With the start of the school year quickly approaching, administrators at Pittsburgh’s three Jewish day schools are optimistic about the months ahead. Following a 2020-21 academic year largely dictated by evolving COVID-19 concerns, school officials are keeping abreast of new pandemic mandates while preparing for an educational experience that, they hope, will be more akin to pre-pandemic days.
As of Aug. 3, Community Day School had not released its COVID-19 plan for the school year, which begins on Aug. 24. Jennifer Bails, CDS’ director of marketing, said administrators were continuing to examine the COVID mitigation strategies that were effective last year, including podding and distancing.
“We were successfully able to have in-person school from August to June with very limited interruptions,” Bails said.
Last year, CDS students were divided into pods, or cohorts. They will be podded again this year, but more children will be included in each group in order to increase opportunities for academic and social-emotional growth, Bails said.
CDS, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary this year, will continue to prioritize outdoor eating, with students sitting 6 feet apart. If the weather is too cold, or inclement conditions arise, Bails said, kids will eat indoors, but always with 6 feet between them.
Where distancing requirements will change, she explained, is during non-eating times: Instead of students and staff keeping 6 feet apart as they did last year, that distance will be decreased to 3 feet.
Mask wearing remains required for all students and staff regardless of vaccination status, and Bails said that 100% of CDS staff are vaccinated. Moving forward, vaccination will be required for all new employees.
Bails believes that, as they have not asked as many questions about CDS’ COVID-19 strategies as they had at this time last year, parents are confident in CDS’ ability to protect students and staff.
“I think families really trust us to keep their children safe and healthy,” she said. “We take that responsibility very strongly and will do whatever it takes to uphold that.”
Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh parents are also asking fewer questions about COVID-19 this year, according to the school’s principal, Rabbi Sam Weinberg, who believes the 2020-21 school year and the recent sessions of Camp Hillel gave parents an appreciation of the school’s seriousness with regard to health and safety.
Although Hillel Academy has not finalized its newest COVID-19 plan as of Aug. 2, school officials were continuing to evaluate its past practices. For example, the safety protocols for Camp Hillel, which concluded July 30, were very successful, according to Weinberg, allowing more than 220 campers to “engage socially and have an enriching summer experience.”
As Hillel Academy heads into the fall, he said, “we’re looking to build on that.”
One means of doing so will be the return of the Sherut Leumi program. As part of the annual program, operated in partnership with the Israeli government, two Israelis between the ages of 17 and 24 come to Hillel Academy for a year of service. But due to the pandemic, the school was unable to run the program last year. Sherut Leumi is primarily — but not exclusively — comprised of women, or Bnot Sherut.
“Their presence was sorely missed,” said Weinberg. “Students of every grade really enjoy working with and befriending the Bnot Sherut. We’re excited that they’ll be able to instill in our students a love of Israel.”
Hillel Academy’s early childhood program begins on Aug. 16, and kindergarten through high school students will return to class on Aug. 30.
Weinberg said the school is continuing to monitor CDC recommendations when it comes to masking, and that as of now Hillel Academy does not have a mandatory vaccination policy for its employees.
Rabbi Yossi Rosenblum, CEO of Yeshiva Schools, said Yeshiva is “strongly encouraging but not mandating” vaccinations for those who are eligible. As for masking, “we’re waiting to hear instructions from the various organizations, after which … we will react and respond accordingly.” Yeshiva Schools officially begins Aug. 26.
Yeshiva staff has worked closely with its medical advisory team since the start of the pandemic and will continue doing so throughout the school year. For now, the big question is what to do about the school’s upcoming dinner. Scheduled for Aug. 24, the in-person event, with a digital option, is expected to draw 300-350 people.
Rosenblum noted that considerations regarding the dinner are different from those pertaining to school.
“The dinner is all adults, and just about all of them are vaccinated,” he said.
Even so, he and the medical advisory team are monitoring CDC recommendations and COVID-19 counts in Allegheny County.
The pandemic, Rosenblum said, has included many iterations, which he expects to continue.
One welcome change, he noted, was that last week Yeshiva held its first in-person board meeting in nearly a year-and-a-half to discuss the school’s operational plan, finances and student care.
Speaking of student care, Rosenblum was excited to share that, as part of its strategic plan, Yeshiva is continuing to develop its wellness division. As part of that initiative, employees are being trained in trauma sensitivity, and the school is implementing a new curriculum regarding social-emotional learning as well as a schoolwide classroom-management program.
“We’ve always kept our eye on how to move forward, on how to build and revitalize,” he said.
“We’ve tried very hard not just to react to COVID, which of course we did, but to think about the future.”
He said that was one reason why it was important for Yeshiva to go ahead with the purchase of the St. Rosalia site in Greenfield. Although Yeshiva closed on the property July 19, students and staff won’t begin using the space until the 2022-23 school year.
Rosenblum said he’s optimistic about the days ahead despite a constantly evolving pandemic.
“Last year we were clearly set up for a COVID year,” he said. And, he added, while acknowledging that conditions could change at any moment, “we’re hopeful it will be a much more regular year for the kids.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.