbers that would be acceptable to allow schools to reopen.

Ponds acknowledged that for students who require hands-on services such as occupational therapy, remote learning has not been working. “We’re not doing it well,” he said. The district has hired an outside consultant to help address how these services can be provided better. 

Regarding the opportunity gap, Ponds said the district is working on its hiring practices toward the goal of having a teaching staff that more closely resembles the diversity of the student population. The district is also working on cultural competency training for all staff, and is conducting a review of the curricula in the schools. 

At the urging of high school students, the district is reviewing topics such as using class rank and putting a student’s rank on their transcript, which has been deemed to have negative impacts on their applications to college and other future endeavors. 

In response to parents’ questions, Ponds confirmed that the district is looking into the prospect of Pre-K, which has been a goal for several years. 

He also told the audience about the reasons he was excited to come to Montclair: the district’s commitment to diversity and an opportunity to help the district improve where it needed improving, including making sure more students were reading at grade level. He also cited helping the district continue to excel where it was excelling in overall academics and school climate.

As for grading during remote learning, students will receive their marking period grades in a format similar to a report card, and those grades will be made available through the Genesis web portal, he said. 

Ponds acknowledged that these are challenging times to be a leader, and he thanked the community for its support. “Those remind me of how handling leadership can be humbling, and how humbling it is to be a leader.” 

UPDATE: The article has been updated with information from Jennette Williams, the forum moderator.