Pittsburgh’s three Jewish day schools continue to navigate the challenges of in-person instruction amid rising COVID-19 cases in Allegheny County.
On Nov. 25, third-graders at Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh returned to in-person instruction after 12 days of virtual learning following a COVID-19 exposure. One day prior, students from Hillel Academy’s seventh grade returned to in-person learning after a similar exposure.
“At-home learning was required for students after four members of a family tested positive for COVID-19,” said Rabbi Sam Weinberg, Hillel Academy’s principal. “This caused us to shut down three different pods. Fortunately, due to our podding system, where students from different grades are separated from each other, we were able to contact trace and only send a small percentage of the school’s student body home.”
Since the pandemic’s onset, Hillel Academy, like Community Day School and Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh, has worked with medical advisors to adopt procedures regarding COVID-19.
Having spent countless hours revising plans to support safe in-person instruction, Weinberg, said he was pleased the procedures operated as intended.
“Our health and safety systems worked and no additional students reported any symptoms during the two-week quarantine,” he said.
On Sept. 17, CDS closed its campus early after learning an individual had tested positive for COVID-19.
“At the time, we were unable, from a personnel standpoint, to keep our classrooms open for a period of time, so we shifted online,” said Jennifer Bails, CDS’ director of marketing.
Since then, CDS has returned to in-person instruction and although there have been additional COVID-19 cases in the community, they “haven’t impacted school operations due to their timing relative to when we were on campus at the school,” added Bails.
Since the start of this school year, Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh has had no confirmed cases of COVID-19 among its employees and students, Rabbi Yossi Rosenblum, Yeshiva Schools’ CEO, told the Chronicle last week. As numbers of COVID-19 cases rise in Allegheny County, though, “we are tightening things up,” he said.
New measures at Yeshiva Schools include a restriction against welcoming guests on Shabbat, quarantine requirements for travel and the dismissal of students from school who are unable to appropriately wear masks, said Rosenblum.
Nearly 1,000 students attend Pittsburgh’s three Jewish day schools. Inside CDS, Hillel Academy and Yeshiva Schools, scores of administrators, teachers, staff and volunteers recognize that COVID-19 cases are rising in Allegheny County — on Nov. 27, 1,642 new cases were reported in Allegheny County from the previous two days — but are tirelessly working to keep in-person instruction going. Daily meetings are dedicated to updating risk mitigation strategies. Technological equipment and other supplies, like plexiglass dividers between desks, were purchased in bulk so students can continue learning in school. All the while, teachers are constantly adapting.
The efforts are “herculean,” said Rosenblum.
“Finding a way to charismatically teach, while wearing a mask and remaining distanced, isn’t easy,” said Weinberg. Couple that with the prep needed to deliver online instruction — each of the day schools has students who engage in remote learning — and teachers are “doing double the work.”
“Throughout this process our teachers have been nothing less than superheroes,” said Bails. “They have managed to do their jobs under incredibly challenging circumstances and rise to the occasion with extraordinary grace and passion.”
Still, none of the day school representatives were certain how much longer their institutions would remain open given the rising number of COVID-19 cases in Allegheny County.
Staying open is the goal, but it’s a daily discussion, said Rosenblum.
“What we’ve found is that once you close it becomes harder to open back up,” he said. “Our students are finally in a rhythm, and unless we need to break that rhythm and shut down, we won’t.”
Following Thanksgiving break, CDS students in kindergarten to eighth grade will attend school virtually until at least Dec. 7. As for whether in-person instruction will resume after that, staff and parents have been promised a decision will be made by Dec. 3, said Bails.
Students from Hillel Academy’s Boys High School will also attend school virtually between Nov. 30 and Dec. 4, due to an exposure.
While remaining open isn’t easy — requiring daily health checks, reconfiguring learning environments for social distancing, constant meetings with medical professionals, buy-in and compliance from staff and families, as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenses — leaders of all three schools want to see it work.
“It is undeniable that the social and emotional benefit to children of being in school with their teachers and peers cannot be achieved fully in a remote learning setting,” said Bails.
“Although we were quite successful with online learning in the spring, it doesn’t compare,” agreed Rosenblum.
Prior to the start of this school year, the American Academy of Pediatrics reiterated its support of in-person instruction, citing “evidence of the negative impacts on children” due to school closures in the spring of 2020.
“Lengthy time away from school and associated interruption of supportive services often results in social isolation, making it difficult for schools to identify and address important learning deficits as well as child and adolescent physical or sexual abuse, substance use, depression and suicidal ideation,” noted the professional association.
Children who are away from school are less physically active, engage in longer periods of screen time, experience irregular sleep patterns and undertake worse diets, according to a March 2020 article in The Lancet. The psychological effects, due to frustration, boredom, lack of in-person contact with peers and educators and reduced personal space at home, can have lasting effects.
Following a state-imposed closure of schools last March, students at Pittsburgh’s three Jewish day schools completed the year online.
Students remember what it was like having school on Zoom, said Rosenblum. “They are afraid of being isolated and looking at a screen. They still want to be in school and see friends. Learning is a social thing.”
Many parents are likewise troubled by the possibility of returning to remote learning. Managing each child’s schedule and assignments, in light of inevitable technological challenges, can be “totally overwhelming,” said Rosenblum. “The overwhelming majority of our parents are asking us to stay open for the sanity of the family.”
Whatever the immediate future holds, leaders of the three schools are proud of the efforts of their staff to maintain in-person instruction safely.
Teachers had to become “proficient in new technologies on the fly and to take on greater responsibility during a demanding time,” said Weinberg. “Teachers are covering for teachers who have to be out. Administrators are stepping in and covering classes.”
The rewards of educating the next generation of Jewish leaders in an immersive Jewish environment has been well worth the effort, Bails said.
“The fact that so many people are committed to ensuring that Pittsburgh’s Jewish day schools continue in the face of such tremendous odds is extraordinary,” she added. “This requires a tremendous investment and really shows the amount of human capital that exists in the Pittsburgh Jewish community and its commitment to Jewish education.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.