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Schools Were Set to Reopen. Then the Teachers’ Union Stepped In.
Students didn’t return to elementary schools in Montclair, N.J., as planned after a tense week of debate and a boycott of prep sessions by some educators.
“The decision to delay our opening of school buildings is disheartening,” the superintendent of schools in Montclair, N.J., said.Credit...Brendan McDermid/Reuters
By Tracey Tully
Jan. 25, 2021, 1:16 p.m. ET
After several false starts over the last two months, public schools in Montclair, N.J., an affluent New York City suburb, were finally set to reopen Monday for the first time since the pandemic shut them down in March.
Students, sorted into two groups, the Mounties and the Bulldogs, would attend school in person two days a week and log in remotely the other three — a hybrid model of instruction that has enabled a majority of districts in New Jersey and the country’s largest public school system, New York City, to reopen.
Then the township’s powerful teachers’ union stepped in and the plan was abruptly scrapped.
“We are so sad,” Heather Weiss, a mother of two Montclair public school students, said soon after the superintendent announced late Friday, “with deep regret,” that he did not have enough teachers to properly staff the district’s schools.
The decision to keep schools closed indefinitely capped a tense week in a community known for its liberal politics: Elementary teachers, citing coronavirus safety concerns, boycotted in-school prep sessions in defiance of the superintendent, and a heated board of education meeting on Wednesday lasted until nearly midnight.
The superintendent and leaders from the union, the Montclair Education Association, met on Saturday with a mediator and were scheduled to talk again on Monday, according to a township official briefed on the negotiations.
The battle playing out in real time underscores the challenges districts across the country face as they try to get the public school system back up and running for in-person learning, a goal President Biden has said would be among his first priorities.
In Chicago, the teachers’ union voted to authorize a strike if the district seeks to force educators back into buildings. In Bellevue, Wash., a wealthy Seattle suburb, district officials took the union to court to require teachers to participate in in-person instruction. And in Fairfax County, Va., outside Washington, a union leader said Thursday that hybrid instruction must remain a long-term option until all students were vaccinated.
In New York City, schools reopened briefly in September, but closed as infection rates increased. They reopened last month to elementary students only, but are facing pressure from the teachers’ union to close if the city’s seven-day test positivity rate reaches 9 percent, as measured by the state.
The decision to return to in-person learning is made more complex in New Jersey, where coronavirus infections have been surging and teachers are not among the first groups prioritized for vaccines — a policy that the statewide teachers’ union, a close ally of Gov. Philip D. Murphy, has refrained from strenuously criticizing. Yet over the last week, some union leaders and superintendents have cited the policy to justify efforts to keep schools closed.
Montclair is no ordinary town.
The mayor, Sean Spiller, is the No. 2 official at the statewide teachers’ union, the New Jersey Education Association. The president of the local teachers’ labor group, Petal Robertson, is competing for a leadership job at the association. And one of the governor’s top political strategists, Brendan Gill — an Essex County commissioner who is also the township’s Democratic chairman — lives there, as does the state’s new education commissioner, Angelica Allen-McMillan.
Montclair is also home to an array of prominent journalists, academics and television celebrities.
All this gives the battle outsize relevance in a state where the governor, a Democrat running for re-election, has repeatedly said that he wants students back in schools, but has done little to require it.
Montclair’s teachers’ union has said that communication with the superintendent, Dr. Jonathan C. Ponds, has been poor. Information and reports about ventilation and other safety measures in school buildings were not provided, they said, and a meeting with union leaders was canceled, leaving them with little confidence in his assurances that the schools were safe.
The union has also noted that cases of the virus are more prevalent now than they were over the last two months, when the district delayed earlier plans to reopen.
In a slide show presentation to the superintendent, the union asked: “With case of transmissions on the steady increase, even more since the holiday breaks, is now really a good time to return to in-person instruction?”
On Friday, the state reported 4,437 new virus infections; Essex County officials said that day that there were 14 new cases in Montclair.
Only the elementary schools were set to reopen on Monday; middle and high schools were expected to reopen in two weeks.
On Monday morning, parents angered by the new delay staged a protest outside Edgemont Elementary School, lining up dozens of backpacks in place of children. A parent group that has been pushing for schools to reopen asked students to keep their cameras off during Monday’s livestreamed classes and to instead post a background supportive of the return to in-person instruction.
Dr. Ponds, who started working in Montclair only seven months ago, has maintained that “months of preparation” have ensured that schools are safe for teachers and students.
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“Every school in New Jersey is mandated to offer in-person instruction,” he said in a statement last week.
On Monday, he said his goal remained “returning our students to the classroom as soon as possible.”
“Although we have not reached an amicable resolution, we continue our discussions with the M.E.A., the mediator and legal counsel,” he said in a statement.
Mr. Murphy has said that cases of in-school transmission of the virus remain relatively low, and each week he highlights the number of districts that have returned for in-person instruction. According to a state database , there have been at least 597 cases linked to infections at 121 schools.
All of the large city school districts, including Newark and Elizabeth, remain closed for in-person instruction. But as of last week, 486 of the state’s 811 districts and charter entities were open for some form of in-person classes, state officials said.
Mr. Gill, the political strategist, has two children in public schools and a 73-year-old father who teaches in Montclair. He said that he did not believe the nexus between the statewide teachers’ union and the mayor had influenced reopening decisions.
“I don’t think Montclair is unique from any other community in trying to manage what the proper response is,” Mr. Gill said.
“There’s no disagreement that kids learn better when they’re in school, when they’re in the buildings,” he said. But it must be done safely, he added.
Mr. Spiller, who as mayor appoints members of the board of education, could not be immediately reached for comment.
Ms. Weiss, who has a second- and seventh-grader who are looking forward to returning to school, said she was angry and disappointed by the delay.
“There’s plenty of other districts, and plenty of old buildings, including in New York City, where the teachers are back,” she said. “I don’t know why we’re some anomaly.”
She added, “It just seems they don’t want to go back.”