By TALIA WIENER and LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
wiener@montclairlocal.news

Freshmen will return to Montclair High School May 19 for a hybrid learning schedule, the school district announced Monday. 

They’ll be spaced apart 3 feet, not the 6 feet previously planned. The district has planned for students to be on an alternating schedule — divided into two groups, with only one group in the building at a time. But while the district previously expected to hold no in-person instruction on Wednesdays to instead conduct full-building cleanings, it’s now scheduling classes, the district said in Monday’s announcement. 

Freshmen will have classes in both the George Inness Annex and the high school’s main building.

“Our plan is to open quickly but safely,” Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said in a notice to families Friday. He urged families at the time to “please stay tuned for information” on the upper grades. 

New Jersey currently lets any family keep a child on remote learning, even if the child’s district has resumed a hybrid or all-in-person learning schedule. And according to figures released to Montclair Local Monday, the high school remains the only district school where a majority plan to stay home — with 878 students (44%) planning to resume in-person learning on the hybrid schedule, and 1,139 (56%) planning to stay all-remote.

At a May 5 Board of Education meeting, many parents spoke in support of high school students returning to in-person learning and voiced their frustration with the district’s reopening timeline. 

Parent of ninth-grade twins Julia Berger said remote learning has made it difficult for freshmen to build bonds with their classmates. 

“For the most part, their classmates are just faces or just names on a screen,” Berger said. “For many shy freshmen, it’s been really difficult to transition their online relationships to real life connections, especially for students who are not part of any sports teams.” 

Berger said she and other parents have organized in-person events for freshmen throughout the year, hoping to foster connections for students. 

Montclair Parent Teacher Association Council President Deborah Villarreal-Hadley told Montclair Local that some parents are content with their children continuing remote learning full time. 

With all the social pressures of high school, some students do better outside of the building,” Villarreal-Hadley said.

But the PTAC has also heard many complaints from parents who are “sort of at the end of their rope,” Villarreal-Hadley said. 

The announcement Monday and schedule changes follow a rapid series of adjustments over the last few weeks.

Parents were told in late April that when Montclair’s middle schoolers returned for their own hybrid schedule May 10, they’d be divided into three groups, not two, with Wednesdays all remote. The upshot: Each group was only to spend 8 days in classrooms before the year was out.

But that quickly changed — principals told families within days they were looking at options to reduce spacing from the 6 feet planned at the time, to just 3. And Montclair Education Association Vice President Cathy Kondreck sait at the May 5 board meeting the MEA wouldn’t object to such a plan.

Ponds told families late last week in his bulletin that the three-group setup would be in place this week, but the district is “working on the details to collapse to two rotation groups.” Ponds also said the middle schools would begin holding in-person classes on Wednesdays beginning May 24.

Latest state guidance

New Jersey recently issued updated guidance saying many schools should reopen full-time to in-person instruction unless assessed by the state as in a “very high risk” region for coronavirus transmission — a designation that doesn’t currently apply to any area in New Jersey, under the state’s own weekly COVID-19 activity level reports.

In the weeks ending May 1 and April 24, the entire state was classified as “yellow” or “moderate” risk. Schools at any grade level in the “yellow” zone are recommended to resume full in-person instruction, with a minimum of 3 feet of physical distance between students in classrooms.

Prior to those weeks, though, Essex County was classified as “orange” or “high risk” for several weeks. In that category, the state recommends full in-person instruction for elementary schools, with a minimum of 3 feet of distance. It says middle and high schools should “consider” in-person instruction if they can keep distances of 6 feet.

Gov. Phil Murphy has also said he expects all schools to offer only in-person instruction in the fall, though allowances would be made for students or staff with particular health and safety concerns.

Ponds, in Friday’s bulletin, said that’s the expectation in Montclair as well.

“Our goal is to have all grades PreK-12 in-person, full time, five days a week when schools open in September. We are eager to begin the school year anew and welcome everyone to the buildings,” he wrote.

Montclair school buildings had been closed entirely to students for more than a year, since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020. A planned return to schools in January was delayed when MEA members refused to come back, citing concerns about coronavirus safety. The district sued the union, but the parties settled, with the school system agreeing to provide more information on its safety measures and facilities updates, and the union members agreeing to return to classrooms. Elementary school students returned for their own hybrid schedule April 12.