Montclair, NJ – Six hours in front of a computer is tough for anyone, but Montclair’s youngest students are suffering the most with remote learning, something Montclair parents made very clear at Monday’s Board of Education meeting.
The virtual BOE meeting was significant not only for the number of parents who spoke during public comment to express concerns about challenges of virtual learning and consideration of outdoor learning, but also because it was the first meeting for new BOE member Allison Silverstein and new BOE student representative Genesis Whitlock. A Montclair High School senior, Whitlock is the district’s first ever student representative; she also serves as president of the Montclair NAACP Youth Council.
Whitlock, in her first report to the Board, discussed concerns brought to her by students, including racism, both covert and overt; the need for consent education; and the need for environmentalism education.
“My job is to foster community through dialogues, engaging students towards advocacy and helping them understand the importance of being engaged to what’s going on and helping mobilize that sort of action,” Whitlock said.
Montclair Pubic Schools Director of Personnel Damen Cooper said Montclair High School needs a superstar for its next instructional leader.
Cooper said the district received more than 50 applicants for the MHS principal position. There will be a first round of interviews; candidates who make it to the second round will interview before a group including three MHS parents, three students and three staff members, in addition to members from Central Office.
The third round of interviews would be open to the public with candidates using data regarding the high school to create and deliver a presentation to the Montclair community and answer questions from the public.
The fourth and final round will be conducted by Dr. Ponds, Cooper and senior staff members.
“We are not going to settle,” Cooper reiterated. “If we do not find a superstar, we will go back out and search again.”
Questions About Convocation Video and Student Equity Advocate Position
June Raegner asked for full transparency regarding the Student Equity Advocate position and any changes being made to the position.
“We know students are experiencing racism in our school system. It’s urgent for us to put in place an advocate,” said Raegner.
Kellia Sweatt, president of the Montclair Chapter of the National Independent Black Parents Association (NIBPA), asked about the video shown at the Montclair Schools convocation, stating she knew Dr. Ponds said he had not viewed the video in advance, but she wanted to know if anyone else had.
“Did anyone view it prior to it being presented?” Sweatt asked, wanting to know whether anyone saw it and was comfortable with “such offensive material, a disrespectful mockery of parents of African descent.”
Sweatt then asked Dr. Ponds if the Student Equity Advocate position had ever been terminated.
Montclair Schools Superintendent Dr. Jonathan Ponds addressed the issue of the Student Equity Advocate in his remarks at the end of the meeting.
“We’re taking this very seriously. Like I stated, I was doing my homework and my history, researching and finding out not only about the student advocate position, but also the family coordinator position that was listed before that, to make sure we have a qualified person who cares and will take care of our families and our kids. We are doing this homework and the job description will be revised by me and will be recommended to the board for approval.
Remote Learning Difficulties and Outdoor Learning
Parent after parent called in during public comment to register their dissatisfaction with remote learning, especially for younger students in the district. A parent said the district is failing students and that sitting in front of a computer for several hours is developmentally inappropriate for young children.
Some parents questioned why other nearby districts, as well as Montclair’s private schools, have been able to open in hybrid mode, allowing for some in person instruction. They raised concerns that prolonged remote learning would be damaging to young children, with parents reporting children who had previously loved school are now disinterested and disengaged. Others raised concerns about equity as well as the mental and physical health of children struggling with remote learning.
Parents also asked if the district would consider the outdoor initiative and mentioned the petition that more than 500 parents had signed, asking the district to implement outdoor learning.
More than one parent stated that if remote learning continued, they would be forced to pull their children out of school.
A parent in support of outdoor learning, asked why there has already been a return for team sports, and questioning why athletics are deemed more important than teaching kids.
Dr. Ponds addressed comments from parents in his remarks later in the meeting, stating that he was looking into the tents and outdoor learning and was aware of the petition. Ponds said he was also taking into consideration all the necessary safety precautions that being in pandemic requires and wanted to prevent a situation where schools open and then have to close again.
“We want to make sure when they [students] come together, that it’s safe, it’s consistent and it doesn’t happen in stops and fits. So I do hear you and we are working diligently,” said Ponds, adding that the district was indeed on track to welcome students back for hybrid learning on November 1. He said the district is securing the necessary air purifiers and was working on dampers, making sure buildings were getting ventilation systems ready and making any repairs.
Dr. Ponds then closed his remarks with this.
“I want to say is thank you to the parents. Thank you to all parents — the ones right now that are happy with me and the ones right now who are upset with me. You all are important. Feedback is important. What you tell me is important. We care so dearly about our children, making sure our children have a quality education. So please continue to give me feedback, continue to give me stuff I don’t want to hear. Although it’s been hard for me to hear at times, I must hear it to serve you well. I want to say thank you and thank you Montclair for having me.”