Jacklyn Rider’s three sons hadn’t attended a Montclair public school class in person in a year and a month. No one had.
But Monday, April 12, yellow school buses were seen driving around Montclair for the first time since the start of the novel coronavirus pandemic — since schools shut in March 2020 for what officials thought at the time might be as little as two weeks. Crossing guards stood on duty at crosswalks and street corners. Parents and students lined up outside school doors.
Rider’s oldest son, a fourth grader at Bradford Elementary School, doesn’t usually like going to school — but Monday, he was happy to be heading back. He saw friends he hadn’t seen in more than a year.
And then school let out.
“Immediately [he was] like, ‘Well, that was fast,’” Rider said. Her two younger sons, both second graders at Bradford, enjoyed the day as well — they were happy about being able to go to the gym for snack time.
The Riders were among 1,971 elementary school students — or roughly 75% of the elementary school population — planning to return this week for a hybrid schedule, according to figures the district released to Montclair Local Monday after a public records request. New Jersey allows parents to keep students home, receiving remote instruction, even if their districts are planning some or all in-person learning this school year, though Gov. Phil Murphy has said that likely won’t be the case in 2021-22 except to accommodate specific health needs.
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Overall, the district is expecting 3,868 — or 62% — of students across all grade levels to return, the figures show. In January, before an aborted attempt to return students to schools, just 53% of students expected to return.
According to a demographic breakdown the district released at the time, majorities of students of every racial and ethnic group other than white students expected to stay remote. The figures released to Montclair Local this week don’t include similar demographic breakdowns.
But they do show the strongest preference for returning is among the elementary students — considered by public health experts to be among those least at risk from the coronavirus.
At the middle school level 971 — or 66% — plan to return for hybrid learning. It’s only at the high school level that a majority — 1,140, or 57% — expect to stay remote.
Montclair’s middle schools and high school remain closed, but the school district has indicated that those schools will reopen this spring as well. No date has yet been announced.
Students in each of the schools will attend classes on a rotating schedule, with “Mounties” attending class on Mondays and Tuesdays and “Bulldogs” attending class on Thursdays and Fridays.
Rider said the teachers and students seemed happy Monday. She said everyone she saw was wearing masks and exiting buildings through assigned doors.
“The rain could not dampen the spirits of the pre-K-5 students and staff who returned to buildings for the first day of in-person/hybrid learning,” the district wrote on the photo page.
Ponds told Montclair Local that overall, the day went well.
“Our kids were wonderful. They had their masks on throughout the buildings,” he said.
Ponds said there had been some issues with bus service — a few buses ran late, and one missed a stop — that have been referred to the district’s transportation office. He said daily meetings with staff and administrators would look at other adjustments, including to the screening process at school doors.
He credited students, staff and administrators for cooperation — as well as Mountainside hospital, which in a partnership with the district, township government and Montclair Education Association recently vaccinated about 200 Montclair teachers.
Ponds’ praise included the MEA, which recently found itself the target of a lawsuit over plans to return to school. The district itself delayed plans to begin a hybrid schedule in September and November, citing coronavirus safety issues, eventually setting a January date. When the MEA’s members refused to return in January — saying they weren’t yet convinced buildings were safe or the district had been transparent enough — the school system sued, alleging an illegal teachers strike.
However, the lawsuit was settled in Essex County Superior Court on March 9. Under the terms of the agreement, the schools would reopen on April 12, as long as the district provided the MEA with documentation on health and safety procedures, and steps to improve ventilation in aging school buildings.
The MEA and the statewide New Jersey Education Association haven’t yet returned messages from Montclair Local seeking comment on the first day back.
As of April 12, 496 New Jersey school districts were operating on a hybrid model, Murphy said Monday. Another 165 districts were on all in-person learning; 118 remained on all-remote learning; and 32 were using a combination of remote, hybrid and in-person learning.
"There is now unmistakable movement back into our classrooms. And I know that for students and educators and for moms and dads and countless families, this is a tremendous positive sign and a great relief,” Murphy said.