Beth Goldstein is comfortable sending her daughter Hannah this fall to early education at Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh, despite whatever challenges COVID-19 may pose to the school.
Goldstein said she came to that conclusion carefully, after seeing the work Hillel did to achieve social distancing and student safety during its summer camp.
“I think it’s a really tough time to be a parent because I think you’re going to get criticism no matter what you do and I think the schools are going to get criticism no matter what they do,” said Goldstein, a Squirrel Hill resident and business owner. “But I feel very safe sending my three-year-old to school.”
Goldstein is not alone. New surveys from Pittsburgh’s three Jewish day schools indicate the vast majority of parents are resolved to send their children to brick-and-mortar schools this semester.
Both Community Day School and Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh reported 70% of parents expressed a preference for live, in-person instruction this school year – and the percentage of parents wanting in-person instruction at Hillel was even higher.
“Most people, like 98%, are interested in live instruction,” Rabbi Sam Weinberg, Hillel’s principal, told the Chronicle. “Only about four families have inquired about virtual learning.”
At Community Day School, 70% are opting for live instruction, while 15% want virtual learning and the remainder are undecided, school officials said. At Yeshiva Schools, 70% want live instruction and only 5% want virtual learning, with the remainder undecided.
Community Day School officials said they feel safe entering the school year in person and on their Squirrel Hill campus.
“Using COVID capacity planning tools made available to schools, we realized early on how blessed we are to have two large buildings, seven acres of land, and the low student-teacher ratio necessary to have all of our students on campus and still be well within state and CDC guidance—that is to give children the classroom spaces they need to learn effectively while maintaining physical distancing,” said Jennifer Bails, director of marketing and communications for CDS. “We are also offering a virtual learning option flexibly to every student throughout the year for health reasons or if families decide they are simply more comfortable with an online learning environment.”
Some families with children enrolled at Yeshiva Schools told school officials the virtual programming implemented last spring wasn’t sustainable as many parents need to work, said Rabbi Yisroel Rosenfeld, dean of Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh.
“I think some parents feel the virtual option, though it was OK, was not a long-term plan,” Rosenfeld said. “I think they believe we have set up a plan to the best of our ability.”
Hillel officials also said that parents have been comforted by measures administrators have taken in the COVID-19 era, such as shutting down cafeteria operations and making sure each student packs their own lunch or setting up alternate entrances and exits. They admit, however, that circumstances on the ground still can change between now and the first day of school.
“For a lot of people, it’s still early,” Weinberg said. “A lot of people are going to see how things are [in terms of COVID-19 cases] in the city and county.”
The pandemic doesn’t seem to be driving many families away from the Jewish day schools. Community Day School has few concerns with retention from the 2019-20 academic year, according to school officials.
“As in recent years, our retention rate has been incredibly strong, with only a few families opting to send their children to different schools in the Pittsburgh area and several moving back home to Israel,” Bails said. “With our current plans to open full-time for in-person instruction and the success of our widely praised spring online learning program, we have had many inquiries from public school families who are now interested in CDS.” Officials from the other two day schools echoed that sentiment.
Last week, the Pittsburgh Public School Board voted in favor of online-only classes during the first nine weeks of school, beginning Aug. 26.
Leaders of Pittsburgh’s three Jewish day schools agree the situation remains highly fluid – and there’s no telling what decisions they might be pressed to make between now and the start of school.
“’How to Handle A Global Pandemic’ was not a class I took in principal school,” laughed Weinberg, from Hillel Academy. “This is all total craziness that no one is prepared for.” PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.