Letter to the Editor: Montclair Public Schools ‘Risking Lives’ For Hybrid Instruction

As COVID cases are once again on the rise, and as many area districts – including Bloomfield and South Orange-Maplewood – commit to remaining remote into 2021, Montclair superintendent Dr. Ponds seems intent on experimenting with staff and student lives by stubbornly continuing with his plan to move to hybrid schooling November 16 (grades P-5) and November 30 (grades 6-12). Montclair Public Schools need to maintain remote instruction for the foreseeable future.

Considering fully synchronous instruction was the wrong delivery method for remote learning, yet was demanded by Ponds, it should come as no surprise that his demand for hybrid instruction is similarly misguided. Despite the video propaganda saying otherwise, hybrid instruction will mostly be just like remote instruction, except with open windows, winter coats, and masks. It assumes the risk of in person schooling without any of the benefits. Furthermore, with so many families choosing to remain remote, we are doing all these logistical gymnastics and risking lives for near-empty classrooms each day. It is simply ridiculous. It is a disaster.

Additionally, the hybrid plan was developed without meaningful staff input, and Dr. Ponds has yet to adequately prove to staff the buildings are safe to return to – or answer our questions satisfactorily. He plans on cursory visits to each building’s staff meetings to give the illusion of transparency and collaboration, but his determination to risk our lives and students’ lives remains strong.

One has to wonder why, given that it is utterly nonsensical, the plan is something Ponds is intent on implementing. Is it ego? Pride? Inexperience? Fear of caregivers? Fear of Governor Murphy? Someone else pulling strings? One also has to wonder where the Board of Education fits into this mess. Do they believe, erroneously, that Ponds is competent or honest? Do they fully support the plan despite its flaws? If the answer to those questions is yes, then they are complicit in this educationally unsound, dangerous debacle Ponds has developed.

I have lived and taught in this community for 13 years. I have seen some bad superintendents and some perhaps worse board members. This could be my rock bottom. I do not think I have ever been more disappointed in the leadership of this district.

Brian Ford is a teacher at Montclair High School.

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  1. Hyperbole without substance followed by a personal attack on the Superintendent? Winning arguments are composed of logos, ethos and pathos. I expect much better from someone entrusted with teaching our children.

  2. And to be fair & balanced, the MEA has been bottom-feeding also when it comes to its leadership. Objectively speaking.

    Brian, take some – not a lot, just some – responsibility for that as long as you are speaking as a member of that union.

    A little honesty would be refreshing, but not you guys don’t do that. So, I guess you can’t speak to that ‘leadership thing’.

  3. Is it hyperbole to state that the district has yet to demonstrate that its century-old, ventilation-challenged buildings are safe? Hyperbole that the district (read super) has been evasive in answering the many pertinent questions those who actually work in the classrooms have posed? Hyperbole to ask what the rush back into flawed hybrid program just as community outbreak of the virus has quadrupled in the last month and we approach a holiday season that will no doubt make it worse as people gather indoors? I could go on, but, nah, I’ll just leave you to your predictable and knee jerk union bashing.

  4. I’m most inclined to side with the union members on the MPSD efforts related to COVID and the fact all the capital improvement follies going back 20 years. Millions wasted. Millions misspent. The 2017-2022 targets were to keep the school budget under 3% and the capital appropriations to $6MM a year. I suspect we are going to blow through that. We’ll blame COVID, of course.

    Now, as to your union, the MEA. I have nothing against unions and their prime role. I support unions. Unions are just a lot of people. People are all fallible. Therefore, unions are also fallible.

    What I have a problem is when the MEA starts throwing everybody in authority under the bus whenever we look at employee performance.

    The MEA doesn’t;t take responsibility for anything. When he whole racism issue burst to a new level, the MEA had marbles in its mouth. Just horrible! Absolutely horrible! Shame on your leadership.

    Now, Montclair has a knack for hiring education executives that don’t seem to measure up to the union’s, the parents, the taxpayer’s, or the Mayor’s standard. Fine.

    A long record of questionable choices. No argument. But, do you think we can be that incompetent and stupid at the executive level and not be that incompetent and stupid hiring school administrators and rank and file teachers? Just maybe we just suck at hiring at all levels, Just maybe that explains why the MPSD constantly attains mediocrity? Why 3rd grade teachers advance so many students who can’t read at that level? Why so many middle school math teachers ask incoming students just what they studied with their previous teachers the year before? Why 100% of all teachers rate as meeting expectations or higher? Seriously?

    No, the union is swathed in a protective layers against any accountability whatsoever. It is not union bashing. It is holding the union managers to the same standards they hold everyone else. We all have our deficiencies, mistakes and forgettable moments, & prejudices…except for the Montclair Education Association. Nope. None. I think the phrase of today is, looking back, there is nothing you would do differently. That is the MEA.

  5. And I would have cut your post a lot of slack if it wasn’t for your union’s invisibility on racism and equity. I had to draw the line.

  6. Frank, perhaps you have slept through the pandemic (which would probably have been a good idea) but the MEA has been THE most active group in town since the “whole racial issue burst to a new level.” The union hosted a slew of virtual events, attended over the past months by hundreds to discuss the issues and develop strategies for meeting the challenges. The union sponsored several live protests and events and, Covid notwithstanding, staged its annual handout of school supplies for the district’s neediest families. The teachers–who, as you concede, are the union–began the school year doing what they do every year: digging into their own pockets to provide additional supplies that district does not. The union–I mean, teachers–do these things as they do most things: without much self-promotion. You throw around a lot of fancy phrasing — “swathed in protective layers” — that, in more plain English, is just basic BS. If the union is not trying to protect its members, what’s the point of having one? And if there are sub-par teachers, whose responsibility is it to better vet them upon hiring and reviewing them before achieving tenure? You claim to be a supporter of unions but you sound more like a Trump supporter in favor of democracy.

  7. I didn’t know that! The MEA has been the most active group in town fighting racism and promoting equity! Please, please, your management should promote that. Tell that story. I’m sure all the NGO’s all look to the MEA for guidance.

    Since we agree on the purpose of unions, the advocacy and the benefit to their members, can we dispense with the “let’s do it for the children” speech?

    Lastly, it must be nice to be able to throw stones & assign blame to everyone else while one has tenure. And of course, all bad employees are bad from the onset. I have never seen any employee anywhere lose interest/fall behind in their careers once they have been in the job for several years. Question, how many years of service until a teacher eligible for tenure?

  8. As I said, you claim to support the concept of unions but your rhetoric screams otherwise. So, if we are going to dispense with anything, how about one of the two faces you disingenuously wear? In the meantime, I will continue to believe that a teacher can simultaneously walk and chew gum, or care for his/her students while trying to protect a job that actually contributes something to the at-large community, as opposed to, say, the thieves on Wall Street.

  9. Typical. Argue for two standards for ‘justified’ reasons. How is that different from Trump? My point is that the Democrats are disingenuous as are the Republicans. We are voting for Not Trump. We are not voting for progress.

    In a state of equilibrium, neither party can claim the moral high ground. Neither mainstream of each party has a real plan. But, we are clearly not in equilibrium.

    We are broken. A Biden victory will just put a much needed tourniquet on our situation. It will just buy time. Time we will assuredly waste. Like Trump wasted time. Just a lot of waste.

    A Biden victory will barely get us back to were we were in 2008. Twelve years wasted. And don’t give me the ObamaCare stuff. That ideals are praiseworthy. Like the planet, the program is not sustainable. If you want to do civil rights, we are approaching about where we were in 1969. Brilliant.

  10. You live in a dark place, typing away your bleak view of the state of affairs, presumably while doing little about it. If electing Biden is hopeless, that’s because Mitch McConnell remains as Majority Leader. I guess you’re not interested in the climate, the environment, voting rights, women’s rights or, unless you 1969 actually resolved the issue, Civil Rights. Goodbye.

  11. Speaking of the environment, betcha’ didn’t know NYC is throwing away its recyclables. Montclair can’t get anything for its corrugated cardboard so it is putting it into the mixed paper. You wannguess where the mixed paper is going? Plastic? Yes, supposedly overly contaminated preventing recycling. I was born yesterday, so I would believe that. The only thing recycled of value is metals and electronics. You want to talk light pollution? You want to talk about chicken farms and pig farms? What eggs & sausage does to the environment? You want to talk about the leather you wear in your boots, sneakers, gloves & belts? Dark place? I call it reality. I gave up pixie dust a while ago.

  12. You may be a teacher, maybe not; but you know one. Challenge a teacher to teach evolution. Only have them confine themselves to human evolution…and only go back a couple of thousand years. And then they can compare to present day.

  13. I have a remote learning assignment for Montclair Middle & High school students who have parents working in NYC. Ask them to ask their parents what happens to all the workplace recyclables? Maybe even get some numbers of the amount recycled. Then ask them to ask their parents if they are in a position to effect any change. If you could get back to me with the inevitable lightness of being, that would be great. Ya know. Take pity on a local nobody in a dark place and give him one day of hope. Thanks!

  14. All the plastic we were recycling was dumped in the ocean presumably by China. Americans tend to look at being “green” on a very local level. “Look at me, I am hip and responsible because I drive a Tesla.” No regard to the environmental destruction done in Tibet and Africa to get the material to make the batteries. What are we going to with all the solar panels and electric car batteries when their lifespan ends? That is a lot of toxic waste.
    As for education….the solution is simple. Go entirely online. We will only need a few super teachers and few assistants. Invest in better audio and visual so classes can be viewed on tv’s One super teacher can teach thousands of students across multiple school districts. We can sell our schools to developers except for gyms, auditoriums, and athletic fields. Savings to taxpayers would be huge and the kids would get top notch instruction. It is about the kids, isn’t it??

  15. Wow this convo went off the rails rather quickly. Getting back to the OP, Mr. Ford is entirely correct that this so called “safe” opening is a sham. There has been no transparency, no information forthcoming, no real plan for entering students, (especially the young ones) winter plans, rainy day plans, sick children, nothing! The MEA and Trump have nothing to do with this conversation we can save that for another day.

    I don’t feel this was a personal attack on the superintendent but an attack on the process that this district seems intent on continuing with no rhyme or reason. With hybrid learning how many hours of education are the children really getting? Between travel, entering school, distancing, and then dismissal we have lost at least an hour or so that could have gone to remote learning. And now Governor Murphy is on the brink of restricting contact due to a huge surge in Covid cases around the state. Then what? You have these children, some not quite able to understand changing scenarios due to age, and then 2 weeks later you pull the rug out from under them. To say nothing of the risk to staff and their home lives and contacts.

    This was not a well thought out plan and it should be revisited and revised. Follow Bloomfield and don’t even consider entering these aged buildings until January. That might give us time to properly ventilate the buildings and clean them. These buildings are not clean nor are they well ventilated. It’s time to take a step back and reevaluate everything, and I mean everything.

  16. The fundamental problem is that the CDC guidelines are not nearly strong enough to prevent community spread.

    It doesn’t help that we all have embraced a socially acceptable novel label (COVID fatigue) for willful disregard of the virus attributes.

    If we are willing to willfully drop our guard and use COVID fatigue, then I can assure you that, in even a hybrid model, no school can be made safe from being a super spreader environment. None. Zero. That is the science. That is the math.

  17. I agree with everything you said regarding Covid, Frank. So why are we going back to the schools? In a town like Montclair with educated, successful, concerned parents and dedicated school staff where did we go wrong? How is this allowed to continue as Mr. Ford so eloquently questioned? We all have Covid fatigue but that does not mean we are free to put others’ lives in jeopardy. There is no need for the district to double down because they “planned it” already. Admit the mistake and correct it. Immediately! Bloomfield did it and now Clifton as well.

    Unfortunately, Clifton started schools in person in mid October and within 3 weeks there are 12 students and 2 staff that tested positive. Over 150 in the district are now quarantined. Is this what we want? If we continue on this ridiculous path that is exactly where we are headed. Who in the district will stand up and make the call? Whose responsibility is it?

    And finally, how many staff have tested positive? It’s been reported that Watchung had a positive so how many others schools also had positive cases? No information is a recipe for mistrust and concerns such as Mr. Ford outlined. Someone please step up. “It’s getting late early.” (thanks Yogi)

  18. The word for this weekend is patience. By Monday, it’s pretty clear this school opening issue will be also resolved.

    FYI, Montclair is tracking to have as many cases this week then we had in the last 4 weeks combined. But, your are right – this is Montclair.

  19. Yes flipside, that was ah ignorant claim by Biden. He’s from Delaware, right?

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought Delaware was the onshore corporate capital of the United States. There is so much money sheltered there that Delaware could probably buy California like 10 times over.

    It would have been better if Biden said he was going to overcome the PPE shortage. The funny thing is that Polo Ralph Lauren, YSL, Gucci, the Kardashians, (pick a name) have all designed, sourced here and overseas, and delivered 3 seasonal lines since the pandemic first hit. The US Gov’t-zip. They will deliver at least 2 lines before the US Government does anything meaniful.

    Amazon, QC, Wal-mart, Home Depot, Target, Apple are ‘turning and burning’ the design & procurement of consumer product offerings. Their supply chains are clogged with product.

    OK, government procurement is not very good. But, they think they are good with setting standards. They have an a hundred-fold gross of alphabet soup agencies that set consumer standards. Food, cars, toys, pollution – you name it, they regulate it. Notice there is not a consumer standard for masks. Almost a year later and no standards. There is no standard for what the attorneys & marketers call “community masks”? I was watching a very respected infectious disease expert & practitioner on MSNBC say the 3-ply mask in department stores are medical grade and plentiful. Aside from the fact department stores hardly exist, that is indefensible. And I know Fox is just as bad. Literally, people are just flat out making stuff up.
    And peopler dying because they did. Oops. My bad.

    So, flipside, you are right. The Republicans will all be in one of this rings of hell for their lack of core values, but the Democrats, unless they actually get their values together and hire some smarter people, are right on their coattails.

    I’ll put my faith in Kim & Kayne to get PPE before the US Government, and probably available online.

  20. Frank, My sister-in-law is a nurse and though there was a shortage of PPE early they have plenty now. They are also lacking in covid patients. BTW, she also said the Murphy’s protocols caused a lot of problems and deaths.
    I would think most politicians will end up in some ring of hell. There must be a ring designated for those that pee in you ear and tell you it is raining.

  21. I’m very happy she now now has all the PPE she needs and no COVID patients. I guess when you don’t have COVID patients, you don’t need a lot of PPE. Personally, I would like to swap their PPE for MSNBC’s idea of a surgical mask. I know a few people that could use the real medical grade masks.

    Minor offense to you sisters-in-law, the nurse – is she a Republican by chance?

    The #1 reason we are doing what we are doing is to protect the healthcare system. She says COVID business is minimal and that the Governor made it worse than it need to be, then let’s just let the virus run its course. She is a nurse, right? Which means the doctors she works along side of are lying to us about the severity of this virus. That’s not good news for the Ivy League.

    We can skip protecting the healthcare system.
    This is great news. Thank her for all of us.

  22. Note to public: per the nurse, there seems to be an ample supply of PPE for healthcare workers now. Which means, if you happen to come by a real N95 respirator (not the KN95 dust masks that are popular these days), or a L2 or L3 surgical mask, keep it for yourself, friends and family. Cloth & ‘community’ masks, dust & pollutant masks do not protect you from COVID, just those around you to an extent. But, if you think somebody might need it more than those in your circle, maybe ask around.

  23. I forgot. In this month, Montclair is going to have over 4 times the number of cases we had in October. For you calculus nerds, Montclair is at the inflection point.

  24. Frank, My sister-in-law works with MERS patients. Way worse than covid. They were sent covid patients and told to put them on ventilators. The infectious disease doctors opinion was that ventilators were doing more harm than good. As far as the severity of the disease it is clear that it can be dangerous for those at risk. Healthy young people…not so much. On a happy note my Mother’s 94 year old neighbor caught covid from her in home health care worker. She was fine in a couple days. That is confounding thing about this virus. It hits some much harder than others and the medical professionals haven’t figured out why.
    You are correct about the popular masks that are being used by most people are not very effective. If they were we wouldn’t get the spike.

  25. flipsaide,

    We had governors, Congresspersons, a President and half his Executive Branch saying masks were not necessary. That bad governance. There is no executive order anywhere in the U.S. that I know of that requires certain patients be ventilated. Doctors are like ship captains, they make the call on their patients. If they are letting someone else make the call, then I want to be as far away from that doctor as possible. Seriously far away. They own the patient care & go down with their ships whether it is malpractice or a bad result. It is really that simple. Ask any doctor. Better, ask a malpractice lawyer.

    What you you are talking about sounds, to me, like it could be bad medicine (like the CDC’s guidance) up to systemic gross medical malfeasance. Anywhere on that spectrum, I still tell the ambulance driver to give her hospital the widest possible berth.

  26. And CVS is showing on their web site that L1 medical rated masks are only sold in stores…and they are in stock in most of their stores around us. They are not. They have not been. I went to their stores to get some. They have big, end cap displays of community masks and secondary brands of hand sanitizers. CVS doesn’t correct their inventory. They don’t take the items off the site. They leave the L1 mask up there on their site CVS Cares. Right.

  27. The issue about the district’s plan is one thing. The more relevant discussion at this moment is that conditions for reopening schools have changed dramatically since the plan was formulated, comprehensively or not (we suspect not so much). Municipalities all around us–certainly the ones with student populations and building issues more in common with ours– are holding off until January, or after the potentially super-spreader holidays, in order to see where we are (spiraling out of control right now), ventilation improvements and, possibly, additional government assistance with a new administration (we pray) more inclined to actually develop a national strategy. In addition, based at least on what the medical/science people are saying, we ‘ll know more about vaccine and treatment timelines. And if it should be safe enough to open schools by mid-to-late January, we would be gathering momentum toward spring, as opposed to reopening now with the long winter ahead. My instinct tells me that this superintendent — who, no question, has stepped into a terribly difficult situation while trying to get his footing in a job far more complex than his previous position — prefers to have the union make his decision for him. That obviously allows him an out with those who are demanding live school. Sadly, it also provides those who are ever so eager to spout anti-union/teacher rhetoric to blow hard again, despite the overwhelming logic that is staring them in the face.

  28. Superintendent waffles on live versus dead schools. I agree, let’s go with dead schools.
    The MEA decides…demands dead schools!
    Because the CDC scientists says science says go with dead schools.
    MEA introduces new metric: the Negativity Rate. Highest it has ever been. Standardized testing created in house – 99.900% negative. Teachers performance reviews – 99.975%. Live schools – highest negativity of all time – 99.990%. Superintendents? They’re all bad.

    Maybe every once in a while the MEA should change it up and be positive.
    Can’t, can’t can’t. Don’t, don’t, don’t. Won’t, won’t , won’t.

    See how that is a little off-putting?

    MP. I’m just having fun with you. (I have problem being serious)

  29. And many remember Councilor Spiller’s argument back when that he could do his NJEA job and also do his Board of School Estimate job without conflict?

    So why can’t Mayor Spiller do his NJEA job and speak out against opening schools in the middle of community spread in every ward? Now he finds religion? Now he walls himself off?

    Think about that for a NY minute.

  30. Religion and unions notwithstanding, who in this township will stand up and call it like it is? Call off the ridiculous opening plans, regroup and discuss it with intelligence and the medical experts. This was doomed from the start and it’s time to put a halt to it. How is it that surrounding towns know, and we don’t, that this is a dangerous situation?

    How many staff have tested positive? How many schools? What exactly have you done to ventilate these aged buildings? Not general .. oh yeah we cleaned them. Exactly what has been done? The lack of information is horrifying to our staff as Mr. Ford explained. That hasn’t been addressed and it’s high time that it is.

  31. Check the case numbers in NJ and especially Essex today (Tuesday). And then tell me that opening schools makes sense to anyone except Trump and his idiot advisor, Atlas.

  32. Essex County & NJ are not necessarily Montclair. Montclair is different. I’m sure we would have heard from the Township Manager or Council members if there was anything to be concerned about. My Councilor representatives are all damn fine communicators. They would tell me if I needed to do anything different.

  33. Oh, maybe the Council or the Manager sent out a text alert or a robocall via our 911Alert System. But, many people unsubscribed from that system when you guys rightfully lost your stupid rent control case…and our private info went out to the world. And then you used the system to defend your stupidity.

    Gee, I guess that system is worthless now. Now, a real life & death crisis and we can’t rely on it. Because of the Council. Absolutely brilliant. I guess you partially own this surge.

  34. How many in the district are currently quarantined? For how long? MP, don’t forget Dr. Ponds in that assessment. I believe it is up to the local superintendent to make that call according to Gov. Murphy.

  35. NYC schools have been open hybrid for weeks! I think Montclair missed it’s opportunity for some in person (quality) instruction. We have had some gorgeous weather and those that poo poo’d outdoor instruction were fools. Frank is right about something. Negativity is a good 99%. Nope. Can’t. Won’t. 🤮

    Fact is, they can’t spew stuff like this. Imagine if we all trashed our bosses with such immunity?

  36. When lives depend on decisions there is an obligation to speak up if those decisions endanger the public you are charged to protect and represent. This is not about simply trashing a corporate decision or investment dispute. Mr. Ford feels his life and others are being compromised for an opportunity that, as you correctly state, has been missed.

    Close down, reassess with neighboring towns and state government and do what is best for the community. Do it right then open accordingly.

  37. Apparently the CDC, via the New York Times headline, says we can open the schools:

    “The C.D.C. updates its findings: Mask-wearing protects you, not just those around you.”

    So, for those who have not been following, the CDC & scientific community have been warning since March about the 2nd, much bigger Fall/Winter surge. The CDC releases this now…with the full-throated support of the scientific community.

    So, let’s open the schools. Right? No qualifiers. No hemming and hawing in that headline. Open the schools. You all now seem of clear mind.

    Be well.

  38. Louie Louie, some might say that grocery store workers and restaurant servers are also at risk every time they go to work, no? They have a choice just like teachers do. If they don’t feel safe, don’t go. Luckily schools are allowing Drs notes, not so much in other professions where people’s choice is to go to work OR quit. Like Nurses, Drs office staff, dental staff, hospital staff, gyms,m Pre Ks, daycares…you get the picture. Daycares have done an amazing job being open since beginning of July. Follow protocol and keep everyone safe. That means no traveling or gathering for Thanksgiving. 🦃

  39. Yes PMF, essential workers are at risk. And they can chose to work or not work depending on their risk factors. I’ll get into the politics of this later. However, how many essential workers would opt for remote work if possible? All of them, some of them or most of them?

    Teachers and staff can all work remotely or at least a great majority of them. Custodians need to open the buildings so professionals can enter and get ventilation and sanitation work done, but they can certainly social distance with so few people walking around. You say “luckily schools are allowing…” oh really? Take a look at the agenda going back to April. How many Dr.’s notes have been approved for remote work? 2 or 3? Many have taken leaves it seems because they were either denied remote working and told to take a leave or they got so disgusted with the district they decided to use sick time and take leaves of absences.

    Daycare stats I’m not privy to but if you can fill me in on their successes I’m all ears. Young children seem to be somewhat on the lower end of contagion and transmission but that is still an unknown at this point and therefore still risky for staff.

    Now for the politics. Masks everyone all the time outdoors. How hard is that to do? Freedoms right? Like freedom to drive drunk? Why is there a law against that? Protecting other people and yourself! Hmm…

    Ok, so we gave 2 trillion, with a T, to corporations so they can invest in the country and hire people and what did they do? Stock buybacks. Wow that really helped the essential workers and non essential workers pay off their mortgages, rent and heating bills. So what do you think of spending another 2T and giving people out of work their full salaries up to $75k / year so they can stay home, take care of the kids and get this pandemic under control until we get a vaccine? Oh no, the deficit! Anyway it’s just a thought and I”m not sure it’s workable due to tax bills and revenues, bills for mansions and butlers etc.

    And to bring this back around on topic, another school just had a positive case. That makes 3 that we know of. Close the buildings until the end of January at the earliest and reassess the pandemic after the new year. It’s time we all pull together and yes, I agree, no traveling or Thanksgiving gatherings. And work with Gov. Murphy and surrounding towns for an organized and safe opening when we can. I applaud Dr. Ponds for taking the first step and, of course, Brian Ford for this thread and awareness of the issues.

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