Jewish early learning centers thrive despite ongoing pandemic issues
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Child careExtra Cautious in time of COVID

Jewish early learning centers thrive despite ongoing pandemic issues

“We are essential workers and child care workers are woefully underpaid for the value they give to children and families in our country."

Community Day School Early Childhood Center student Alana Binning has incorporated masks into her artwork. Photo provided by Community Day School.
Community Day School Early Childhood Center student Alana Binning has incorporated masks into her artwork. Photo provided by Community Day School.

Children attending local Jewish early childhood programs are thriving — despite the lingering pandemic and the mitigating strategies to fight it.

“Children are resilient,” said Liza Baron, director of the Early Childhood Development Center at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh in Squirrel Hill. “Children do better with change than adults do sometimes.”

The JCC requires masks for everyone over the age of 2. While most of the children have no issues with masks, Baron said, wearing them is more challenging for younger children and those with sensory issues. So, teachers have used “really gentle encouragement,” Baron said. They explain that, by wearing masks, those attending ECDC are helping themselves and their peers stay healthy.

While all staff members and visitors over the age of 12 at the JCC must be vaccinated if they are medically able, there is an exception to the policy that applies to the ECDC: Because the center receives some government funding, parents of children enrolled there are not required to be vaccinated. Children with unvaccinated parents, however, are unable to participate in other JCC activities, like swimming or dance classes.

Masked JCC pre-kindergarten students incorporate unmasked dinosaurs into their play (maybe that’s why they went extinct?) Photo provided by Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh.

Pamela Stasolla, assistant director of Beth Shalom’s Early Learning Center, said that masks have been a way of life at the institution since it reopened in June 2020, and that children have come to accept wearing them.

“They don’t interfere with anything,” Hilary Yeckel, director of the center, said. “They don’t hinder the children at all. They’re still thriving and doing well.”

At Community Day School’s Early Childhood Program, masks are required for teachers, staff and children over the age of 2, said Andrea Erven-Victoria, head of early childhood and lower school at CDS. Frequent hand washing and sanitizing takes place throughout the day as well, she said.

One difference between CDS’ early childhood students, ages 3-5, and the rest of the school is the social distance requirement.

“We realized very quickly that you can keep eighth-graders apart all day but that’s not developmentally appropriate for 3- and 4-year-olds,” Erven-Victoria said. “So, we are not having them distance during the day while they are masked.”

Although the issue of masks and vaccinations has been polarizing at school board meetings across the country, Erven-Victoria said that hasn’t been the case with CDS’ early childhood program.

“Our families have been amazingly supportive of everything we are doing to keep their kids safe and to keep the community safe,” she said. “We have such supportive families, even when we have to call them and say, ‘You need to come and pick up your child because they have a runny nose and have sneezed.’ Whereas, in other years, we might have let them stay in school, this year we’re not, and the parents have been amazingly understanding.

“I think they’re excited to have their kids here, even if that means wearing a mask,” she added.

At Hillel Academy, the children enrolled are “pretty awesome at wearing masks,” said Ruth Pohuly, the director of Hillel’s Early Childhood Center. “We weren’t sure that was going to be the case, but they’ve done very, very well.”

Hillel’s ECC also requires parents to drop off their children outside the building, limiting the number of people inside who might pose a risk.

Parents have not complained about the school’s COVID-19 policies, according to Pohuly.

“Ultimately, they want their kids to be in school, so I think they’re wiling to do what they need to in order to make that happen,” she said. “It’s hard to find child care right now because staffing is a problem everywhere.”

Hillel is experiencing its own staffing issues, Pohuly said, but she isn’t sure if those issues are due to the pandemic.
“I think staffing in general is a nationwide problem,” she said. “I feel like last school year, everyone was happy to have a job. Now I’m not sure that’s the case, but we are working very hard to try and find the right people.”

Hillel isn’t alone in experiencing staffing woes, said Kate Louik, director of Temple Emanuel of South Hills’ Early Childhood Development Center. Like many other industries, child care centers are experiencing a drastic staffing shortage, she said, and complicating that shortage are the difficulties of operating during a pandemic.

If a teacher has a child who “gets sent home from school because they either test positive for COVID or have a classmate that tests positive for COVID, then I’ve lost a teacher for their period of quarantine,” Louik said.

Everyone on Temple Emanuel’s ECDS staff is vaccinated, Louik said, and the center has a policy of universal masking — something Louik said the students have come to embrace.

“I find that children are really responsive to the idea of being a helper,” she said. “So, when we talk to children about needing to wear their masks and needing to wear them properly, they take that very seriously and we’re proud of them for that.”

One issue most of the early learning centers have yet to wrestle with is whether they will require 5-year-olds to get vaccinated now that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved Pfizer’s COVID vaccine for children ages 5-11.
“That’s an interesting question,” Hillel’s Pohuly said. “There are no requirements for vaccinations for children at the moment. I don’t know if that’s something that is going to happen. I know a lot of people have signed their kids up for vaccines though.”

CDS, however, has already made its decision: The school will require the vaccine for children 5 and over.

While discussions in both Jewish and secular early learning centers are currently centered on the pandemic and vaccines, Louik thinks the conversation should be broader.

“COVID has really shone a light on challenges within the child care industry that have always been there, but because of the virus have been held out in stark relief,” she said. “We are essential workers and child care workers are woefully underpaid for the value they give to children and families in our country. I think it’s critical that, at this time, we galvanize the energy around protecting our child care industry and make lasting change…It could be one small glimmer of light that can come out of a really dark time.” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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