By KATE ALBRIGHT AND TALIA WIENER
Outside Edgemont Elementary School Thursday morning, third graders Aliyah Ferguf and Josephine Peterson greeted each other with a big hug.
“We’ve known each other for two and a half years,” Peterson said of Ferguf. “She’s my BFFFFF.”
Thursday, the start of the 2021-22 school year in Montclair, was the first time since the start of the coronavirus pandemic that students throughout the district attended class as a whole. It was the resumption of full, five-day, in-person instruction.
The road to it had been a bumpy one — with some parents demanding (or even suing to seek) a full-schedule return last year, even as the district struggled to convince its teachers union a hybrid schedule would be safe despite ventilation and other facilities issues officials on all sides acknowledged were an ongoing concern. (It’s a dispute that prompted the district to take the union to court, eventually leading to a delayed start of that hybrid schedule.) Yet as recently as this month, some parents pushed back on the plan to reopen for five-day instruction this fall, saying more testing, more mitigation, more distance were needed to keep students and staff safe.
And then came the storm. As Ida battered Montclair the night of Sept. 1, multiple school buildings took damage; flooding at Montclair High School was the “worst I’ve seen in 30 years” head custodian Brian Bunk said. Hillside Elementary School and Bradford Elementary School flooded as well, and a tree fell on Edgemont Montessori School.
But even just a day after the storm, schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds had told the district’s community buildings would be ready to reopen.
In an email to Montclair Local Thursday, Board of Education President Latifah Jannah credited the “outstanding work done by our teachers, principals, administrators, building staffs and especially custodians and buildings and grounds in preparing our buildings, curriculum and schedules for the return of students to in-person learning.” Ponds had also separately celebrated the work to repair buildings as a collaboration with Montclair’s fire, police and community service personnel.
“We were able to open all of our buildings after the damage of the recent storm,” Jannah wrote. “That is an amazing accomplishment that should be acknowledged.”
At Edgemont, Parent Teacher Association member Jeremy Pholwattana was DJing on the front lawn as students entered the building.
Edgemont parent Christine Osborn said she was looking forward to getting back to “a little bit of normalcy after a lot of not-normalcy.” Her family recently moved to Montclair, and her third grade daughter had been “very, very nervous” for the first day of school, she said.
“I wasn’t allowed to go in and take her around prior to the start of school, which is the normal routine,’ Osborn said. “So the basic questions we know will be answered, but things like where’s the bathroom, cafeteria, things that kids might worry about more — it’s a terrible feeling not to be able to answer that for her.”
Kayla Crawley, mother to a third grade son at Edgemont and the antiracism and equity co-chair of the school’s PTA, said her son was “a little unsure about what to expect school-wise and then being in this new environment full-time.” But she said he was excited to be back with his friends and his teacher, Regina O’Connor, is a “rock star.”
‘[O’Connor] is so thoughtful,” Crawley said. “She sent out an email about their class being a detective agency and they’re going to do missions and be inducted at the end of September.”
Of the risk of the Delta variant of the coronavirus in schools, Crawley said she is feeling hopeful.
“I know a large part of our community is vaccinated, so that helps,” Crawley said. “This is our lives now. This is it. So we’re going to have to figure out how to do life under these circumstances. And I think Edgemont is a place where people really understand that we’re all human, so that helps to ease the pressure and the fears.”
For some parents, the first day of school was bittersweet.
When kindergartener Callum Coleman entered Nishuane School, his mother, Mallory Coleman, turned to her husband with tear-filled eyes. Thursday was Callum’s birthday, and Mallory Colmean said she felt extra emotional as her son, born prematurely, began school.
“He just left,” Mallory Coleman said. “He didn’t even look back.”
At Buzz Aldrin Middle School, father Benek Oster said he was “personally having emotional turmoil” about his seventh grader getting older. Oster also has a junior at Montclair High School.
Being away from in-person learning last year was an “absolute catastrophe,” he said.
“They need to be socializing around other kids. We made the best of it and here we are,” Oster said.
As the first day of school concluded, Montclair High School junior Coleman Walton said it “wasn’t really anything different.” A French teacher’s room downstairs had flooded, so class was moved to the third floor, he said.
“It was nice getting back to school, a nice relaxed day getting back in the flow of everything,” he said.
Lillian Platte, another junior, said it “feels weird” to have left the school building as a freshman and returned as a junior. She didn’t have a favorite teacher picked out yet, but said her chorus teacher, Boyce Ennis “is really sweet and I really love him.”
Veronica Pariaszewska, a senior, was waiting for an NJ Transit bus with her sister, Jowita Pariaszewska, a freshman, as the school day let out. Veronica Pariaszewska said some of the rooms in the main building were closed for construction, but that all of the corridors were dry.
“There are a lot of [new people] and it was nice to see everyone and all of our friends,” she said.
For senior Leo Powers, returning to the school was “very different, but it’s nice to walk around the school and, like, know a little more than everybody else.” He noticed some air conditioners that didn’t seem to be working: “It’s just hot. But that’s to be expected.”
In a press release issued after the day closed out, Ponds said the district staff had “worked tirelessly to get to this moment,” including after the flooding from Ida. He said he traveled to school buildings and saw “everyone following [coronavirus safety] protocol and excited to engage in teaching and learning.” Administrators, board of education members and community members including police and firefighters greeted students as they returned, he said.
Felice Harrison-Crawford, the district’s assistant superintendent of operations and school support, had visited Nishuane and Hillside Elementary Schools, the release said. In it, she described seeing “wonderful, colorful signs greeting our families” at both schools.
“Today was a day we have been looking forward to for so long,” Edgemont Principal Briony Carr-Clemente said in the release. “My heart is full of joy seeing our families drop off their children at our door. It is so gratifying to walk the halls and see our teachers doing what they love to do. All of our classrooms were buzzing with excitement. I have so much gratitude for every team, at every level at MPS who made this possible.”
Ponds said the district is continuing to work on issues of registration, transportation and technology amid the return.
Montclair schools, according to district reports released to Montclair Local in August in response to a public records request, are seeing their lowest overall enrollment in 22 years. Kindergarten enrollment, though, had bounced back considerably by that point, compared to another enrollment report released to Montclair Local in July.
“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 previously told Montclair Local.
This year, school staff will be required to be vaccinated or submit to frequent coronavirus tests by Oct. 18, under an order from Gov. Phil Murphy. The district hasn’t yet addressed questions in emails from Montclair Local about the implementation of those plans, including whether the district would fund testing for staff members who choose to remain unvaccinated. No such requirement exists for K-12 students, and only children over age 12 are currently eligible for vaccination.
But Ponds said in the press release Thursday the district, in partnership with Robert Wood Johnson Barnabas Health, would hold a vaccination clinic for students, family members and community members from 3 to 6 p.m. on Sept. 17 at the George Inness Annex Atrium of Montclair High School.