MONTVILLE, NJ – Monday, Sept. 21 marked the first day that Lazar Middle Schoolers and Montville Township High Schoolers were back for in-building learning since Gov. Phil Murphy shut down schools due to COVID-19 as of March 16, 2020. Montville public school students were on 100% at-home learning from that point until the last day of school, June 23, and graduation was a “drive-thru” event.

Superintendent of Schools René Rovtar announced in August that the middle and high schools could not open for in-building learning on Sept. 8 with the elementary schools, because 19 teachers had opted for instructing from home, and the necessary substitutes could not be hired in time. The elementary schools opened for in-building learning on Sept. 8, with half day schedules on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday and 100% at-home learning on Wednesdays.

For the high school and middle schoolers, their future was iffy, because in August when the problem finding substitutes was first announced, Rovtar thought the problem could go on as late as the end of October, but then later announced in-school instruction could begin Sept. 21. She said more than 19 substitutes had to be hired, and it was a problem that many districts across the county were encountering. Unlike the elementary schools, the middle and high school students are learning in-school in cohorts determined by the alphabet. On Mondays and Tuesdays, as an example, the middle and high school students whose last names begin with A through K are in the building; the other students are learning from home. On Wednesdays, all children are learning from home, then the model switches, so that L through Z is in-building and A through K is at home.

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Principal Douglas Sanford presented a 20-minute video to the students and staff and called the first in-building instruction day “a very special day.”

“I don’t think any of us had any way of knowing when we left that Friday in March that it would be half a year before students were back in the building,” he said in the video. “We’ve really missed you, and we’re so happy to see you here today. We want you to know that we’re 100% committed to your safety. We’ve been working for months to determine the safest practices and procedures that will allow us to open the building. This is, in many ways, our greatest responsibility right now. It might feel uncomfortable at first, learning new ways of moving around the building, and being in classrooms and other spaces in the building is probably going to feel strange. But we have to do this the right way so that we can all be in the building together.”

Sanford said the students and staff are all on the same team, working together, and everyone has different levels of comfort about being in the building.

“All those feelings are normal and natural,” he said. He also said that some might have stress or anxiety about being in-building, how the school year is going to go, and how things might change, which he called normal, and he said staff and counselors are there to work with students about their feelings.

Regarding change, many things have changed, Sanford said, but many things are still the same – “This school is still your home,” he reassured students. “Your teachers are still here, committed to your success. Your counselors are here to support you.”

Students were reminded to not come to school if they were feeling sick or if they had visited a state on the travel advisory list. Before coming to school, both Lazar and high school students must have been cleared using a health app which asks questions such as “Does the student have a fever?”

Students need to social distance and wear masks, Assistant Principal Ken Nadzak told the students via the video. Students who refuse to wear a face mask – and wear it properly over the nose and mouth – Nadzak said, would be placed in remote-only learning. He called the policy “zero tolerance.” Staff will be present at entrances in the morning to check that students are wearing masks, he said, and movement through the building will be mostly one-way, and clockwise in direction. Certain staircases are designated as “up only” and others, “down only,” he said. Passing time from class to class has been extended to accommodate the changes.

Hand sanitizing stations are present in classrooms, Nadzak said, and desks are in one direction and “more evenly distributed.”

As far as transportation, students are seated on buses more spaced out, and the first person to get on to the bus sits in the back row, while the last person sits in the front. Only 11 students ride a bus now – down from a capacity of 54. Getting off the bus, the first person to get off is in the first row, he said. In this way, students don’t have to pass each other as much.

“All of the changes that I have outlined have been created to keep you healthy and safe,” Nadzak told the students. “It’s up to each of you to do the rest. It’s up to you to adapt to the changes, to attend all your classes on time. While some aspects will look different, some will remain the same as you remember them. […] After six long months, I’m thrilled that we get to welcome you back to school in this hybrid model. It’s up to you to get us the rest of the way back.”

The changes were challenging but not too bad, said sophomore Grace Bush.

"The day went well,” she said. “I was annoyed about having to wear a mask all day but it wasn’t that bad. It was challenging navigating the halls since they were made one way but since they allowed extra time between classes it made it easier. It was nice to be back in school and seeing friends and teachers in person.”

High school students attend from about 7:30 a.m. until about noon. Over at Lazar, the kids attend from about 8:45 a.m. until about 1:20 p.m. The middle schoolers now have homeroom, which they did not before. Their arrival at their homeroom and their dismissal at the end of the day is staggered in order to avoid crowding. Again, most hallways are one-way in direction. Dismissal from classes is staggered by grade to allow for ample passing time and reduce contact, and students are discouraged from walking in groups. Backpacks can be used because lockers are not being used.

With 50% attendance and a long day with no lunch, middle school must have felt a little different.

“It was good to be back in school and see other people,” Lazar seventh grader Samantha Davis said. “I felt safe the whole time. Walking through the hallways was different and a little confusing, but there was definitely enough time to figure it out. The worst part of the day was that I was starving when school ended.”

Her brother Eric, also a seventh grader, agreed that he was starving with no lunch period, but he found positives, too.

“The best part of the day was that since the classes were so small, it felt like we got individual attention,” Eric said. “I didn’t love wearing a mask all day, but it was worth it to be able to be in school with some friends.”

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