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online in-personBy ERIN ROLL
roll@montclairlocal.news

Parents and students will have the option of choosing all-remote learning when the schools open back up in September. 

The announcement by Gov. Phil Murphy on Monday came after Montclair school officials on Friday offered families two options for when school restarts: either a combination of in-person and remote learning, or remote-only learning.

The state Department of Education is expected to release guidance on the remote-only option later this week. 

Montclair Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said details of the specific plans were still being worked on. He emphasized that families who wished to keep their children at home would not be judged for it, and that emphasis was being placed on improving remote-learning programs to allow for more face-to-face instruction.

“Our design teams are analyzing the challenges of remote instruction and have learned from stakeholder feedback that we need to improve our virtual learning experience with more face-to-face lessons and consistency among teachers for all grade levels,” Ponds said. 

At the July 20 Board of Education meeting, Cristina Barbosa, the parent of a rising fourth-grader and rising first-grader, said that her family’s experience with online learning had not been satisfactory. She urged flexibility and creativity in planning the new school year and called for transparency. 

“We don’t expect you to know the road map ahead,” Barbosa said. “We know you don’t have all the answers. But please be transparent.” 

Along with remote learning, families are concerned about safety in school buildings, health screenings and child care for parents who cannot be at home to supervise their children for online learning.

Amy Rabb-Liu, the parent of an incoming senior, told Montclair Local that the district should consider opening up the high school facilities for specialized courses, such as lab courses or performing arts courses, that cannot be easily done online.

“Specifically, I would like my child to go to the high school to do the labs for his lab science classes,” Rabb-Liu said. “For band, if they can meet outdoors and stay widely spaced while playing together, that would also be a reason to come to the building. For all other instruction, including the non-lab portions of his science classes, I would prefer for my child to work remotely from home.” 

WHAT PARENTS WANT

In May, the district sent out a survey asking parents for their thoughts on the effectiveness of online learning, and how safe they felt about the prospect of their children returning to school. 

Fifty-four percent of those surveyed said that they were not confident that the remote learning used during the lockdown had a positive effect on their child’s education, while 9 percent percent were very confident in it. Some 46 percent of the parents did not find the remote curriculum engaging enough, 42 percent found it moderately engaging, and 13 percent thought it engaging.

Concerning safety measures, 37 percent were not confident that social distancing would be  maintained at facilities, 43 percent were moderately confident, and 20 percent were very confident. Forty-eight percent said they would feel safer with mandating face masks, 33 percent would feel only moderately safer, and 19 percent said they were not confident in the use of face coverings.

Elyse Hoffman, a teacher who is also a union representative for the Montclair Education Association, said the initial parent survey should not be used as a metric for reopening the schools, saying that the questions on the survey were too vague. For example, she said, one question, “Will you send your child back to school,” did not include any conditions related to health or safety. 

Montclair sent out a new survey for families last Friday, asking them for input on how the school district should reopen. By Monday night, that survey had received 5,000 responses, Ponds said. 

The district plans to send out another survey in August.

CONCERNS WITH SOCIAL DISTANCING

Montclair resident Jonathan Rosenberg suggested, in a letter to Montclair Local, that the school district use large public buildings, such as the YMCA buildings and the Montclair Public Library, as learning hubs. He also suggested that Montclair High School go all-virtual, citing the difficulty of “batching” students with different schedules during the day. 

Hoffman said that she was also concerned about the amount of sanitizing that would be needed to keep the buildings safe, and that the district had not provided enough information on how screening would be done for students and staff. She suggested putting off reopening until October in order to be better prepared.

Digital divide

After schools closed in March, critics noted that low-income students were at a disadvantage because they would be less likely to have access to a computer or the internet at home.

In Montclair, 92 percent of those surveyed have the internet, and 88 percent have computer devices to support remote learning.

Last week, Murphy announced that state officials would be working with schools to ensure that more students would have access to the internet, computers and other technology.  The initiative will include partnering school districts with businesses and organizations that can help expand students’ technology reach; offering $10 million in grants through the CARES Act to allow schools to purchase devices; and using up to $44 million in Coronavirus Relief Fund monies to help meet any remaining device and connectivity needs for students. 

For Montclair students who did not have their own computers, or who had difficulty accessing the internet at home, the school district issued Chromebooks and hot spots at the start of the virtual learning period. The organization Laptop Upcycle also provided some laptops and hot spots for students to use. 

Montclair received $354,038 in CARES funding, of which $102,525 will go toward helping students with technology and upgrades, such as purchasing Chromebooks and hot spots, Ponds told Montclair Local two weeks ago. 

As of July 20, Ponds said that there were 400 students who will need district-issued laptops, and some of those students need internet access as well. The district will make sure that all of those students have the devices they need, he said. 

MANY STATES ON STANDBY

Other states are struggling with what’s next, especially those seeing a resurgence of COVID-19.

After Virginia districts were given the option of pursuing hybrid models of education, this week Henrico County School District in central Virginia pulled back, calling for schools to begin the year with all-virtual instruction. 

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom called for school districts in counties with high rates of COVID-19 to begin the school year with all-virtual instruction. 

Many states are waiting until late July or early August to begin releasing their plans for the new school year.