Montclair Public Schools maintain they plan to resume in-person learning with a hybrid plan in November but parents and staff who spoke at Monday’s virtual Board of Education meeting were clearly not confident in the district’s plan and called for greater transparency and details.
The meeting opened with presentations on the survey sent to parents, asking them again to choose either a hybrid or remote learning option for their students (the survey was a follow up to an initial survey in the summer). As of Monday, the district had received a total of 3,601 responses and was awaiting responses from 2,761 students/families.
The data the district had as of Monday showed that overall 64% families who responded are requesting hybrid learning 36%, approximately 1,281 families are requesting virtual. There was variability at different schools, with Renaissance School coming in at 49% (hybrid) and 51% (virtual). Parents had until Thursday to complete the survey; students of parents who do not complete the survey will remain fully remote.
Dr. Ponds also stated he had enough personnel to meet the needs of both in person and remote learning students in the district. Ponds said the district was in possession of 200 air purification systems and was seeking another 200 to be approved later in the meeting.
“Our whole intent and goal in everything we are doing is to address everyone’s needs in our community. And we understand this and we also respect people’s opinions and what they want. We’re going to help everyone. All we ask is, sometimes you may disagree, but let’s not be disagreeable. Let’s find a way to help everyone without, being upset with each other,” said Dr. Ponds.
However, teachers and parents alike were upset, and many voiced their frustration with the superintendent.
“Dr. Ponds, you have refused to share information about the ventilation of the buildings with teachers,” said Judith Grodner, a Spanish teacher at Bradford Elementary School.
“You have refused to detail the work that has been done in the schools to remediate the issues you identified. You refused to even explain to us what those issues were upon deciding to begin school fully remotely. You ceased to include teachers in the development of a hybrid plan and altered important aspects of the hybrid plan that had been developed over the summer with teacher input. When confronted with the serious and reasonable concerns of the teachers and paraprofessionals working in the ABA program, you offered no willingness to discuss or amend your plan to return special education students to buildings. Let me be clear. I fully support a safe and sustainable return to in-person instruction, but teachers must be part of the conversation. If we are to do our jobs safely and effectively in a way that maintains academic integrity and physical and mental health.”
Andrew Gideon, a parent in the district, raised the issue of longstanding communication problems in the district.
“For some reason, documents such as our Restart Recovery Plan and Return to School Plan seem far more sparse and vague than the equivalent materials from other districts,” said Gideon. “I want to ask that the people in charge of our district consider why this is the case. We need those details.”
“We’ve also heard this evening about a lack of communication between the administration and the teachers regarding these plans,” Gideon continued. “Some of our older students are also telling us that apparently they’re being dissuaded from shifting to hybrid by the teachers with whom they are working remotely. I believe there needs to be more communication from the district about the communication that is occurring amongst the staff and what communication should be occurring with students.”
Regarding the air purifiers, Gideon said it wasn’t clear whether they can be used only where preexisting mechanical ventilation systems exist, or if they can also be used where only natural ventilation exists. With regard to mechanical ventilation, Gideon asked that parents be given details about which schools have or lack this.
“This is the kind of detail that will help families make informed choices between hybrid and remote. If I’m making that choice, I would like to know what type of ventilation exists in the classrooms into which I will or won’t be sending my children,” Gideon concluded.
Other parents were critical of the 12-page Return to School plan, that accompanied the survey, stating they could not make a decision on hybrid or remote learning based on the lack of information in the plan. They also cited other districts such as West Orange that offered more clear communication and more details.
Parents expressed a lack of confidence in adequate ventilation and air flow, and that it appeared the district was relying solely on opening windows and keeping dampers open. There were also questions about where air purifiers would be placed and whether there were enough to have in every classroom in the district.
“What will circulate the air so there is impactful air flow into and out of a room. You need a supply system and exhaust system for that to take place. And I don’t believe there’s an exhaust system in most rooms or an exhaust process,” asked Suzanne Aptman. “Will this method meet or exceed the minimum Astra guidance of 15 cube, cubic feet per minute, per person of airflow? If you’re relying on windows, is it safe to leave windows open? As of last year, it was not safe to do that. Also, won’t it get freezing.”
“Will air purifiers be in every room with students or just where windows cannot be opened,” Aptman continued. “Will these air purifiers filter down to the size of a COVID particle? And will they be strong enough? If a student is standing next to somebody with COVID, will these purifiers be able to address the virus in the moment or will there be a gap in time and distance that’s too great to be effective?”
In the end, Dr. Ponds offered few specific answers to questions raised by parents. There was also no response to the issues raised by teachers regarding safety concerns and calls for communication, by Dr. Ponds or the BOE members.
According to a member of the Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) parents group, Mayor Sean Spiller, along with Councilor Peter Yacobellis, reached out to Dr. Ponds and the BOE and as a result the Special Ed ABA teachers would not go on leave, as they had shared they would do rather than teach in person at the Bullock School as they had been instructed to do last Thursday. As a result, ABA remote education has been allowed to continue.