By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN and KATE ALBRIGHT
As many of Montclair’s elementary school students and middle schoolers returned to in-person class over the last several weeks, they were re-engaging with a familiar experience — returning to the hallways and classrooms they’d known before the coronavirus pandemic.
But when freshmen — and only freshmen — started in-person class at Montclair High School Wednesday, their experience was different: They’d each be coming to the building for classes for the first time. Unlike the youngest students in other schools, they wouldn’t yet find themselves shoulder-to-shoulder with older peers who knew the lay of the land; school officials were expected to announce a schedule for bringing back sophomores through seniors sometime the same day.
“They’re taller than I thought they’d be,” Jaime Doshi, student assistance counselor, said.
Members of the district’s Restorative Justice team greeted students and staff at a table with water, fruit, and protective personal equipment.
“We want to make sure that we attempt to meet the needs and be welcoming to students and teachers who’ve never set foot in the building at all,” Syreeta Carrington, a Glenfield Middle School teacher with the program, said. “I think it’s very important that students are seen, that faculty members are seen, that people who come out of a long stretch of absence during the pandemic are not just plugged back into a situation without any sort of welcome.”
The return to schools after more than a year of remote-only learning has been a staggered one. Students in the district’s elementary schools returned April 12 for a hybrid learning schedule, and middle schoolers followed on May 10.
In any New Jersey school this academic year, families can choose to keep children on remote-only learning even if a district has some level of in-person classes. In Montclair, majorities of students returned at the elementary and middle school levels. But according to figures released by the district earlier this month, just 44% of high schoolers planned to come back.
Many of those at the high school Wednesday said they felt the return was overdue.
Student Asher Talty was locking up his bike with his friend Wesley Mathis outside the school Wednesday. He said he was excited, but “we should have been here a year ago.”
Mathis said he was a little nervous, but he’d played sports this year — football, lacrosse and basketball — which helped him get to know some of his fellow students.
Robbie Rechtschaffer was excited as well.
“I mean, it’s great being able to just come back and see everybody again,” she said. I mean, it’s going to be different, but I still think it’s going to be good.”
Counselor Chanda Fields has been at MHS for 18 years. She thought back to the prior night — trying to get some rest before the “first” day of school.
“It was just like it would have been back like in September, you know what I mean?” she said.” It’s our first day. So you get those butterflies and you’re all nervous. You can’t sleep. We experience those same feelings as the students do.”
Shelia Jones, in her 18th year as a crossing guard, guided students across Park Street, between MHS’s main building and its George Inness Annex .
“It’s been a long time coming, but at so late in the year, I don’t know why they didn’t just hold off until September,” she said. “But I’m guessing that maybe it’s for some end of the year stuff, some assessments and stuff they needed to get that done.”
Student Andrew Kings North, after dismissal from class for the day, said he’d been nervous the night before, but felt fine after coming back.
“It actually felt good because there weren’t many students in each class, so it felt safe and everyone was wearing masks all of the time,” he said. “And it was relatively easy to move around while being distant in the hallways, so I felt safe in school.”
Student Jada Gammon said the experience was “better than I thought it would be” — she’d expected to get more lost.
Her friend, Soleil Jordan, got over her own dislike of asking people for directions “because that’s the only way I could get around, ever.”
She said the day was “definitely better than I expected to be.”
“And there weren’t as many students, so it seemed bigger,” Jordan said. “But when it’s more students, I think it will feel more comfortable.”
The return to Montclair schools — originally planned for September — saw several delays, first of the district administration’s own choosing because of community coronavirus levels and concerns about antiquated ventilation systems in schools, and then because Montclair Education Association members refused to return in January, not yet satisfied district facilities were safe enough.
The district and MEA eventually settled a lawsuit over that dispute, with teachers agreeing to return in exchange for more information about safety practices and facilities work, as well as an agreement to hold walk-throughs of each building before coming back. MEA Secretary Cathy Kondreck said at a school board meeting Monday that on a May 14 walk-through of MHS, the union identified 17 restrooms and more than 25 offices or classrooms that didn’t have adequate ventilation, despite the district’s own, differing assessment. The parties were expected to hold another walk-through Tuesday in an attempt to resolve those differences. Neither the MEA nor the district administration has yet returned messages asking what the results were.
Kondreck didn’t, however, ask that the return to MHS be put off.
Come September, Gov. Phil Murphy has said, all schools will be required to offer only in-person classes, five days a week. Accommodations would be made for students or staff with particular health concerns. Schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds has also said he expects Montclair back full-time in the fall, and Mayor Sean Spiller this week announced a task force to provide input on the return.
Principal Jefferey Freeman described the first day back as a successful one.
“The kids were very happy to be inside,” he said. “I know that the faculty and staff, they were also very happy. So it was overall a great success.”