by Andrew Garda
From the moment Montclair Kimberley Academy shut down on March 11, Thomas Nammack, MKA’s head of schools, and a core group of about 15 other members of the administrative council began working both on managing the end of the 2019-20 school year, and on trying to piece together what options they would have to start school this fall.
“We knew how to do remote learning after the spring, and of course we know how to teach fully in person,” Nammack said. “What we weren’t sure was how to manage a hybrid [schedule].”
After deciding to reopen on such a schedule, they had to figure out how to do it safely, he said.
MKA has three campuses, with a relatively small student population, making it easier to utilize a hybrid schedule for most of the grades.
The school has a multitiered process to get people safely into the buildings.
Before students leave home, they fill out a form online informing the school as to how they are feeling and whether they are having any symptoms of illness. Parents are supposed to take their child’s temperature as well, though as students enter the building their temperatures are taken again.
Faculty and staff also fill out a form when they arrive at school and have their temperature monitored.
Masks are required for students, faculty and staff, and must be worn inside at all times. While masks need not be medical-grade, masks with valves, single-layer material or gaiter-style are not permitted.
Posters line the walls reminding students to social distance, wear masks, not cluster in groups and wash their hands. Arrows are taped to the floor indicating which direction they may go depending on which half of the hallway they are in.
After each class, students wipe down their desks and chairs, while teachers clean the plexiglass dividers positioned at each desk. All personnel leave the buildings no later than 3:30 p.m., so that a service can come in to clean them from top to bottom.
The middle and upper schools — which cover grades four through eight and nine through 12 respectively — split the student population into two groups, or cohorts, named “M” and “K.” When one cohort is physically in the building learning, the other is doing remote classwork, occasionally joining with their teachers through Google Meets to ask questions or check on assignments.
Each student has a Macbook Air laptop, which they use both at home and at school. MKA just added another element to the equation as well, putting devices called OWLS into classrooms. The devices have a 360-degree range for cameras, a high-quality microphone and speakers that allow remote students to be more involved in the classroom.
To make sure the teachers had the support and training they needed, MKA ran seminars and classes for the faculty over the summer, paying each teacher $200 a day to attend.
Communication has been a key in terms of getting students, parents and teachers to buy in, and MKA has placed a lot of information for parents online.
So far, the overall experience has been a successful one. It has to be, Nammack said, because there is no indication the pandemic will change anytime soon.
“You keep being asked, what will it take to come back 100 percent?” he said. “And either it’s that we can be convinced through real research that it’s OK to relax the 6-foot distance, while maintaining the masks and everything else, or it’s a vaccine. There aren’t too many other levers.”
Being able to have at least some in-person instruction has helped bring in new students. While there has been an increase in families leaving the state, and therefore MKA, there has also been an influx of public school families looking for something other than remote instruction.
“As public schools made their plans known, we saw, in some cases, people coming to us who otherwise would have stayed in public school,” Nammack said. “So we’ve opened with 1,048 students, which is the second-highest enrollment in my time here.”
While MKA saw a bit of an increase in transfers from public schools, Immaculate Conception High School, which also reopened on a hybrid schedule, saw its numbers stay the same.
“Our enrollment is exactly where it was last year, at 230 students,” said Principal Michele Neves.
ICHS is open to students four days a week, on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, Neves said.
At any given time, 110 students are learning remotely on Chromebooks, with the rest of the student population in school.
The kids stay in one place, Neves said, with teachers moving from room to room so the students remain in their own bubble. Each class is 40 minutes long, with five minutes between classes.
On Wednesdays, there is remote-only learning.
“Teachers teach from their classrooms and students log in synchronously for real-time learning,” she said.
Neves said that the use of Chromebooks has been key to the plan, and the school is trying to encourage students to stay disciplined, even suggesting that they wear their ICHS uniform during classes online.
Beyond that, ICHS observes the same social distancing, mask requirements and other aspects of COVID-19 containment.
Neves said the school administrative team formulated the plan with the help of Stone Gate Associates, a health and safety group that the school had worked with previously on security for its building.
“They guided us through a long process via Zoom meetings and enabled us to pull together a comprehensive COVID action plan,” she said.