Miles Rockman, student at Renaissance Middle School, March 13, 2021. KATE ALBRIGHT / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

By ERIN ROLL
roll@montclairlocal.news

Daryn Sirota calls the Montclair school district’s recent lawsuit settlement with its teachers union — which makes for an April 12 return to schools on a hybrid schedule — “pathetic.”

Her family is one of a group of eight suing the district in a separate piece of litigation — seeking a return to five-day-a-week instruction, after a year of remote-only learning. 

The district had pushed back a planned start to hybrid learning several times in the coronavirus pandemic, most recently when teachers refused to return in January, citing safety concerns. The district then accused the Montclair Education Association of an illegal teachers strike in a lawsuit, settled March 9 with plans for a return once the school system provided some documentation to the union and the parties conducted building walk-throughs together.

But Sirota said she didn’t understand why those walk-throughs were scheduled for weeks after the settlement was announced, or why the start of in-person classes was anticipated for weeks after that. Only elementary students are expected to return April 12. No date has yet been set for their older peers in Montclair’s middle schools and high school, but Superintendent Jonathan Ponds has said more plans would be announced soon.

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And Sirota accuses the district of letting the MEA dictate how the reopening process should work.

For Sirota, the solution to the difficulties of remote learning: Pull her child out of the school system. Her 5-year-old daughter attended kindergarten in a program set up by Jewish Community Center MetroWest in West Orange.

“She’s had an amazing year. She’s had an incredible teacher and assistant teacher,” Sirota said. 

For first grade, she said, her daughter will attend a program set up at St. James Preschool in Montclair. She said she and her family were lucky that the programs were within their price ranges, but added that remote learning has been a travesty for families, especially of younger children, who cannot afford private schools or do not have the means to move out of Montclair. 

“At the end of the day, it’s the superintendent and Board of Education’s responsibility to get the schools open” for full five-days-a-week learning, Sirota said.

They’re far from alone in leaving the public schools. According to the district’s now-settled lawsuit against the teacher’s union, 459 students disenrolled from the district during the 2020-2021 school year, about 7% of the student population. About half of those were elementary school students, the district said. 

District reports published in October of each year show enrollment for 2020-2021 down 233 students from 2019-2020. Those reports were also included in the lawsuit as exhibits.

It’s unclear what will happen in the months and year ahead. Ponds said with hybrid learning about to start, the district is hearing from families who’ve left and are seeking to re-enroll. 

“We do not have exact numbers at this time, as it is a very fluid situation,” he said.

Montclair families that had previously opted to keep their elementary school children remote had until March 17 to switch to hybrid learning if they wished to do so. A notice issued by Montclair High School Tuesday said families had until April 2 to do the same for students there. Ponds said this week the district did not yet have an exact head count on how many families were opting for hybrid — but the number was increasing. 

‘Enormous’ interest in private schools

The October reports cited in the lawsuit against the MEA show a net loss to private schools of 72 students in 2020-2021 and 49 students in 2019-2020. By comparison, the district lost just a net of 11 students to private schools in 2018-2019 and two in 2017-18. The reports don’t say specifically which private schools exiting students are attending, or from which schools new enrollees are coming. But some of the Montclair-area private schools say they’ve seen an influx on their end. 

“We only had a small number of spots open for midyear transfers, which we filled from Montclair public schools,” said Megan Mannato, head of school for Lacordaire Academy. “However, we had to turn many others away. In regards to fall enrollment, we are still receiving enormous amounts of inquiries, have accepted many, and have not seen this drop off since public schools have announced they are reopening.”

Mannato said Lacordaire has waiting lists for many of its grades — and most of those waiting are from the public school district.

Heather Weiss and her husband, Andrew Rockman, moved to Montclair from Brooklyn with their family in 2013. The community’s public schools were the main draw to Montclair.

In Brooklyn, Weiss said, there were no affordable housing options in the family’s price range near the public schools.

“It’s just so ironic that we moved here for the schools and now I’m putting them in private school,” Weiss said. 

The family, like Sirota’s, is among those suing the Montclair school district. Weiss said both of her family’s children are struggling with remote learning. The family’s 8-year-old daughter, a second grader at Bradford Elementary School, is having a hard time focusing, she said. Their son, a seventh grader at Renaissance Middle School, is on an individualized education program and struggling as well. 

The son, Miles, had attended a March 13 rally at Montclair’s Rand Park, where families from several districts pushed for a return to five-day learning.

“Sitting in front of a computer for — how many? — five hours a day is not real education,” Miles Rockman said at the time. “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.”

Weiss and Andrew Rockman decided to pull their children out of public school at the end of the school year and send them to Catholic school. After speaking to 10 schools, Weiss said, she was able to get places for both children at St. Catherine of Siena School in Cedar Grove, where both will start in September. 

Weiss said she knows five families from Bradford who have sold, or are selling, their houses and moving out of town or out of state. 

Lisa Gimelli and her husband, Vittorio, made the decision to pull their two sons — a fifth grader and a second grader — out of Watchung School and enroll them in St. Cassian’s School.

Gimelli said she sees a marked difference in her boys’ moods during the weeks that they are in school. Both boys come home feeling considerably happier and “talking their heads off,” she said. 

Gimelli said she was especially upset K-2 students and special needs students could not be brought back into the public school system earlier.

“I’m honestly horrified that didn’t happen,” she said. Additionally, she said, for many parents it’s frustrating to see neighboring districts like Little Falls and Glen Ridge go ahead with some form of in-person instruction.

NJ pushes for full-time learning

New Jersey recently issued updated guidance saying many schools should reopen full time to in-person instruction unless they are in a “very high risk” region for coronavirus transmission — a designation that doesn’t currently apply to any area in the state. 

In “orange” or “high risk” zones like Essex County, the state urges elementary schools to open full time with 3 feet of social distance for most activities. It says middle and high schools in the orange zone should consider opening full time if they can maintain 6 feet of social distance.

Gov. Phil Murphy said recently he expects all schools to be open in the fall, with no option for parents to keep their children home for remote learning. For now, parents can choose to keep their children remote in any district in the state.

Most of New Jersey was classified orange or high-risk for coronavirus transmission in the state’s weekly COVID-19 Activity Level report March 20 — the most recent report issued as of press time. Only the southernmost counties were classified yellow or moderate risk.

The guidance does say, though, that “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 giving 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, in his most recent weekly bulletin to the school community, said Montclair 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 his bulletin, and hasn’t returned messages from Montclair Local this week seeking further comment.

According to Murphy, come the fall schools may not have the option to offer an alternative to 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. 

He said that as of March 24, only 90 schools, covering 302,400 students, were still in fully 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 state Department of Health’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.