Families await news on reassessment of school reopening process
By ERIN ROLL
Montclair parents and teachers waiting for an answer on when schools will reopen will have to wait a little longer.
Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said in a recent letter to parents that an official announcement on next steps for the district and hybrid instruction would be forthcoming on Friday, which is the date of his next scheduled weekly letter to parents.
As COVID cases in Montclair began to climb in mid-November, school district officials postponed the Nov. 16 and Nov. 30 reopenings and said they would reassess the opening timeline on Dec. 1.
Also at play are the state’s guidelines, and COVID-19 mapping that as of Nov. 24 showed all of New Jersey coded as orange, meaning high levels of coronavirus outbreaks. State guidelines recommend that in regions seeing such levels, school districts should consider implementing fully remote learning.
The state’s regional risk matrix has four tiers: low risk, or green; moderate risk, or yellow; high risk, or orange; and very high risk, or red.
Essex County was deemed to be at moderate risk for all of October, but was reclassified at high risk as of Nov. 14.
As weekly risk reports trended upward, Ponds wrote to parents on Nov. 20 that officials were monitoring the reports. The week before, the state’s northeast region, composed of Bergen, Essex and Hudson counties, was declared high-risk.
“Please be assured that we are actively seeking a safe way to implement in-person learning for our most at-risk students and youngest learners. However, everyone’s health is the top priority. Work continues at all of our schools in preparation for a return to classrooms,” he wrote.
Ponds did not return a request from Montclair Local for an update on the reassessment timeline.
Parent Carolyn Corbran, who is advocating for the schools to reopen and set up a Facebook page, “Stop FAILing Our Kids,” which has 221 friends, said she was skeptical of the pending announcement’s having any new information.
“With the way this district continues to delay reopening in any capacity I don’t personally expect that we won’t just hear the same exact Friday evening update, that they are continuing to evaluate,” Corbran said.
She noted that New York City is preparing to reopen its elementary schools. “And yet Montclair continues to make excuses for not even giving it a try,” she said.
The recommendation for a region deemed to be at high risk is for schools in that region to move to all-remote learning, though schools may remain open if sufficient safety measures are followed.
If schools do remain open in such a region and if a staff member or student is either COVID-19 positive or showing symptoms, the school must work with the local health department to identify and exclude close contacts. Districts should also restrict activities that involve interaction among multiple cohorts.
Schools must close down if two students from different cohorts contract COVID-19.
Montclair reported 46 new cases between Nov. 25 and Nov. 30, bringing the total to 984. Health officials are giving no information on where the cases are generating from.
Bloomfield announced on Monday that it expected to return to in-person instruction on Jan. 25, with teachers reporting to school on Jan. 19. Students will have the option of remaining in virtual instruction.
West Orange has not yet announced a date to reopen and will remain virtual for the time being.
Gov. Phil Murphy has said that he is not anticipating a statewide schools shutdown, even though that option remains on the table if needed.
On Nov. 19 Murphy joined six other governors from Northeast states in encouraging school districts to open.
“Medical research as well as the data from northeastern states, from across the country and from around the world make clear that in-person learning is safe when the appropriate protections are in place, even in communities with high transmission rates,” the governors’ joint statement read.
“In-person learning is the best possible scenario for children, especially those with special needs and from low-income families. There is also growing evidence that the more time children spend outside of school increases the risk of mental harm and affects their ability to truly learn.” The governors’ announcement was met with some criticism from school officials in West Orange. Schools Superintendent J. Scott Cascone pointed to what he said is a contradiction between the governors’ statement and the guidelines issued by the Department of Health on whether to keep schools open.