It was something that had never been done before in Montclair: A learning center with coaches to help students with their remote schoolwork, in a small-group, safe environment.

Montclair public schools have been closed to in-person learning for the last year because of the novel coronavirus pandemic and an ongoing dispute between the district and the Montclair Education Association. Schools will start a hybrid schedule April 12, under a settlement announced Tuesday. 

In the time away from school buildings, some families are creating learning pods, where groups of children from different families come together at one member’s home with a coach.

But for some of those who work outside of the home and face a dilemma — either stop working or leave children at home alone — remote learning centers have offered an alternative.

Created by a partnership between the township and the Montclair Neighborhood Development Corp., the Montclair Community Enrichment Center at the Wally Choice Center takes in 50 students. The YMCA currently has 99 students enrolled at its own center. The Montclair Community Enrichment Center opened in mid-December, and the YMCA began taking students on the originally scheduled first day of school in September. Both work closely with the district’s administrators and teachers.

Students are broken up into pods based on schools and ages. In each pod, one to two counselors or coaches help students with the remote learning offered by their respective schools. Montclair teachers and the counselors work closely together.

Keeping the same students and counselors together and in smaller groups also helps keep the virus at bay, Lisa Aulisi, the YMCA’s vice president of youth development, said.

The Montclair Community Enrichment Center houses five groups of 10 students in kindergarten through the fifth grade. The students have access to laptops, WiFi and a learning coach, who will make sure the students log into class, stay engaged and do their work. The coach is backed  by volunteers. 

The center also provides lunch for the children, said Al Pelham, executive director for the Montclair Neighborhood Development Corp. as well as president of the Montclair branch of the NAACP, who was instrumental in the formation of the remote learning center.

At the YMCA, pods range from nine to 14 students, kindergarten through eighth grade. The largest group of students is in kindergarten. The YMCA also has a large group of middle school students, Aulisi said. 

Although most students come from Montclair, some are from Bloomfield, Cedar Grove and Newark. During breaks students do crafts, perform skits, take STEM classes, have recess or just have downtime, she said.

The students’ health and safety are given priority. Temperatures are taken, and parents answer questionnaires daily, asking them, for instance, if the student has traveled recently. Masks are worn at all times. Classrooms, doorknobs, light switches, desks and bathrooms are disinfected throughout the day.

“It’s a lot to organize. The staff are the real heroes. They handle everything from making sure [the students] are online and listening to the different classes, talking with district teachers if needed, getting the students to their special classes such as speech, lunches, enrichment and sometimes even the occasional meltdown,” Aulisi said.

The YMCA at one point housed 145 students but now has openings; the center at Wally Choice is maxed out at 50 students. Wally Choice is open to students who qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches, and is free. The cost at the Y ranges from $875 to $1,295 a month depending on the number of days a student attends. But parents who make under $75,000 have used the New Jersey School-Age Tuition Assistance Program to help pay for tuition, and the Y has given $60,000 in scholarships, Aulisi said.

Essex County allocated $387,767 of CARES Act funds to the MNDC to be used by Sept. 30, 2022, which helped fund the center at Wally Choice. On Friday, March 5, The Montclair Foundation and the Schumann Fund for New Jersey each gave $10,000 to the center.

Pelham said the need for more access to free remote learning centers is great. The pandemic has shone a light on learning inequity that already existed within the district. About 15% of Montclair students are classified as being economically disadvantaged and are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, according to a 2019 report from the Department of Education.

“There are at least 900 families that are on free or reduced lunch, and for a number of reasons their parents are essential workers,” Pelham said. “They have to go to work. They could live in a one-bedroom apartment with three kids. Now you’re leaving those kids to do remote learning, with no adult, no leadership around.”

Pelham estimates at least another 200 Montclair students could benefit from access to tuition-free remote learning centers. The biggest obstacle is getting child-care certification, for which churches and educational facilities would qualify if a partnership could be formed. The Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence helped with getting the Wally Choice site designated as a child care center through the state, as well as recruiting volunteers for the center.

Pelham and Aulisi agree there’s going to be learning loss as a result of the pandemic.

“We know there’s a population of kids falling behind,” Pelham said. 

But in addition to providing families with safe educational oversight for their children, the centers offer socialization and a little “normalcy” for students during the pandemic, Aulisi said. 

“Yes, there will be learning loss,” she said. “But what we offer taps into more of the social, emotional side of what is for now our reality.”

An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated the date students would return to schools.