When Montclair's middle schoolers return to in-person learning for the first time in the coronavirus pandemic, they'll be rotating on a hybrid schedule of three groups — instead of the previously planned two.

The school district had originally planned for students to be divided into two cohorts — "Mounties" and "Bulldogs" — that would take turns attending in-person classes. While one group was in school buildings, the other would attend class remotely.

But Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said in a community bulletin issued late Friday afternoon the number of students planning returns for hybrid learning had "grown to such an extent" the district would move to the three-group rotation. It wasn't clear from the announcement how many days of class each group could expect to attend per week.

Ponds said schedules will be available Monday in the district's Genesis student information system. Each student would be assigned to a "blue," "orange" or "green" rotation group. Principles would provide further details about scheduling in their own messages to families.

Students are expected to return to Montclair's three middle schools May 10. Students began attending elementary schools April 12. The district has yet to announce a date for its high school to begin in-person classes, but district officials have said they're planning for a start date this spring.

Ponds didn't say in his message Friday how many students would be returning, but had earlier asked all families planning for hybrid education in the middle schools to notify the district by April 5. Families planning for hybrid instruction in the high school were asked to notify the district by April 2.

As of April 12, 971 our of 1,461 middle-schoolers — or 66% — were expecting to return, according to figures released to Montclair Local that day. About 75% of elementary school students were expected to return.

It's only at the high school where that overall majority — at 57% — planned to stay remote as of that point.

This school year, parents in any New Jersey district can opt to keep their children attending class remotely, even if a district otherwise returns students for a hybrid or all-in-person schedule. Students who'd been planning to attend hybrid instruction can switch to remote-only learning at any time.

The return to school comes after the district and Montclair Education Association settled a lawsuit filed by the district after MEA members refused to return for a planned start of hybrid learning in January, citing concerns about coronavirus safety and school facilities. The district agreed to provide more information about its facilities work and safety practices, and MEA members agreed to come back to buildings. The district is still facing another lawsuit from a group of parents seeking a return to five-day instruction.

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.

As of the week ending April 24, the entire state was classified as "yellow" or "moderate" risk. Schools 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.

Essex County was until recently classified as "orange" or "high risk." 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.

Montclair is planning 6 feet of separation between students at all grade levels.

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.