UPDATE, May 24: The Montclair Public Schools central office has clarified no decision has yet been made about a possible return for elementary students to five-day instruction this school year.
By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
The Montclair Public School district is planning to send elementary school students’ families a survey on the possibility of returning to five-day in-person instruction for this academic year.
The district said in a notice sent to parents late Friday the purpose of the survey would be “to make an informed decision for ALL elementary schools.”
“We will evaluate variables, such as, proper spacing, furniture, and even restructuring physical spaces,” the district wrote in one of Superintendent Jonathans’ weekly community bulletins, typically distributed Friday afternoons or evenings. “We are also considering implementing a five-day option for students in Tier III, Tier II and those with 504s.”
The tier classifications are for students receiving extra academic support; 504 plans provide accommodations to certain students with disabilities.
While the message next told families that once all factors are considered, “we will implement five days based on efficiency, safety, and equity in all schools,” the district’s central office confirmed to Montclair Local on Monday no decision has yet been made to return students to five-day instruction. The district expected to release more information in the next few days.
Montclair’s return to hybrid learning in the coronavirus pandemic has been a staggered one, after more than a year of remote-only education. Elementary school students returned in April, and middle-schoolers earlier this month. High school freshmen came back Wednesday, sophomores are slated to come back May 26, and juniors and seniors are to come back June 1.
Along the way, the district has been making adjustments to its plans to space students apart, and to schedule them in groups that rotate in and out of school buildings, with the aim of getting more students in buildings, more often.
Those changes come amid updated CDC and state guidance, and declining community transmission rates of coronavirus. New Jersey’s weekly COVID-19 activity report shows most of the state, including Essex County, in the “moderate” or “yellow,” classification for coronavirus risk.
In that category, New Jersey recommends all schools have full in-person instruction, with a minimum of 3 feet distance between students in classrooms. Only a few weeks ago, Essex was in the “orange” or “high” risk category, in which the state still recommends full in-person instruction for elementary schools, but says districts should “consider” in-person instructions for middle and high schools if they can maintain physical distance of 6 feet or more.
All New Jersey students are expected to return for full-time instruction in the fall, Gov. Phil Murphy has said. The governor said this month he’d let portions of an executive order allowing for remote and hybrid instruction expire. Accommodations would still be made for students and staff with particular health vulnerabilities.
Mayor Sean Spiller also recently announced a task force intended to help guide that process. The group includes parents, students, administrators, and school board members. It’s chaired by special education and equity advocate Debra Jennings; both she and the mayor said it’s their goal to find improvements that go beyond the pre-pandemic status quo.
For this year, New Jersey allows any family to keep a child on remote-only instruction, even if a district offers some level of in-person classes. According to figures released to Montclair Local this month, 76% of elementary school students’ families planned to return for hybrid instruction this spring. The number drops to 69% for middle schoolers, and 44% for high schoolers.
Until Friday, Montclair schools had announced no potential plans to return any students for five-day instruction this school year. A group of eight families have sued the district, seeking a full-time return, but the case hasn’t yet moved forward.
Councilman Peter Yacobellis, in a statement emailed to constituents last weekend, said the Montclair Township Council is ready to work with the school system, teachers, parents and others on a return to five-day learning in the fall. And he said while he’d have liked a return earlier, “after speaking with Dr. Ponds, I do not feel at this point that it is logistically possible to do so safely.”
“I know that’s difficult to hear for many parents,” the councilman wrote at the time.