By ERIN ROLL
UPDATE: 4:50 p.m.: This story has been updated to reflect information Montclair Public Schools released in a bulletin Friday afternoon.
New Jersey has issued updated guidance saying many schools should reopen full-time to in-person instruction unless part of a “very high risk” region for coronavirus transmission — a designation that doesn’t currently apply to any area in the state.
And Gov. Phil Murphy said this week he expects all schools to be open in the fall, with no option for parents to keep their children home for remote learning.
How that will ultimately affect Montclair schools — which have yet to begin hybrid instruction after a year of remote-only learning — remains to be seen. The school district recently settled a lawsuit against the Montclair Education Association, which had refused to return staffers for a then-planned return in January over safety concerns, and now anticipates bringing back elementary school students April 12. No date has yet been announced to return middle-schoolers and high-schoolers, though the district has said that information is coming soon.
That settlement was also contingent on the MEA receiving updated information about safety practices and facilities, and doing walkthroughs with school officials this week. The MEA said on social media it was having an emergency meeting Wednesday night, and hasn’t issued any statement about that meeting’s outcome since, or answered messages seeking comment.
The district, in a community bulletin issued late Friday afternoon by schools superintendent Jonathan Ponds, said the walkthroughs are complete “and we are eagerly awaiting in-person learning for PreK-5 students in just a couple of weeks.”
The new state guidelines largely line up with recent Centers for Disease Control guidance that says young students can be placed three feet apart in schools — rather than six — in many situations, so long as everyone is wearing a mask and otherwise observing safety protocols. Middle school and high school students are still advised to keep 6 feet apart, under the state guidance.
They also meet many of the goals of some parents — from Montclair and elsewhere — who gathered in Rand Park this month for a protest in mid-March, seeking five-day learning and 3-foot standards for social distancing.
In the updated guidance, elementary schools in orange zones are recommended to hold full in-person instruction, with a minimum of 3 feet of distance between students in classrooms. Middle and high schools in orange zones are urged to consider in-person instruction if they can maintain physical distances of 6 feet or more. All schools in yellow zones are urged to have full in-person instruction. The guidance also sets out further precautions for mitigation strategies, including continuing remote instruction for high-risk students or teachers.
As of the end of last week, most of New Jersey was classified “orange” or “high” risk for coronavirus transmission, in the state’s weekly COVID-19 Activity Level report. Only the southernmost counties were classified “yellow” or moderate” risk.”
The guidance does say, though “hybrid learning may be necessary to accommodate distancing, with an emphasis on elementary and priority learners of all ages.” The state has broadly urged as many districts as possible to return to some level of in-person learning since the start of the school year if they can do so safely, though given individual districts leeway to craft their own plans for doing so — or present timetables for expected returns if they can’t yet provide safe environments.
Ponds, his the bulletin, said the Montclair district would continue to maintain 6-foot distancing “until we are in-person and can reevaluate at that time.” He didn’t address the guidance urging many schools to hold full-time instruction in the message, and hasn’t returned messages from Montclair Local this week seeking further comment.
According to Murphy, come the fall, schools may not be an option whether to hold full-time in-person classes.
“We want to be – I want to be unequivocal about this. We are expecting Monday through Friday in person, every school, every district. Obviously if the world goes sideways, we have to revisit that, but as of this sitting, the answer is no [to remote instruction],” Murphy said at a March 24 press briefing in Trenton.
Murphy said that as of March 24, only 90 schools, covering 302,400 students, are still in fully remote learning. Montclair is one of those districts.
“These students have now been out of their regular classrooms for more than a year. We know there has been learning loss in these scenarios especially,” Murphy said. “We are working directly with these districts and through their local health departments with this guidance today [March 24] to get these students and educators safely back into their classrooms and back to in-person learning.”
On March 24, 143 schools and districts, with 97,000 students, were open for all in-person instruction, Murphy said at the time. Another 534 schools were open for hybrid instruction, covering 833,000 students. Another 121,600 students attended school in districts that had a mix of in-person, hybrid, and all-remote learning.
Steven Baffico, one of a group of parents who filed a class action lawsuit against the school district calling for the reopening of schools for full-time in-person learning, said that while the DOH’s guidance was welcome, it needed the weight of a state mandated return to school behind it.
“Absent that, it’s certainly helpful guidance, but it’s just that: a recommendation,” he said.
Baffico said each day brought additional data and science supporting a return of students to school.
“We are very excited about the new social distancing guidelines from the CDC and that NJ has also recognized this. We hope that [Montclair Public Schools] will take advantage of these guidelines and get all elementary school children in school buildings full time on April 12,” said Deirdre Carlough, who is involved with Montclair Families for In-Person Learning (FAIL): a group that has been especially vocal in demanding that the schools reopen.
Carlough added that other area districts are expected to reopen for in-person learning after spring break.
“There is absolutely no reason why the children of Montclair can not be given the same opportunity thousands of other children In NJ have had, and go to school five days a week,” she said.
An earlier version of this post incorrectly described Steven Baffico as the organizer of a group of parents suing the Montclair school district. He has served as a spokesman for the group.