By TALIA WIENER
wiener@montclairlocal.news

Montclair Public Schools continue to have no in-school coronavirus testing, and a presentation from a possible new testing vendor expected at the Jan. 19 Montclair Board of Education meeting did not occur. 

The district’s near-$300,000 contract with vendor Ginkgo Bioworks, first approved Oct. 6, expired in December, and students returned to school from winter break with no in-class testing taking place. Prior to that, the district was conducting voluntary, opt-in pooled testing of students and staff. 

The district has instead been holding free, after-school COVID testing by Medi Mobile of Livingston throughout January and February. Testing is offered twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays at the Montclair High School’s George Inness Annex Atrium from 4 to 6 p.m. 

The Ginkgo contract had been “unsustainable,” board president Latifah Jannah said at a Jan. 5 board meeting. That contract had the vendor scheduled for 11 weeks beginning Oct. 7. The contract also gave Ginkgo and the district an option to extend the testing program, which the district didn’t do in December. 

During the Jan. 6 school board meeting, a new testing contractor, Sunrise Group of Companies, informally shared details of a testing plan for the district. Under Sunrise’s testing protocols, students would be given nasal PCR tests, with swabbing administered by Sunrise staff, Anwer Qureishi, the company’s managing director and chief operating officer said.

The testing would also be individualized, a change from the pooled testing system used previously in the district (under the pooled testing system, if a positive result was found in a pool, students and staff from the pool would then get follow-up individual tests). Test results would come back within 24 to 72 hours, Qureishi said.

Qureishi said he would be prepared to make a formal presentation at the board’s Wednesday, Jan. 19 meeting. The presentation did not occur at the meeting, and there was no mention of Sunrise Group or any other testing vendor at the meeting.

Schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said Friday by email the district was exploring vendor options and "strategies to help keep students in school engaging in in-person learning."

Board member Kathryn Weller-Demming said at the Jan. 19 meeting she finds a “major disconnect” between daily positive case notices sent to families and the lack of in-school testing.

“We don't have a plan as a district to mitigate any of this and we're damn near up on February in the second year of a pandemic,” Weller-Demming said. “We can do better than this, and we have higher standards.”

In the two weeks leading up to winter break, the district’s tracking registered 142 new student cases and 43 new staff cases — out of 201 student cases and 60 staff cases total up to that point. The accounting at the time only included cases registered through the district’s own testing.

The tracker now includes all positive cases, Ponds told Montclair Local this week. In the week leading up to Thursday, Jan. 20, the district had registered another 72 new student cases (out of 365 total to date) and another 20 staff cases (out of 109 total to date).

The district allowed students to temporarily, optionally attend class remotely for 10 school days beginning Wednesday, Jan. 5, as coronavirus cases in town and throughout the country continued to rise. All students returned to in-person classes Thursday, Jan. 20.

Ponds said this week he sent Montclair Local’s questions about the district’s testing plan to an assistant superintendent who was responsible for testing.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified the assistant superintendent to whom schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds was forwarding questions about testing.