By TALIA WIENER
As the start of the school year approaches, Montclair Public Schools remain at their lowest overall enrollment rate in 22 years, according to figures newly provided to Montclair Local. And enrollment appears to have declined slightly over the summer.
Overall enrollment for 2021-22 had dipped by 35 students over the course of several weeks — from 6,071 as of a July 8 report to 6,036 in an Aug. 16 report. The last time enrollment dipped lower than that level, according to district reports, was 1999, when 6,016 students were enrolled.
But despite that, kindergarten enrollment for fall 2021 appeared to be bouncing back over the summer — with 91 more students than in the July report, for a total of 387 in August, nearly even with fall 2020’s 381 students. In July, the figures were only at 296, a 22% decline in kindergarten enrollment from the previous year.
The newest kindergarten enrollment figure is still 21% lower than the 484 in 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic sent students home for remote learning for more than a year.
Declines were seen across several other grade levels over the last several weeks. Most notably, 45 fewer high school freshmen were enrolled than in the July report. Fourteen more seniors were enrolled than in July, but every other high school grade level got smaller.
But Felice A. Harrison-Crawford, the district’s director of operations and school support services, said decreased enrollment has not driven staffing or class lineup changes.
Even after the decline in the freshman class size over the summer, it remains at 498 students — which is still two more than in fall 2019. If the enrollment had stayed at the level seen in the July report — 543 students — the freshman class would have been the largest in decades.
“I don’t see an impact on classrooms and staffing, as the design of our magnet program, and the engagement of small learning communities, coupled with students’ individual selection of a large offering of courses, has always resulted in us having varying class sizes,” Harrison-Crawford said.
She described the changing enrollment situation as “a fluid process.”
“It’s my belief that some parents are enrolling later than usual this year, as they are still trying to determine the best plan for their children and family, due to COVID,” Harrison-Crawford said.
Current kindergarten class sizes are between 17 and 21 students, Harrison-Crawford said.
“As we return to full in-person instruction, some parents and students who are reluctant to re-engage the school environment, and may have chosen alternative educational programs, may return to the Montclair Public Schools later in the year,” Harrison-Crawford said. “I believe we will see an increase in student enrollment and re-enrollment, as the school year progresses.”
The district is continuing to update its data to reflect students who have moved, disenrolled or reenrolled, Harrison-Crawford said.
“The Montclair Board of Education is committed to a safe, full opening of our schools, for our students and staff, regardless of student enrollment,” Montclair Board of Education president Latifah Jannah said in an email to Montclair Local.
Earlier this summer, a representative of Montclair Kimberley Academy said the private school had seen a 15% increase in applications from the fall of 2020-21, and an 11% increase since 2019-2020, with applications for kindergarten the highest they’d been in five years. Immaculate Conception High School has been seeing steady growth since 2015-16, its principal said at the time.
Last year, the district often heard from parents eager to see their students return to classrooms, even as concerns about ongoing community coronavirus transmission and the state of school facilities pushed back plans for a hybrid learning schedule multiple times — including during a legal dispute with the Montclair Education Association. One online petition in the spring, demanding a return to Montclair High School for all students, collected nearly 650 signatures. A group of families sued the district in February, demanding a return to full-time in-person learning.
But the district has also often heard from parents worried about safety amid the spread of the Delta variant of coronavirus as the start of 2021-22 approaches. In a guest column to Montclair Local, parent Melanie Robbins said she was scared school safety plans weren’t adequate to protect her as an immunocompromised mother of two, expecting a third child soon. She’d told the Board of Education the same at a recent meeting.
For 2021-22, Gov. Phil Murphy has said, all districts will be required to provide full five-day in-person instruction, making accommodations only for students or staff with particular health concerns. The district submitted its Safe Return to School Plan to state officials June 24, and shared the plan with families in a weekly community message on June 25. The plan is a “living document that will change throughout the summer,” Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said in the message.
School plans call for indoor masking and social distancing, though officials said there will be situations when the three feet of distance recommended by the Centers for Disease Control for schools won’t be possible. The school is planning a voluntary pooled testing program to help identify coronavirus cases — testing one grade level at a time for a statistical sample, though such tests do not provide results to an individual.
It is also undergoing a series of repairs to its ventilation systems, though some repairs won’t be done until November.
The district hadn’t originally planned to require staff members be vaccinated, but Murphy has ordered all school personnel be vaccinated or submit to routine testing by Oct. 18. The district hasn’t yet released details of its plans for implementing that order. Montclair Education Association president has not yet responded to multiple emails sent starting on Aug. 29 seeking comment.