Renaissance Middle School
FILE PHOTO Renaissance Middle School.

By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN and TALIA WIENER
wiener@montclairlocal.news

Montclair schools late Friday announced plans to bring more elementary school students and middle school to in-person classes.

And the district said that Monday, more information would be released on the long-awaited awaited return to buildings for high-schoolers, even as the end of the school year approaches.

Effective May 17, students attending in-person pre-K through fifth-grade classes on a hybrid schedule will only have to be spaced apart 3 feet instead of the 6 feet currently in place, schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said in a community bulletin issued shortly before 6 p.m. Resource room students will attend five days a week for pull-out classes and for inclusion with general education classes. Related services for students served by the child study team will be in-person five days a week starting at that point.

Teachers will remain 6 feet from students, per CDC guidance, Ponds said in the announcement. When children are having snacks inside because of inclement weather, they’ll be spaced 10 feet apart, he said.

SAVE MONTCLAIR LOCAL: We need your support, and we need it today. The journalism you value from Montclair Local, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, depends on the community's support — we exist because the old model of selling ads alone just can't fund journalism at the level we endeavor to provide. That's why you've seen other local newsrooms cut back staff or shut down entirely. Montclair Local was created because we believe that's unacceptable; the community's at its best when triumphs are celebrated, when power is held to account, when diverse lived experiences are shared — when the community is well-informed.

Montclair is seeking to raise $230,000 from donors, members and grantors between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31 to put us on firm footing for 2022, and continue supporting the hard work of our journalists into the new year and beyond. Visit MontclairLocal.news/donations to see how we're doing and make your contribution.

Despite the closer spacing for students, the announcement didn’t specify any changes to the district’s overall rotation of elementary school students, who have been divided into two groups, “Mounties” and “Bulldogs.” Most weeks, one group attends in-person classes for three days, and the other for two days, with adjustments for days off.

The bulletin details a significant change for Montclair’s three middle schools — set to begin their own hybrid learning schedule Monday. Families were told last week students in the middle schools would be divided into three groups, not the previously planned two, because of a growing number who planned to return for hybrid instruction.

That left each group with just eight days in class, as the school year draws near its close; only seven weeks remain on the calendar. Each group would have attended at just one day most weeks — Monday, Tuesday or Thursday — and the three groups would have alternated attending on Friday, again with adjustments for days off. No in-person class was set for Wednesdays. It’s a schedule that saw pushback from many families — Renaissance Middle School student Miles Rackman told the Board of Education at a meeting May 5 had students “being treated like diseased rats.”

But Ponds said Friday the middle-schoolers will be taken down to 3 feet of separation, from the previously planned 6. They’ll still be in three groups during the first week back, but “we are working on the details to collapse to two rotation groups,” Ponds’ notice said.

At the middle school level, resource room students will attend four days a week beginning May 17, and five days a week beginning May 24.

The middle schools will also begin holding in-person classes on Wednesdays — previously dedicated to facilities cleanings — beginning May 24, Ponds said.

The district expects to have high schoolers back for their own hybrid schedule “before the year is out,” Ponds’ notice said. Freshmen would come back first. The school system plans to release a start date Monday.

“Our plan is to open quickly but safely,” Ponds’ notice said. And it urged families: “Please stay tuned for information on start dates for upperclassmen.”

The notice didn’t say if any changes might be considered to the district’s plans to have high schoolers spaced 6 feet apart. Its most recently announced plans for the high school call for two groups in class two days a week each, with no in-person class on Wednesdays.

During public comment at a the Board of Education meeting, Montclair Education Association Vice President Cathy Kondreck said the MEA previously recommended the district operate with 3 feet of distance between students, as directed by current CDC guidelines.

“Since the decision is and has never been ours, no need to ask for our opinion now,” Kondreck said. “We will roll with whatever you decide.”

Montclair school buildings had been closed entirely to students for more than a year, since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020. A planned return to schools in January was delayed when MEA members refused to come back, citing concerns about coronavirus safety. The district sued the union, but the parties settled, with the school system agreeing to provide more information on its safety measures and facilities updates, and the union members agreeing to return to classrooms.

Kondreck also said the MEA’s walk-throughs at all the middle schools — also promised in the settlement — were completed on May 5.

At the Board of Education meeting, schools Ponds said middle school families had shown growing interest in returning, displaying the “confidence that our parents and our community have in our administration and our work towards opening our schools.”

Ponds, after hearing Kondreck’s statements, told those attending he’d be meeting with school principals the next morning to discuss schedule adjustments.

New Jersey currently lets any family keep a child on remote learning, even if the child’s district has resumed a hybrid or all-in-person learning schedule.

Ponds said this week 69% of middle schoolers were planning to return for hybrid learning — up from the 56% who said they would in the fall. At Buzz Aldrin Middle School, 77% planned to return, up from 67%. At Glenfield Middle School, 64% planned to return, up from 50%. At Renaissance Middle School, 63% planned to return, up from 41%.

STATE GUIDANCE

New Jersey recently issued updated guidance saying many schools should reopen full-time to in-person instruction unless assessed by the state as in a “very high risk” region for coronavirus transmission — a designation that doesn’t currently apply to any area in New Jersey, under the state’s own weekly COVID-19 activity level reports.

In the weeks ending May 1 and April 24, the entire state was classified as “yellow” or “moderate” risk. Schools at any grade level in the “yellow” zone are recommended to resume full in-person instruction, with a minimum of 3 feet of physical distance between students in classrooms.

Prior to those weeks, though, Essex County was classified as “orange” or “high risk” for several weeks. In that category, the state recommends full in-person instruction for elementary schools, with a minimum of 3 feet of distance. It says middle and high schools should “consider” in-person instruction if they can keep distances of 6 feet.

Gov. Phil Murphy has also 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.

Ponds, in Friday’s bulletin, said that’s the expectation in Montclair as well.

“Our goal is to have all grades PreK-12 in-person, full time, five days a week when schools open in September. We are eager to begin the school year anew and welcome everyone to the buildings,” he wrote.

A 2021-22 calendar was approved at the school board meeting, he noted, setting a start date of Sept. 9.

The district also plans to continue its recently started pooled coronavirus testing, in which samples are taken from multiple students whose families have consented, and then tested as a batch.