At the beginning of the 2021-22 school year, Montclair students and staff returned to school buildings where coronavirus precautions were being taken.

Social distancing, desk shields, outdoor lunch and other mitigation strategies were central to the district remaining open and in-person.

A year later, students entered their shieldless classrooms, many unmasked — school life felt back to normal.

The district continues to follow guidelines from the state Department of Health and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, linked from the homepage of the district's website, schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds told Montclair Local. 

School nurses are tracking the positive student cases at their schools, and District Nursing Supervisor Tina La Gala tracks staff cases, La Gala said. The nurses then share the positive case information with the township Health Department.

“Numbers are really low,” La Gala said. “When we get to the winter months, will I see an uptick? Probably. But for now, it’s going well.”

She declined to provide specific case counts for students or staff.

Essex County has had a low COVID-19 community level for the past month, according to New Jersey's weekly COVID-19 Activity Level Report.

Almost all of the mitigation measures enforced last school year are no longer in place. 

The district does not provide in-school COVID-19 testing or after-school opportunities, as it did last year. A document on the district’s COVID-19 website page links to several free testing options available to students and families. 

In fall 2021, the district conducted opt-in, pooled in-school coronavirus testing through vendor Ginkgo Bioworks, but the contract was allowed to expire in December. The district instead scheduled several optional testing sessions, available to families outside of the normal school day. 

At its March 2 meeting, the Board of Education approved a contract with Sunrise Diagnostics Lab to conduct in-school testing. Testing with Sunrise never started in the district, and Ponds did not respond to questions about the contract at the time. 

Unvaccinated staff are no longer required to undergo regular testing as they did last year, according to an executive order signed by Gov. Phil Murphy on Aug. 15. Masking remains optional for students and staff.

Quarantine is no longer recommended for people exposed to COVID-19, regardless of vaccination status, according to the New Jersey Department of Health’s Aug. 29 guidance. But “asymptomatic students and staff who were exposed to COVID-19 should continue to test and wear a mask for 10 days,” the Health Department guidance says. 

The quarantine period for a positive case is five days, the state guidance says. 

“The district website has been updated with the latest CDC and NJDOH guidance, and we continue to adhere to those protocols along with consulting with our local Health Department,” Ponds said. 

Montclair High School is “back to normal,” senior Justin Comini, a student representative on the Board of Education, said Monday. There are no desk shields, and desks are back to their normal positions, no longer spaced out to maintain social distancing, he said. 

The first two high school weekly updates from Principal Jeffrey Freeman for this school year did not mention coronavirus. But the most recent update includes a note from the high school nurses asking that all cases of COVID-19 be reported

“If your child tests positive for COVID-19 please call the nurse in your child's building to let them know,” the nurses said in the update. “They will explain the isolation and the return-to-school protocol to you.”

Parents Terese Tarantino and Ralph Greco said they’re feeling less anxious about their son Lucas getting COVID-19 at Watchung School than they felt last year. The whole family tested positive in fall 2021.

“It’s not as much of a concern,” Tarantino said after dropping Lucas off for the first day of school Sept. 6. “We’ve already experienced it. I get it if there’s a kid or family that’s somehow escaped getting it, I get the fear.”

Greco said he appreciated efforts made by Watchung administrators last school year to maintain stability and keep school as normal as possible. 

“They really did a great job of not instilling panic,” he said.

The district ended the 2021-22 school year with a total of 1,232 student cases and 224 staff cases, according to the district dashboard.