Montclair Public Schools Outdoor Hybrid Education Plan

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Many families across our district are deeply frustrated, even devastated, that Montclair Public Schools (MPS) began the 2020-21 school year remotely. According to the district survey sent out to evaluate the virtual model, more than half of responding parents had no confidence that remote learning had a positive effect on their childs’ education. Furthermore, the top three biggest obstacles cited for remote learning were: missing friends (78%) missing teachers (60%) and disengagement with remote learning (58%). The current remote model fails to address any of these concerns.

The fact that ventilation systems need repair does not mean we should wait to start in-person schooling. A total of 434 districts in New Jersey are hybrid as of September 2. Public schools in neighboring towns are already providing or pivoting back to in-person learning using creative alternatives (e.g. Glen Ridge, Cedar Grove). We have shared with Dr. Ponds the 29-page district-wide proposal that provides detailed school maps, equipment lists and budgets (available on our website).

We see no reason that Montclair’s much-lauded public school system cannot do the same as our neighboring towns. Forced remote learning for all was not inevitable and it does not have to persist. According to an MPS email sent 7/24/2020: “Our goal is to create a safe reopening format that best meets the needs of all students, staff and families. Some of those needs were expressed in the survey data in which we found that 70% of our families chose an in-person, hybrid model.” Why have the majority of parents been removed as stakeholders from the district’s reopening plan?

We support our teachers and understand their safety concerns.  Our initial proposal was conceived to make a hybrid model safer for teachers and staff just as much as for the children. While the District represents the interests of the Board of Education and the union represents the teachers, the children are the only involved party that lack an advocate, and they are bearing the brunt and losing the most! We parents are their advocates. Moreover, according to both the Budget Presentations from March 2020 and the NJ Homeowner's Guide, our tax dollars drive the majority of funding for our district schools to the tune of over $50 Million per year. Given this financial fact, Montclair parents deserve to be treated as equal stakeholders in this discussion. 

The immediate solution is outdoor learning. Montclair has the key resources of ample outdoor space and strong parent and PTA participation in our schools to put this plan into effect much sooner than November 1st. We seek to equitably improve learning, mental and physical health, and bring back joy for children and adults using an affordable, time-tested outdoor approach to keeping schools open during a pandemic. 

We believe an outdoor learning model addresses all the obstacles and negative effects of remote learning, while also offering the critical elements of increased socialization and collaboration. We are confident that the outdoor model can work as the main form of hybrid learning for those families that choose it, and because ventilation is a non-issue outdoors, this plan can start immediately at schools that are equipped to do so while the rest are brought quickly up to speed. This proposal can be implemented using several different funding models including: reallocation of existing PTA funds if available, new fundraising efforts, but most importantly a strategic approach to tap additional funds from within the BOE operating budget. Some areas where potential Covid-related savings might lie include transportation, food service/staffing, supplemental cleaning contract and additional breakage funds. The burden of funding a proper Covid education response should not fall on parents and individual families. 

Outdoor education offers a long-term, positive approach to learning for all students regardless of Covid. This crisis is a moment for all stakeholders to think outside the box and adopt a solution that Green Schoolyards and other forward-thinking educational organizations have been advocating for for many years.

Outdoor Learning Offers the Following Benefits:   

o  Reducing screen time and “Zoom fatigue” for students and teachers.

o  Offering critical social and emotional connections with peers and teachers (while meeting health and safety guidelines).

o  Reducing Covid transmission risk by 20x.

o  Centering equity by bringing kids back to school grounds. 

o  Reversing the continued widening of the achievement gap created by remote learning.

o  Decreasing the incidence of anxiety, depression and screen overload among students brought on by remote learning in the spring and early fall.

o  Reinstating true access to required services and in-class supports for students with 504 and IEP plans, which cannot be offered effectively remotely.

Parent groups at each school are working on the ground through their PTA’s to coordinate support efforts, fundraising, and procurement of required materials to implement this process safely and will follow-up with their individual school principals. Teams are already underway at Buzz Aldrin, Bullock, Nishuane, Bradford and Glenfield. Edgemont Elementary School is fully outfitted with equipment and ready to go as an early adopter. 

The district’s most recent update cites November 1 as the target date for completion of short-term fixes to the ventilation system. We feel the District is not being transparent about details of the work and whether a failure to complete work at some locations will cause further delays of in-person learning for all children. Unfortunately, no firm date has been given for a return to the hybrid model. We are concerned the District will switch plans again last minute! Now is the moment to reimagine our classrooms and pivot to a learning model for a brighter future for our children that centers joy and healing for both teachers and students from the trauma of spring. The District said that outdoor learning was considered, but did not share any details with the community about what prevented this plan from moving forward. Real, in-person education is a human right! 

We need your support to make our voices heard.

Please sign our petition below and feel free to include a comment with your kids’ grade levels and schools.  

STATEMENT

I, parent/guardian of a student/s in the Montclair Public Schools and/or resident of Montclair Township petition the school administration to adopt a plan that incorporates outdoor learning into our children’s curriculum immediately in lieu of facilities that are not ready due to ventilation issues, and with the same vigor, resources and energy that have been devoted to remote learning.

Also, I petition the District, not MEA, to respond to requests under the New Jersey Open Records Act in the interest of ensuring transparency with the broader school community regarding 1) results of teacher polling surrounding the return to in-person teaching and 2) the District's nature of contracted work, by school, being engaged in beginning August 1 through the present surrounding ventilation remediation and 3) District communications engaged with the MEA regarding the decision not to proceed with in-person learning. 

I petition that in the interest of transparency with the broader school community, the BOE share publicly which buildings specifically are not ready, when they will be brought online, and what will happen if they cannot be brought online.

The petition results will be presented to Dr. Ponds and the BOE on September 21, 2020.  I call for an evaluation of this proposal and thorough response by the BOE, MEA, Principals and Superintendent, Dr. Ponds by no later than September 24, 2020.