Leaders from the area’s three Jewish day schools are gearing up for the start of a new year, but if the past four months have offered any lesson, it’s that the unpredictable should largely be expected.
Community Day School is scheduled to begin August 25. The intention, according to Head of School Avi Baran Munro, is to be on campus from day one, with a full virtual option for families who elect it.
In order to bring students and staff safely back, task forces dedicated to campus reopening, as well as academic continuity, social/emotional well-being and financial/business strategies, have met weekly by video conference since early June.
Smaller working groups also have met “on a daily basis as projects demand, largely through online meetings or on campus as needed while maintaining social distancing and wearing face
coverings,” said Munro.
Members of the task forces and working groups have partnered with medical, governmental and educational experts, including the Pennsylvania Department of Education, Pennsylvania
Department of Health, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to determine best practices and to help shape Community Day School’s reopening plan.
That plan, a 23-page document titled “Kadima” (Hebrew for “forward” or “let’s go”), covers response trees, staff training, hygiene, masks and face coverings, meals, sports, arrival and dismissal as well as other aspects of school life. The plan was shared with parents on July 15.
One challenge in developing a comprehensive plan is that “no one knows with certainty what the fall will bring in terms of this pandemic,” noted Munro. “We continue to monitor local conditions carefully and plan for different scenarios.”
While the state and CDC guidelines “for K-12 schools have been largely consistent since we began this planning process, what keeps changing is the risk of COVID-19 transmission in our community,” she added.
As of July 16, there have been 5,750 confirmed cases and 205 deaths related to COVID-19 in Allegheny County, according to the Allegheny County Health Department.
Given the numbers, and the current situation, “the easiest decision to make would be to say we are not opening and committing to virtual school, but we don’t want to do that,” said Rabbi Sam Weinberg, Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh’s principal. “We want to do our best to reopen and stay as safe as possible.”
Weinberg cited a recent statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics and national educators on the value of returning to school.
“We recognize that children learn best when physically present in the classroom. But children get much more than academics at school. They also learn social and emotional skills at school, get healthy meals and exercise, mental health support and other services that cannot be easily replicated online,” noted The American Academy of Pediatrics, American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association and AASA, The School Superintendents Association, in the July 10 statement. As beneficial as in-person learning is, however, “we must pursue re-opening in a way that is safe for all students, teachers and staff,” continued the groups. “We should leave it to health experts to tell us when the time is best to open up school buildings, and listen to educators and administrators to shape how we do it.”
At Hillel Academy, a reopening task force, consisting of administrators, members of the school’s executive board and medical professionals, has met twice a week since June, said Weinberg, and while discussions concerned the school’s August 31 start date, there also were more immediate matters to address.
“We’ve been running day care all summer,” said Weinberg. Between the 50 children in day care and the nearly 90 children in Hillel Academy’s camp, “we have almost 140 kids in our care.”
Having that number of students spread out between three local buildings — two buildings on Hillel Academy’s campus, and in Congregation Poale Zedeck — has introduced children, families and staff to the concept of “podding” and provided a “soft opening of sorts” for the fall, he explained.
By podding students, the goal is to limit contact within groups as much as possible and thereby restrict possible transmission in the event that someone is found to be COVID-positive, according to Weinberg.
Hillel Academy is also in the process of building four new outdoor learning spaces. Complete with chairs, desks and tables, the new venues will provide sun shade while also allowing “for the most outdoor learning and outdoor time as possible,” Weinberg said.
Community Day School and Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh are also considering using outdoor spaces as venues for learning. But there are a number of logistical matters to determine, such as the relocation of materials and books, and actually setting up the space, said Rabbi Yossi Rosenblum, head of school for Yeshiva Schools.
In addition to possibly utilizing tents outside Yeshiva’s Girls School on Denniston Street, “we’ve visited alternative sites” that offer indoor areas as well, said Rosenblum.
Yeshiva Schools is scheduled to begin on August 27. The school is currently finalizing a reopening plan it intends to share with parents by the beginning of August, according to Rosenblum. The document, which was started approximately four weeks ago with the help of a task force consisting of administrators and medical and legal experts, identifies 30 areas of school life, and raises a host of questions, such as “What changes might need to be made to the arrival and dismissal procedures?” and “Are there any reasons to shorten the daily schedule?”
In working through the numerous issues surrounding the start of school, Rosenblum and the task force have relied on a group of 15 parents to “serve as a sounding board,” and will host, in the upcoming week, digital get-togethers for faculty and the parent body so that everyone can be on board with potential plans, said the head of school.
While Yeshiva, like Community Day School and Hillel Academy, would prefer to begin the year with in-person instruction, its 10-page plan lays out three scenarios for the start of school: school begins in-person and then moves online; school begins online then transitions to in-person; and finally, school exists solely online.
“Our goal is to have three plans where we can seamlessly move from one to another based on the guidelines of the government, the health department and the CDC,” said Rosenblum, but as simple as it sounds to move between options, the current situation is anything but basic.
“What we’re being asked to do is make decisions without a lot of information and to be able to shift from one to another,” he said. The situation calls on everyone to make a decision based on “whatever information you have at a given moment.”
At Yeshiva, Rosenblum said, “we’re trying to empower our administrators and staff to use the best information you have at a given time, and to think about the most important things, which are safety and health,” and all the while, “keep spirits up.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.