By TALIA WIENER
When Montclair middle schoolers return to school buildings for the first time in the coronavirus pandemic next week, they could be scheduled for just eight days of in-class time before the end of the school year, under plans sent to parents Monday.
But school officials quickly followed up to say they’re considering schedule changes and other adjustments that could bring students into classrooms more often during the final seven weeks of the school year.
In a community bulletin issued Friday, April 30, Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said a growing number of students planning to return for in-person learning on a hybrid schedule caused the district to change its plans for the middle schools — instead of two rotating in-person learning groups, there will be three. Middle school in-person classes will begin the hybrid schedule May 10, but statewide rules allow any family in New Jersey to keep students on remote learning even if their districts are holding in-person classes.
As of April 12, 971 out of 1,461 middle schoolers — or 66% — were expecting to return, according to figures released to Montclair Local that day. The district had asked parents to notify it by April 5 if they were planning on hybrid learning, but it wasn’t clear in Ponds’ message if the district had accepted more requests to come back since then. It hasn’t yet provided updated figures.
Under the new schedule, middle school students are broken into three groups: orange, green and blue. Each color group is assigned to one day of in-person instruction per week for the remaining seven weeks of school, and one additional Friday. When students aren’t assigned to in-person classes, they’ll continue remote learning. Wednesdays, no students are assigned to in-person classes. The schedule includes adjustments for holidays as well, but each group is set for eight days of in-person class in all.
Tuesday, parents of students in Montclair’s three middle schools received identical notices signed by those schools’ principals saying they were in conversation with the district’s central office about adding Wednesdays to the in-person schedule.
The message also noted CDC guidance says middle and high school students should be at least 3 feet apart if the school is in an area of “low, moderate or substantial community transmission,” but 6 feet apart in an area of “high” transmission. Schools received notice from the Essex County Health Department last week the area had moved from “high” to “moderate.”
If the moderate rating continues, the message said, Montclair schools might move from their currently planned 6 feet of distance to 3 feet. That could allow more students in buildings at once.
Renaissance at Rand Middle School Principal Major B. Jennings and Glenfield Middle School Principal Erika Pierce referred questions to Ponds, whose office referred Montclair Local to the community bulletin but hasn’t commented further on the schedules. Buzz Aldrin Middle School Principal Jill Sack has not responded to email inquiries.
At Montclair elementary schools, students are assigned to two groups — one attending in-person class on Mondays and Tuesdays, the other on Thursdays and Fridays. The groups alternate on Wednesdays. There are no days assigned as remote for all students.
Elementary schools reopened for hybrid learning April 12, after the district and the Montclair Education Association settled a lawsuit over members’ refusal to return earlier this year, citing coronavirus safety concerns. No date has yet been announced for a return to Montclair High School.
Holly Shaw, whose daughter attends Buzz Aldrin Middle School, said she is supportive of finding a safe way to get students back in school, but said she was disappointed students will continue to spend so many days learning remotely.
“I think a lot of kids at this point hate school,” Shaw said. “I think they’re going to learn more and be far more engaged when they are in the school building.”
Shaw, who also has children at Watchung School and Montclair High School, said she is upset by conflicting schedules between the schools. Her son at Watchung attends in-person class on Mondays and Tuesdays, and her daughter at Buzz Aldrin has been assigned to the green group, which has in-person instruction on Thursdays.
Shaw said she and another parent met with Ponds and Assistant Superintendent Kalisha Morgan via Zoom on Oct. 21, 2020, to ask questions about scheduling. Shaw said Ponds assured her students within the same family would be scheduled for in-class instruction on the same day.
Buzz Aldrin Parent Teacher Association President Mary Sue Youn said while she believes family schedule coordination was considered in the new plan, the high number of middle schoolers interested in returning to in-person made it impossible.
Glenfield Middle School parent Erin Walter said schools are not prioritizing the well-being of students by limiting in-person opportunities. Walter said her daughter is disengaged from online learning, even in subjects that she usually loves, and her grades have gotten worse.
“This is harming her, and I’m watching her suffer,” Walter said. “And I can’t do anything about it.”
Walter said she is frustrated by a lack of information from the district. She said by “burying” the news of the schedule change in the bottom of a Friday afternoon message, the district is only making people assume things.
“We need to know why these decisions are being made,” Walter said. “They affect families and children more than they are affecting anyone else at this point.”
Glenfield Parent Teacher Association Co-President Sarah Spagnola Young said the PTA has done its best to create opportunities for students to build connections during remote learning, hosting Zoom trivia nights, an outdoor spirit wear sale and an outdoor flower workshop. But the PTA is eager for students to get back into classrooms, she said.
“Public health data and safety standards have made it possible for most districts in our state to open,” Spagnola Young said. “Being in school any less than two days a week at this point is a disservice to all of us.”
Gov. Phil Murphy has said he expects all schools to offer only in-person instruction in the fall, though allowances would be made for students or staff with particular health and safety concerns.
An earlier version of this post misdescribed a change in the area’s coronavirus transmission rate, and included an incorrect spelling for Erin Walter’s name.