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Montclair High going virtual, shorter day for younger kids this week as COVID cases surge

Superintendent Jonathan Bonds said at a Board of Education meeting Monday that Montclair Public Schools will return to in-person learning after the winter break, despite a spike in COVID-19 cases and some neighborhoods focusing on distance education. (Talia Weiner / Crew)

Written by Talia Weiner
wiener@montclairlocal.news

Montclair schools will have their first COVID-related abbreviated schedules and distance instructions for the school year this week, due to the ongoing rise in coronavirus cases across New Jersey.

School Principal Jonathan Bonds announced late Tuesday the reversal in a statement he made at the Board of Education meeting the night before — saying at that time school buildings would remain open, even as some neighborhoods switched to virtual learning.

“Out of great caution,” Bonds said in a letter to the school community on Tuesday, the district, working with health officials, decided that all elementary and middle school students would have an abbreviated day on Wednesday, December 22. Thursday 23 December. It’s set to be a brief day indeed.

On Wednesdays and Thursdays, Montclair High School will have simultaneous remote instruction for the entire day.

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The district’s Developmental Learning Center schedules were not affected by the announcement. Bonds also noted that the YMCA in Montclair has morning and aftercare care.

Friday begins the winter holiday for the region.

“Please note that we are maintaining our focus and following safety protocols, and will be back for full-day in-person instructions on January 3rd,” he wrote. “Thank you and stay safe.”

Cases in Montclair have risen sharply in the past two weeks — with 52 new cases on Monday and 222 over the course of the week, according to the borough’s tracker. By contrast, on November 20, there were only three new cases, and 29 in the week before that date.

The school district is reporting 124 student cases and 31 school year cases this school year so far — with 53 of these student cases and 9 employee cases just last week. On Monday alone, the district reported 22 student cases and four staff members.

As of mid-December, the area’s newly reported positive cases, staff and students combined, remained below five on any given day. area tracker It does not include positive cases identified outside of school tests.

The hike is not limited to the Montclair region. the Corona virus dashboard in the state It shows cases nearly doubled in schools across New Jersey in the week ending December 12, compared to the previous week. Monday was the fifth day in a row that New Jersey reported more than 6,000 positive cases, surpassing the numbers recorded early in the pandemic, although a lack of testing availability at the time is likely to artificially lower the numbers. Late reports make it difficult to know how much is due to the omicron variant of the virus, although the Centers for Disease Control on Monday reported an omicron It accounted for 73% of all new infections nationwide last week.

Neighboring East Orange It announced Tuesday that it will switch to distance learning Until January 18. South Orange and Maplewood District On Monday, she announced that her middle school will be switching to distance education for the rest of the week. Plainfield Public Schools and Hunterdon Central Regional High School Also announced the switch to distance learning this week.

Tensions at the board meeting

At a Monday night meeting, Ponds asked students and staff to be vigilant because the district expects to keep students in classrooms.

“My three kids are not going to Alabama to see my mom for the second Christmas in a row because I’m worried I won’t be able to do what we need to do again to make sure we’re safe here in the meeting,” Ponds said at the meeting. It’s a personal choice, but I’m sharing what I’m doing on my part to help.”

But some students and parents are concerned about staying in school buildings as the number of reported cases rises this week. Even after Bonds’ announcement on Tuesday, the district continues to plan in-person lessons after the winter break.

Ari Laura Krieth, the mother of Montclair High School, said she picked her daughter out of school early Monday because her family made the decision that it was no longer safe for her to attend.

“What develops is the choice between grades and safety, with each family making choices based on limited information, their children’s academic motivation versus fear of disease and their own best guesses about which teachers will allow missed work to be submitted and which not,” Kreith said.

Krith said her daughter is concerned about the effect her absence will have on her grades and was “in despair this weekend” when the family discussed getting her out of the building.

“She wants to risk her health out of concern for her future, and I understand that,” Craith said.

District policy as of Tuesday allows remote learning only for students who are under quarantine.

“If you feel you are afraid to come to school because of the circumstances we are facing, reach out to your principal and vice principal and let them know,” Bonds said in response to Craith’s comments. “We want to answer you.”

Christina’s mother, Joseph Robinson, asked the district to end in-person instructions immediately. She said students and staff are just as likely to catch coronavirus in Montclair as they are while traveling.

“I beg you, please: We’re here. The holidays are approaching. Let’s start default now or just suspend before the holiday break, and then when people come back everyone should have at least two weeks of virtual playback. Please protect our children.” They are afraid. They are upset and parents are exhausted.”

Max Melman, a music teacher at Edgemont Montessori School, requested that the days remaining before the break be “COVID days,” counted similarly to snow days, to give people time to take exams before visiting families at Christmas. Melman is also the secretary of the Montclair Education Association.

But parent Obi Miranda Woodley has asked that schools remain open despite the rise in cases.

“I get anxious just thinking about remote school,” Miranda Woodley said at the meeting. “Please take all necessary precautions to do everything in your power to keep our children, our staff and within schools safe.”

Schools have been completely remote for most of the past school year, amid concerns about the spread of the coronavirus and the area’s aging infrastructure, and then during a dispute with the MEA over whether and when it is safe to return to the buildings. Students eventually returned for a phased hybrid learning schedule, although in-person learning was not available for some of the older students until the final weeks of the school year.

Governor Phil Murphy and the state Department of Education have pushed schools to resume in-person instruction in the 2020-21 school year, but have given them ample leeway about how and when to bring students back into the classroom. Beginning in 2021-22, Murphy required all counties to return to in-person education.

There are no state state limits to determine the period of virtual education, but State directives for the year This is permitted when a building is closed in consultation with a health agency.

While the governor expressed concern about the rapidly growing numbers in New Jersey, he said closing school buildings would be a last resort.

“I hope we don’t need to do that,” Murphy said on Tuesday. NJ.com reported. “We know that the impact of learning loss has been overwhelming, particularly in underserved communities. We will do everything we can to stay personal, safe and responsible.”

He also mentioned a “test and survive” program that the state plans to pilot in January. A student who has been in close contact with someone infected with the coronavirus will be allowed to take multiple rapid tests over the course of a few days, and stay in class if they come back negative.

Murphy also recently said that vaccination instructions for students are unexpected, but that “nothing is off the table.”

First class president Leon Wang told Montclair Local on Tuesday that MHS students feel insecure, but the last thing they want to happen is for the school to become far away.

Some things — stricter concealment enforcement, distance learning options for immunocompromised students, excused absences for students worried about exposure — should happen for students to be comfortable, Wang said.

“I want whatever is the safest option, while also allowing students to increase their high school experiences because we’ve already lost a lot,” Wang said.

Board member Crystal Hopkins said mitigation strategies should be used during the winter break so that the region can remain normal in January.

“I really don’t have to go to distance learning,” Hopkins said. “The teachers deserve this time, the students deserve this time, but I really, really, really want to be vigilant and be careful.”

Bonds said cases will increase in Montclair as it ramps up across the state, but the area will continue to follow its own COVID-19 protocols and has been in conversation with state and local health departments.

“Wearing your mask is critical to our buildings,” Bonds said at the meeting. “Not intentionally wearing a mask would have a gradual system.”

Ponds said Monday that the district is also asking families to voluntarily participate if their children are vaccinated. Hopkins said gathering information will help the region make better decisions moving forward.

“I know we keep talking about ‘what are we going to do’ and ‘how to improve this business,’ and I agree that we haven’t done our best in planning for the coming of winter,” Hopkins said. “But I think having the background, it will give us a track for the rest of the school year and to stay inside.”

Some parents have criticized the area’s response to COVID-19, with Special controversy over Pond’s decision not to assign students to student participation In the combined coronavirus test provided by the region. Some board members have also objected to this position.

Teachers are constantly exposed, said Tracy Aich, a physical education and health teacher at Montclair High School, as crowded hallways break social distancing guidelines and masks slip under noses or are taken off.

“We’re working on zero,” Aich said at the meeting. “I don’t really know the answer to what we can do, but I can say if we cooperate and kind of talk to the people on the ground doing the work, get some advice and collaborate, I think we can come up with a plan that might not work for everyone but it might help us slow the spread of “.

Aytch has asked Ponds to come to each school to talk with teachers and administrators to find out what the environment really looks like.

“I have confidence that the management team as well as the Montclair Educational Association are ready to do whatever is necessary given the circumstances we will face in January,” said the school’s vice president, Priscilla Church, during Monday’s meeting.

She said that with many students receiving remote instruction while in quarantine, teachers have shown they are able to pivot to remote teaching.

“If the worst-case scenario happened and we had to shut down because the cases got really crazy, we would be able to deal with it,” Church said.

The outbreak on the Montclair High School girls’ basketball team has led to a 10-day hiatus, said Natalie Burrell, vice president of the Montclair Educational Association. The MHS wrestling team has also temporarily suspended play.

Bonds has yet to respond to an email sent to his district address on Tuesday asking about other student activities affected by the increase.

On Tuesday evening, Montclair Township Council is set to consider Indoor mask mandate for all businesses and entertainment venues

All 21 New Jersey counties are currently considered areas of high transmission by the Centers for Disease Control.

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