By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN and KATE ALBRIGHT
hochman@montclairlocal.news

In just weeks, Montclair public schools will resume some level of in-person education for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic hit New Jersey in March of 2020. But for parents and children who gathered Saturday in the township’s Rand Park, it’s not enough.

The protest was first announced weeks before the Montclair district and its teachers union announced an agreement for elementary school students to return April 12 on a hybrid schedule, with plans for middle  and high schoolers still to come. The agreement came after the district sued the Montclair Education Association, alleging an illegal teachers strike when staffers refused to start a hybrid schedule in January. The MEA says it’s finally getting the documentation and transparency it needs for staffers to feel safe coming back.

Protest organizers pressed on, with more expansive goals. For one, while they met in Montclair’s Rand Park, attendees were looking beyond the township’s borders to any school in New Jersey that remains closed. That included those in the South Orange-Maplewood community, where a similar district-union dispute had also been blocking in-person learning, until an agreement was announced Friday to bring students in pre-K through second grade back a few days later, starting Monday.

And they say hybrid learning doesn’t cut it.

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“We want a full-time in-person learning option in the state as soon as possible and for the social distancing guidelines in schools to be relaxed to 3 [feet, from 6 feet] so that students can attend safely and often,” Rachel Keane, a West Orange parent and one of the organizers, wrote in a message to media this week. Her district is currently operating on a hybrid schedule. “We want the school convention of closing once a week for a ‘deep cleaning day’ — which isn’t based in any science or logic — to end in our schools. We want our children and families suffering to be recognized by you, members of the press.”

Megan Julian is a mother of three from Nutley, where students are phasing into a hybrid schedule this month. After a year of remote-only learning, she said, that’s not enough. Her children “no longer know how to interact with anyone besides each other,” she said.

“Primarily, I think that virtual and hybrid learning is unhealthy for kids,” Julian said. “I think that it’s indeed a barrier for education for some children, and it’s created a situation that is unhealthy for families and the family dynamic. 

“Families need to earn a living, pay their bills, create a positive relationship with their children, and the strain on families is unacceptable. And the risks for in-school learning are small in comparison.”

Lenora Hartley, in the South Orange-Maplewood district, said she wasn’t yet ready to tell her son about the return to school — “because they’ve done that before and then they changed it like 8 o’clock the night before.”

“I figured maybe Monday [March 15] morning, I’ll tell him before I drop him off. … We’ll see. No one really believes it’s going to happen.”

The common refrain among several parents: Remote learning is seeing their kids struggling to keep up, and suffering emotionally. “We wake up with tears in the morning, and they’re falling behind,” Montclair’s Adriana Smyth, who has children in the third and fourth grades, said.

Students attending the rally said much the same.

“Sitting in front of a computer for — how many? — five hours a day is not real education,” Miles Rockman, a student at Renaissance Middle School, said. “It’s not education. I don’t even know what it is. It’s like brainwashing. I’m not learning. I’m not picking up information. My main goal when I start school is to just be done.”

For West Orange’s Keane, a self-described progressive liberal, the continued closure of some districts’ schools — in part or in whole — has her doubting Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy’s leadership.

“I don’t want to diverge from my progressive values and vote for someone who doesn’t stand for them, but I don’t think that keeping schools closed is progressive,” she said. “And I want Gov. Murphy to act more strongly on this and do something about it.”

In New Jersey, 110 school districts or charter schools are open for full-time in-person learning, and 541 are open for hybrid instruction, according to the most recent statistics compiled by the state. Another 125 are fully remote, and 36 are using some combination of the models.

The protest organizers’ goals align with those of a group of families suing in federal court to return Montclair schools to full-time instruction. A spokesman for that group said last week the parents’ lawsuit would continue, even after the settlement between the MEA and the Montclair district.

Joining protesters were several speakers — child psychologist Amy Kayda; family physician Rachel Rosenberg, South Orange-Maplewood attorney and activist Keri Donohue; and nurse Nadine Fuller, the parent of a special-needs student.

Introducing them was Danielle Prussin Wildstein, who sued the Scotch Plains-Fanwood district. That district had since resumed a hybrid schedule for its elementary students, and plans to expand its schedule and bring back grades 5-12 Monday.

“It’s unfortunate that we had to file a lawsuit, never thought that it would have to come to that, but I’m so thankful that we did, because I’m convinced that if we didn’t, our schools would still be closed” in the Scotch Plains-Fanwood district, she said.

Donahue, representing the Montclair parents suing their district, as well as a group doing the same in South Orange-Maplewood, said her own 11-year-old had struggled badly without in-person school — suffering depression and being put on anti-depressants. She described her daughter having a bad reaction to the medicine, becoming violent and needing emergency care.

“And I hope I hope the governor’s listening, she said. “I hope everybody is listening when I tell you the worst thing is seeing your daughter strapped to a gurney because she’s having the psychotic reactions to meditation because you kept the school closed and kept her from getting from what she needed. She had none of these problems before the schools were closed. All a result of keeping her away from her teachers and her peers and isolating her alone in her house and putting her in this situation she is not equipped as an 11-year-old to deal with.”