Hillel Academy is the latest school hit with a wave of COVID-19 cases that has swept through Pittsburgh’s Jewish community since Thanksgiving, school officials told the Chronicle this week.
Rabbi Sam Weinberg, Hillel’s principal, declined to provide specific COVID case numbers to the Chronicle, citing student privacy, but acknowledged that cases were totaling in the dozens. Most of the cases were reported among students under 5 years old, who are not eligible for the vaccination, he added.
Dozens more COVID cases were reported in recent weeks at Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh, and the Early Childhood Development Center at Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh. Of the city’s three Jewish day schools, only Community Day School in Squirrel Hill seems to have evaded the uptick in cases. That K-8 school, which also offers pre-kindergarten education, had one positive COVID case in November and officials there are not aware of any new cases among its students or staff, CDS spokesperson Jennifer Bails said.
Though both Yeshiva Schools and the JCC’s preschool closed for several days in November due to the swell in cases, Weinberg stressed that Hillel is staying open.
“We think we have it under control — I think we have it very well contained,” Weinberg told the Chronicle. “Our priority is maintaining in-person education. We want to keep the school open in a healthy way.”
Shayna Wolfe, Hillel’s school nurse, said staff and students have been fighting back against the spread of COVID by wearing masks and maintaining social distancing, as well as doing regular pooled testing of students and mandating that children eat snacks outside. Pooled testing started at Hillel at the beginning of the current academic year, Weinberg said.
Only Hillel students who receive a negative COVID test this weekend will be allowed to return to class on Monday, Wolfe told the Chronicle. All students were tested at Hillel earlier this week.
Wolfe also declined to provide specific case numbers.
Rabbi Yossi Rosenblum, CEO of Yeshiva Schools, said positive COVID cases at Yeshiva were “definitely in the tens of people – 20, 30, 40,” though, he said he could not cite specific numbers. Three weeks ago, the boys and girls schools closed for four days due to the outbreak but things since have calmed down, he said.
“We are almost at full capacity presently,” Rosenblum said. “We probably have only a handful [of cases], two or three.”
Community Day School experienced a positive result from recent pooled testing of consenting students. Rapid antigen testing that followed, however, all returned negative results, according to Bails.
“It’s either a false positive or the case of a tail-end of an infection,” she said.
At the JCC, seven children in one preschool classroom and three staff educators tested positive, with results coming in around Nov. 22, said Fara Marcus, division director of development and strategic marketing at the JCC.
The JCC responded by closing parts — but not all — of its Early Childhood Development Center.This week, the JCC preschool operation was fully open, Marcus said. “Health and safety are our top priorities,” she added.
The Allegheny County Health Department on Thursday reported 653 new COVID cases within the county’s borders, 589 of which were confirmed cases.
Of the 653 positive cases, 163 were children and teens under age 18, according to statistics the health department released.
Amie Downs, a spokeswoman for the county, told the Chronicle Thursday that officials would not report the number of cases at specific schools or facilities, fearing they would identify individuals.
Since March 14, 2020, there have been 151,539 cases of COVID among Allegheny County residents, 9,343 hospitalizations and 2,463 deaths, the county health department reported.
Beth Goldstein is the parent of a toddler who attends the JCC and previously attended Hillel Academy. She heard about the outbreak in cases “just before Thanksgiving.”
“[The JCC] is being very transparent about cases,” she told the Chronicle. “As a parent, I feel very safe.”
Goldstein’s child missed three days of school due to the partial closure, she said. But she still has nothing but kind words for both JCC and Hillel.
“I think both schools have done a great job handling this,” she said. PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.