By TALIA WIENER
wiener@montclairlocal.news

Whether Montclair schools will require students and staff to keep masking once a statewide mandate is put aside next month remains unknown. Schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds told Montclair Local Monday district leaders are awaiting guidance from the state and continue to meet with stakeholders.

But Montclair Education Association leaders say the union has not yet been consulted since Gov. Phil Murphy announced Feb. 7 that the statewide mandate would be lifted March 9. They say members were told as recently as Jan. 14 that the mask mandate would stay in place through the school year. 

Murphy, in making his announcement, called it a “huge step back to normalcy.” The change marks the first time since most schools reopened to some level of in-person learning during the 2020-21 school year that masks won’t be required by a state rule.

But individual districts and day-care centers will still be able to require masks on their own, if they choose to. In Montclair, a Township Council resolution requires mask use in indoor public places until March 31; officials have confirmed that would include schools. But after that, the district’s own rules would apply. 

Ponds has “been consistent” in telling Montclair Education Association members that he will keep the mask mandate in place for the duration of the school year, union President Cathy Kondreck told Montclair Local. The matter was discussed most recently at a union executive board meeting Jan. 14 and has not come up since, Kondreck said.

“We hope that should that decision change, we would be consulted,” she said. “We trust the board and Superintendent Ponds to make a decision that is in the best interest of all involved and to rely on the same science and data that has determined all past safety decisions.”

Ponds did not directly respond to questions sent to his district email about conversations with the union. On Tuesday, Montclair Board of Education President Latifah Jannah said it was her understanding that conversations with stakeholders were ongoing.

The state Department of Health is currently in the process of updating guidance for K-12 schools and child-care settings, spokesperson Nancy Kearney told Montclair Local Tuesday. 

“We understand that facilities are anxious to see this guidance and expect to release it before March 7,” Kearney said. 

The district will also “carefully follow” virus transmission trends and the state Department of Health COVID-19 Activity Level Index, Ponds said Monday. 

Essex County was marked as an area of “moderate” transmission in the most recent state Health Department COVID-19 Activity Level Report. That’s down from the “very high” levels seen in December and early in the new year during a major surge in cases fueled in part by the omicron variant of the virus. The level dropped to “high” in mid-January.

In a Feb. 7 statement, leaders of the New Jersey Education Association — including union President and Montclair Mayor Sean M. Spiller, as well as NJEA Secretary-Treasurer Petal Robertson, former president of the Montclair Education Association — said they were “cautiously optimistic” that the mandate could be lifted safely, given recent case trends

“As we have said from the beginning of the pandemic, it is critical to follow the data and listen to public health experts when implementing or removing COVID protocols,” the statement says. “As of today, that data is trending strongly in the right direction, and we look forward to additional public health guidance supporting the move away from mandatory masking in schools.”

The union leadership also urged Murphy to continue analyzing COVID data and to do “whatever is necessary to best protect the health and well-being of students and staff,” including the possibility of reimposing the mask mandate. 

Local districts deciding whether to continue masking based upon local conditions is “appropriate,” the statement says.