Montclair public school students are not yet fully back in school, but a new task force, geared to getting the district ready to transition back to full time, in person learning for the fall, has been formed, announced Montclair Mayor Sean Spiller Monday.
“There are opportunities with the support from the federal, state and county levels and combined with the work of this task force and others to make improvements, to maximize our strengths and to provide an even more robust educational experience for all of our students. That is why today I’m announcing the formation of the full-time task force,” said Spiller.
Spiller, who is also president of the New Jersey Education Association, was joined by Congresswoman Mikie Sherrill, Commissioner Brendan Gill and Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock. The announcement took place at Montclair High School where students have yet to return to in person learning. The high school’s freshman class is expected back on Wednesday for a one day a week of in person learning.
“We need to get the students here back in the classroom full time. So I’ve worked in Congress and I’ve continued to advocate to get our children back to in-person learning in December, as plans were being formulated for how the vaccine would be distributed,” said Congresswoman Sherrill.
She also spoke to the issue of federal funding to improve Montclair Schools facilities.
“Federal funding was made available through the Cares Act for facilities improvements in the last administration. So that money has been pushed out. There was more money coming for facilities in the American Rescue Plan, but some of the money’s already hit the street. The American Rescue Plan money should be out shortly within the next month. I think that’ll be a critical component to, making sure our facilities, especially in towns like Montclair, where some of our facilities are older, are ready to kind of have students back,” said Sherrill. “The Cares Act money for example, had money for sanitizing the schools, and HVAC systems, which we’ve had a problem with here in Montclair, that type of thing. That was passed in the last administration. Extra grant funding will be listed on the NJ DOE website, we think within the next week or so. That’ll have some information on the allocations.”
Sherrill estimates that about $9 million total funding is specifically for Montclair Public Schools.
“Some of that’s already been in, some of that’s coming,” she said. “I don’t have specific information on allocation, but we should see the lion’s share of that funding that we need to see the town use for things like getting kids summer learning and enrichment programs and hiring extra teachers to help children who’ve maybe fallen behind. That money should be hitting, within the next month, mid-June.”
Spiller highlighted the group assembled and the significance of the moment.
“You look at all the individuals who stand here together today — education leaders, educators, parents, board members, community involved members, elected officials at all levels, counting local federal level. You see the president of our board, board members, students, superintendent, and administrative team,” said Spiller. “You are looking at everybody coming together. This is the time. This is our moment to make sure that we come back and we look at all the different pieces. We understand the challenges that got us to this place. We are united as a community to best serve our students, our schools, and we move forward stronger together as one Montclair.”
Spiller said the superintendent and the board and their team are working on any updates to the facilities that can take place over the summer.
“Let’s not just be back. Let’s be back better,” said Spiller of the return in the fall to in person learning. “So the way I understand it is that the Task Force is more about addressing the learning issues, because it’s happening. School will be back. So it’s more about the kids and getting them ready.”
Montclair resident Debra Jennings, the chair of the new task force, who has a history of work in the special education and education equity spaces, was optimistic.
“Look at the strengths that have emerged during this difficult time,” said Jennings. “Strengths like resilience, creativity, nimbleness, passion, and compassion, and a sense of community. This all takes collaboration and working together to make real what Montclair strives for. This is Montclair and sometimes ‘M’ is for messy. But what I want you to know is that ultimately it is through the mess that Montclair emerges and becomes better. Thank you for the leadership and the contributions of each of the members of this task force. I’m looking forward to working with you and really shaking some things up and shaking things out and really getting to the solutions that we need.”
In March, Spiller was joined by Gill, to announce a vaccination effort for Montclair educators through a partnership with the town, the school district and Hackensack Meridian Mountainside Medical Center.
Photos: Rebecca Jones