A self-help board in the main hallway at the Cicely L. Tyson School of Performing and Fine Arts in East Orange. The board was put together by teacher Ashley Carter for students, parents or teachers who need a mental health boost.

Pre-pandemic, the classrooms inside the Cicely Tyson School of Performing and Fine Arts in East Orange, New Jersey were usually bursting with music—sometimes jazz or the string orchestra or the choir. The school’s middle and high schoolers practiced harp, piano, set design or costume building, often staying past the last school bell to perfect their craft. 

But when the pandemic shut down the schools in March 2020, the campus went quiet. 

“I had kids singing Romeo and Juliet in my class, monologues and things,” ninth-grade teacher Ashley Carter said. “I missed it.”

On Wednesday, students were welcomed back in person for the first day of school, some for the first time in 18 months.

“Just like standing outside and welcoming them into the building, I get the energy of them right away,” principal John English said. “I can tell who's happy, who’s melancholy, who’s sad, who's angry and I can pull that student and then we can have a conversation.”

Students across New Jersey are filing back into classrooms this week. While schools reopened last fall and spring offering some in-person instruction, many students opted to stay remote. Governor Phil Murphy mandated all schools resume in-person instruction this year and is requiring students and staffers wear masks. Educators will also need to be vaccinated or get tested weekly and officials are encouraging schools to develop a testing plan for students. 

“We remain committed to a safe start to the school year,” Murphy said during a briefing in Trenton. “The more we all follow these guidelines, hopefully, the sooner we’ll be able to lift the masking requirement.”

But Hurricane Ida forced at least 58 schools in 13 districts back into remote learning, according to state education spokesman Michael Yaple. He said state law allows districts to offer virtual classes if they are impacted by a state of emergency, which Murphy declared as the storm battered New Jersey.

Some schools were damaged by severe flooding, like Cresskill High where every classroom was inundated in three feet of water. In other cases, schools lost power or damaged roads and bridges are blocking access to buildings. Paterson schools will start remotely for three days of virtual learning. 

Other schools, like Elizabeth, pushed back their start date by a week. 

But for administrators who deep cleaned and prepared their schools for in-person learning, they say they’re ready —and so are the students.

“We usually average about 300-400 students who are in the summer program, we had over 2,000 students come to a summer program [this year],” said East Orange Superintendent AbdulSaleem Hasan. “They wanted to socialize. They wanted to be with their peers.” 

East Orange Superintendent AbdulSaleem Hasan

Hasan said he delivered air purifiers for teachers and made sure classrooms have a hand sanitizing station and can get an extra mask if they need it. 

“We want to make sure that people feel comfortable in our facility, we make sure that students feel comfortable, that parents feel comfortable,” Hasan said. “We don't know how long this may last, but our goal is to educate our students the best way we know possible.”

East Orange has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the state with only 40% of vaccinated residents. Still, the superintendent says he hasn't received much push back from staff over the state's vax-or-test requirement for teachers, and most parents were OK with the mask mandate, too. 

Farther south, at the Jersey Shore, that’s a different conversation. Several parents in Middletown, where Murphy lives, denounced the state’s masking rules. But after much debate, the school board begrudgingly passed a mask requirement. A few parents said masks didn’t stop the spread of the virus, despite scientific evidence to the contrary. Others said their kids couldn’t breathe. 

In northern Essex County, best friends Amy Nalic and Sophie Cvetovich, both eight, are also concerned about having to wear masks all day, but for other reasons.

“It's going to be hot and also if there's a good smell, like pizza, like food, you have to kind of take it off, smell and then put it back on,” Sophie said. “I don’t really like it.”

Murphy is giving districts the option to waive mask-wearing under extreme heat. Toms River and Lacey have both opted to start the year with optional masking, citing the weather. 

Amy, who goes to school in Bloomfield, said she’s worried about what she’ll eat. “I have no idea what to pack for lunch,” she said. When her school was virtual, “I can just go to my kitchen. ‘Oh, hi, food!’”

Amy Nalic and Sophie Cvetovich, both 8, at Holsten’s in Bloomfield

One thing they’re both eager to learn: How tall everyone is. Amy says people are often shorter in real life than they appear on her screen.

Sophie, who goes to school in Montclair, agrees.  

“My teacher, she looks, like, so tall from the video screen, but then I actually see her, like she was short,” she said. 

At the splash playground in Watsessing Park in East Orange and Bloomfield, kids are running under buckets of water squirting out of plastic fish and large clams. Here, parents have different anxieties. 

Murphy isn’t giving students with special needs a remote learning option, leaving parents with a tough choice. Danielle Surprise says she’s probably going to pull her son out of his school in Newark. He has autism and can’t keep a mask on.

“I don't want him to get sick, bring it home and give the other baby COVID,” she said. 

Regina Tully said she’s sending her three children to school in Verona. She said the benefits of being in school outweighs the risks.

“It's going to be a lot for them to be in school for a whole day and I think they're going to be exhausted,” she said. “But no, it's greatly needed.”

Her kids are drenched, running between other children taking turns on the water slide. They’re surrounded by kids shrieking in joy, together, after spending so much of the previous school year alone.