Students return to Montclair’s middle schools — schedule changes coming
By TALIA WIENER and KATE ALBRIGHT
Renaissance Middle School eighth-grader Izzy Lawyer had been nervous Monday, May 10.
She, like many of Montclair’s other middle schoolers, was returning to in-person learning for the first time in the coronavirus pandemic.
“It felt like I've never done it before, but it was fun,” Lawyer said. “I wanted to go back before I graduated to see my teachers again.”
The return to middle school buildings on a hybrid learning schedule came after a Friday, May 7 announcement from Superintendent Jonathan Ponds detailing several changes to plans. The district will space students apart 3 feet, instead of the previously planned 6, because of recently reduced coronavirus community transmission rates. And while students were told late last month middle schoolers would be placed into three rotating groups on a hybrid schedule instead of the previously announced two — leaving each group with just eight days in classrooms before the year is out — Ponds said that’s changing as well.
He said 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 will begin holding in-person classes on Wednesdays, originally dedicated to facilities cleanings, beginning May 24.
Those changes would get each student in buildings more often.
Glenfield Middle School and Buzz Aldrin Middle School in-person school classes begin at 7:50 a.m. and end a few minutes before noon. Renaissance’s the day runs from 8:25 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
At Renaissance, acting Principal Major Jennings greeted students and took temperatures on the first day back to in-person learning Monday. Students lined up in two rows leading up to the entrance to have their temperatures checked before entering the building.
“This is like the first day of school in May,” Jennings said. “I love it.”
Two Renaissance sixth-graders, Drew and Eleanor, said they were excited and had only ever been in the building during a school tour.
Renaissance parent Isabella Breslin said her sixth-grade son is happy to return to in-person learning and has been “wanting to return to school for a long time.”
Breslin said she wishes there was extra instruction for students on the days of their in-person instruction.
“When they got home, they could log in and have a little bit of a wrap up of the day, maybe extra discussion, some virtual learning to supplement the in-school instruction that was there for the earlier part of the day,” Breslin said.
Another Renaissance parent, Jamie Salek, said her son had anxiety about the return to in-person learning, and she said she had to reassure him that many of his classmates were feeling the same way.
“You're not going to see a lot of people's feelings because the mask is hiding a lot,” Salek said she told her son. “There are probably kids feeling exactly like you and you just don't see it.”
At Glenfield Middle School, parent Shirin Irani said her daughter was happy to return to in-person learning but nervous about what it was going to be like.
“It's been too long and we're all looking forward to some human interaction for our kids,” Irani said. “Sixth and seventh graders, they've been going through metamorphosis in their own homes.”
Paloma De La Pena, a sixth-grader at Renaissance, said she liked getting to see classmates and teachers in-person, and “a lot of people were really different from what I pictured.”
”I really loved it,” De La Pena said. “I feel like online school is kind of depressing and this is definitely the opposite.”
Renaissance dance teacher Nina Lorusso said the hybrid schedule makes students more engaged both in the physical classroom and on Zoom.
“The people on Zoom, they were excited,” Lorusso said. “A girl on zoom said, ‘I saw a lot of smiling faces today.’”
The district also announced Monday high school freshmen would come back May 19. No date has yet been set for upperclassmen. Students will be spaced just 3 feet apart, and classes will be scheduled for Wednesdays despite earlier plans for those days to be all-remote.
At the elementary school level, students are divided into two groups — one group attends in-person classes for three days, and the other for two days, with adjustments for days off. Elementary school students returned April 12.
During public comment at a May 5 Board of Education meeting, Montclair Education Association Vice President Cathy Kondreck said the MEA previously recommended the district operate with 3 feet of distance between students, as directed by current CDC guidelines.
“Since the decision is and has never been ours, no need to ask for our opinion now,” Kondreck said. “We will roll with whatever you decide.”
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.
Kondreck also said the MEA’s walk-throughs at all the middle schools — also promised in the settlement — were completed on May 5.
At the Board of Education meeting, schools Ponds said middle school families had shown growing interest in returning, displaying the “confidence that our parents and our community have in our administration and our work towards opening our schools.” He met with principals the next day, before distributing the news about changes at the middle schools May 7.
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.
Ponds said 69% of middle schoolers were planning to return for hybrid learning — up from the 56% who said they would in the fall. At Buzz Aldrin Middle School, 77% planned to return, up from 67%. At Glenfield Middle School, 64% planned to return, up from 50%. At Renaissance Middle School, 63% planned to return, up from 41%.
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.
A 2021-22 calendar was approved at the school board meeting, he noted, setting a start date of Sept. 9.
The district also plans to continue its recently started pooled coronavirus testing, in which samples are taken from multiple students whose families have consented, and then tested as a batch.
— With previous reporting by Louis C. Hochman