Flexibility and hope: Local yeshiva day schools plan to reopen

It’s never been an issue before, certainly not in living memory.

But none of us has lived through a pandemic. We’ve never had to worry about our children getting covid-19, an infectious disease that until recently seemed definitely not to attack children very often, but a disease for which there is no cure. We haven’t had to worry about teachers and other school staff members getting it, and we haven’t had to worry about kids bringing the disease back home and infecting their families.

We’ve never had to worry about safety in this way before.

With new worries, there are new questions.

Should our children go back to school? Can they go back to school? If they do go back to school, what will school look like?

How do we do this?

Every region, city, state, county, township, and village — every school district — has to come up with its own answer to that question, based on local conditions and government guidance. Private school leaders have to make their own decisions too, always in compliance with government mandates but governed as well by their own conditions, geography, resources, and demographics.

Leaders of local yeshiva day schools have decided to reopen their institutions, at least as of this writing; conditions can change rapidly, and so would those decisions, but that’s the plan right now. Here, we talk to leaders of some of those schools. Most are in Bergen County; one is in Rockland. Most are Orthodox; one, the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County, is Conservative.

The heads of school have an informal group, where they share plans, dilemmas, and solutions. A medical committee is bringing its expertise to bear on decisions. The schools at times can be competitive with each other, but the feeling of fellowship and community has superseded any other emotion now. Most of the Bergen County schools will follow the same outline as they reopen; individual adjustments will take into consideration each school’s physical layout, both inside and out, as well as the particular make-up of its student body.

They will institute temperature checks and require families to fill out checklists about the family’s health on their electronic devices on the way to school.

They will put cameras in every classroom so that any students who have to stay home — and they will be required to stay home should they feel even mildly sick — can participate in the class.

They all know that flexibility is absolutely necessary, and that their careful plans might be upended by changes in the scientific understanding of the virus or by spikes in the infection rate.

Each school will ask that all but its early childhood students wear masks most of the time; each will make use of its outdoor space as much as possible. The Bergen County schools will use Plexiglas dividers, although the use depends on the school and its size and configuration. Each school has updated its heating and air conditioning systems to bring them into compliance with CDC specifications. And most of them are planning to open early.

“Our guiding principles first and foremost are to think about everybody’s health,” Rabbi Jonathan Knapp said. Rabbi Knapp is the principal and head of school at the pre-K-through-middle-school Yavneh Academy in Paramus, but here he’s talking not only about Yavneh but about all the schools. He defined “everybody” as “the school community — the children, the parents, the faculty — and then the broader Jewish community and the broader collective community.” Everyone, that is. “It is important for us to be responsible neighbors,” he said.

The school will open the week before Labor Day, instead of the week after, as its original plan dictated, for “two reasons. First, we realized that children will not have been in school for six months. That first week will be very carefully constructed to welcome the children back to school in a thoughtful, sensitive fashion, that allows them to re-acclimated, and to get used to some of the new policies that we are putting into place.

“And the second reason is that while we remain hopeful, the chance remains that we might have to resort back to distance learning. To that end, the more the teachers and the students get to know each other, the more successful we will be if we have to go back to distance learning.”

Yavneh is dividing its classes so that they’re smaller than they used to be — on average, they’ll be from 16 to 18 students — and the school is installing tents. “We were able to borrow tents and tables from some summer camps,” Rabbi Knapp said. “That will allow us to rotate classes outside, and to give more opportunities for outdoor lunchtimes.” Experts have told us that covid-19 is less contagious in open air.

The classrooms have been reconfigured so that desks are six feet apart, and spaces that had once been public have been turned into classrooms. All this can be undone once the pandemic is over, Rabbi Knapp said.

The youngest children will not wear masks, and they do not have desks. “That is not what early childhood education looks like,” Rabbi Knapp said. In Yavneh’s plans, based on the advice from the American Academy of Pediatrics, “The 4-year-olds are going to move around the room. That is how they learn. They will continue to do that, and they will have a lot of outdoor playtime. That’s always a healthy part of the early childhood program anyway. There will be some modifications to their curriculum, but it will look a lot like the regular early childhood program.”

What does he think the long-term effects might be? “There are a couple of things that are important,” he said. “There has to be a reason why we are doing this, why we are opening the school. We know that there is some inherent risk. A doctor who was talking about this said that the safest way to run an ER” — an emergency room — “would be to close the ER.” No blood, no germs, no risk. “But then there is no ER!

“We have to be aware that there is an inherent risk in everything. We are taking every opportunity to limit the risk, while realizing that no one can eliminate it.

“Children are very resilient,” he continued, striking a theme that most of the educators mention. “Children have proven their resilience to us time and again. But for younger children, these are critical years for development. We are reopening school in a socially responsible way because we believe that children need to be in school.”

Steve Freedman is the head of school at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford, which runs from kindergarten through middle school. He and the school’s staff worked on reopening plans all summer; “We were going to mandate masks even before the governor caught up to us,” he said. “Our teachers have been engaged in professional development over the summer, to become even more adept at different kinds of digital education platforms. That way, teachers can pivot easily between being in class and virtually.” When this started, back in March, the technology was brand new to just about everyone; by now, teachers have developed some expertise. They know their way around the platforms.

“We are offering an alternative, so that families whose children can’t come back because of a health issue, either the child’s or in the family, will be able to learn from home.” Classes will be livestreamed, and “a child learning from home will be able to sign in and participate,” Mr. Freedman said.

Schechter is dividing its students into pods, with approximately 14 students per pod, and it’s added another teacher for each grade. “The pods will stay together all day, with no mixing,” Mr. Freedman said. “The doctors have told us that it is not that complicated. You wear masks and you wash your hands. Every child will have their own fanny pack and personal hand sanitizer, and they will be able to manage their masks.”

The school has rented six tents, which it plans to use at least until winter break. “They’re not heated — they’re big — but the forecast is for a warm autumn,” Mr. Freedman said. “I told the parents their kids should wear sweaters and sweatshirts.”

Schechter also plans to hire college students, who normally would be at school but have been marooned at home, taking online classes. “We hope they can assist the teachers with lunch and recess. And we’ll set up a space at school for them, so that if they have to jump onto a Zoom class during the day they can do it.

Long-term, he thinks the kids will be fine, Mr. Freedman said. “They’re resilient. I think that often we understate their ability to understand and rise to the occasion. A lot of the resilience is directly related to the way that the adult world around them responds; if they respond with reassurance and love and role modeling, the children will benefit. I think that our community has been great, and that in general Jewish days schools have done a disproportionately good job at this.

“This is something that the children will tell their grandchildren about. I don’t want to minimize it — it’s really challenging, and really hard, but by and large, thank God, our children are safe, and they have what they need to get through this. And what they don’t have, the Jewish community generally is terrific at getting them. We are bending over backward to make sure that no family has to struggle to keep their kids in school.

“I am long-term optimistic about the kids. They are going to learn. Their social and emotional health is our priority, and we are helping our parents with that.”

Rabbi Saul Zucker is the head of school at Ben Porat Yosef in Paramus, which goes from nursery school to middle school.

“We plan to open fully in person,” Rabbi Zucker said. “We are opening on August 31, which was our original planned opening date. We were going to open early anyway, even before covid, because Labor Day is late this year, and we wanted more time before Rosh Hashanah. Now, there was an even greater impetus to open early.”

The school has arranged desks three feet apart; students will wear masks at all times, the teachers will wear masks and face shields, and “according to the American Association of Pediatrics’ recommendations, every single desk in the school will have a Plexiglas shield around it.”

What are Rabbi Zucker’s primary concerns? “Everyone always expects me to say excellence in education, particularly before covid, but that is the second concern. The first is health, and the well-being of everyone in the community. We are taking everything very seriously — we always were, and we will continue to be vigilant about health issues and concerns. We view this as a social contract, where everybody has to look out for everyone else.”

Ben Porat Yosef students will be in pods. “The purpose is twofold,” Rabbi Zucker said. “To contain the potential for any viral spread, and to be able to trace.”

What does he think the long-term effects will be? “I am concerned that there are long-term effects on the medical side that we don’t fully understand or appreciate,” he said. “And as an educator, I can tell you that there are going to be some effects on an academic level, but that can be made up. We have developed a system for assessment to see if students are lagging behind where their normal academic progression and development would be, and we will focus on them.” But that’s not his main worry. Social and emotional development are. “Students have not been in school for close to six months now. We have heavily integrated the program with social and emotional components, both for parents and for students. We have done some of it over the summer, working with parents online. The opening months of school are replete with social and emotional programs, as students sit with Plexiglas and masks.

“We have a lot of space, both indoors and outdoors,” Rabbi Zucker continued. Recess will be outside whenever possible; “We have scheduled mask breaks, with safety protocols.

“This is a teachable moment. The message to everybody, especially young children, is that you can be a hero by helping other people. Wearing a mask is covering your own face, and it is also a sign to everyone outside that you care about them. That is a message we are going to emphasize.

“We are all in this together,” he concluded. “There’s an old expression, that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. That is really true. Everybody — in the schools, the shuls, the streets, the stores — is counting on everybody. We’re all doing whatever we can to make sure that everything is really contained.

“The only way for us to emerge from this, with God’s help, will be if we all work together.”

Tikvah Wiener is the head of school at the Idea School, which meets at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly. It’s a high school, and it’s new; in its third year now, it has about 50 students in ninth, tenth, and eleventh grades. 

“We are looking at our whole school as a cohort,” Ms. Wiener said. “It’s not as free as pod, where you don’t have to socially distance, and when we are inside we have to wear masks at all times.” Following the JCC’s lead, she’s replacing the term “socially distant” with “physically distant,” which is both more accurate and less grim. You can stay six feet apart and still be socially and emotionally close.

“We will have a shorter day, from 8:30 to 3:30, for two reasons,” she continued. “We understand that it is challenging for the students to wear masks all day, although we will go outside and have mask breaks. But we are still going to have a lot of indoor learning, though, and we understand the toll of not jostling in the hall, not lounging in the building, of the rigidity and hyperawareness. The shorter day will temper that.

“We’re very lucky to be at the JCC,” she said. “That always has been true; it provides us with a nice number of outdoor spaces,” covered areas and wilder ones. Now, though, “they have provided us with a separate entrance into the building, and until 3:30, when the music classes start, we will be all alone in our space. It keeps our community health, and it keeps the JCC community healthy.”

Because the school offers project-based learning, it’s always used online platforms for both synchronous and asynchronous learning. “We feel fortunate in our model because we can adapt to this hybrid situation, where we might be in person sometimes and online sometimes. It provides a seamless flow between these two learning situations.”

Having to work only from home in the spring “was a surprise,” but now the chance to use digital space effectively is not. “Now we can plan more,” Ms. Wiener said.

The Idea School is starting early. “Because of our small size, we can have all the students in school five days a week” — not all high schools can do that — “and we want to maximize that for as long as possible,” she said. “By starting early, we can build the culture and have the students get used to our style of learning as quickly as possible.

“Also, the students are starving to be with each other. They need connection. They need warmth. We want to enable that as much as possible.

What might the long-term effects of this be? “That’s an impossible question,” she said. “I have no idea.”

CB Neugroschl of Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck is facing an even bigger challenge than most of her peers. This is her first year as head of school at Ma’ayanot. But she is undaunted.

Beside everything else, she is no newer to confronting an ongoing pandemic than her peers are. “This is an area that no one has expertise in,” she said. “There is no playbook for this. I told my faculty that there is no experience that I have had in my life that has prepared me for this moment.

But although it is a challenge, it is not all negative, Ms. Neugroschl said. “It has extraordinary potential. One of the most extraordinary pieces has been the collaboration and the collegiality, and the sense that we all are stakeholders in this. For a new principal, it would have been very normal for the Ma’ayanot faculty to ask ‘What is CB Neugroschl bringing to the table?’ And of course that was the conversation that we had about a year ago. But now everyone is an owner in this process. Everyone knows that they have to bring all their creativity and compassion.

“Those are the two words that are in play all the time. Creativity and compassion. Creativity — how do we do this differently? And compassion — how do we take care of each other? How do we really recognize that this school year isn’t just about getting the students safely into the building, but it’s about community-building? We are all bringing the last few months with us.

“What is existing in Ma’ayanot, beyond the custom signage about social distancing and the masks, is how our program is shifting to respond to our students’ and families’ new needs. We have spent a lot of time reshaping our social and emotional learning.”

Because the students will have to stay within the confines of their own grade, making that rather than the larger school their immediate community, “we wanted to build a sense of community. We didn’t want to just wait for it to happen. We don’t want kids just coming in masked and socially distant so they can have math and history classes. Those math and history classes will become their home. We are building a weekly grade community class into their weekly schedule, so we know that every week a group of faculty and this grade will spend a lot of time together, whether they’re bonding or having fun or discussing what’s going on in their lives.”

Like most of the other yeshiva high schools, each grade at Ma’ayanot will come to school four days a week, not five. That fifth day will be spent on remote learning. And like most of the other schools, Ma’ayanot will start the school year early.

Part of the school’s planning process is logistical, and part is theoretical and aspirational.

“We have spent weeks deciding how many desks we can have and marking them off with yardsticks, and we also are having the conversation of how we will take care of each other,” Ms. Neugroschl said. “How we will make sure that the growth that happens when you feel safe and can connect to each other will happen.”

What does she think the long-term effects will be? Ms. Neugroschl hesitated. “I am not a prophet, but what I firmly believe is in spite of our natural instincts to reminisce and be nostalgic for what was, things will not be the same again.

“From the educational and institutional perspective, this has forced all of us to re-examine and re-imagine our core dictates. We have had to peel away the extras to see what is at our core. This has forced our schools and shuls and communities to rethink and reshape, and I hope that it pushes us and inspires us to deliver a little bit differently when corona passes.

“For me, it is about taking care of the full well-being of our school community. When I talk about holistic education, people think that I am talking about integrating humanities and science and extracurriculars, but I don’t think in those terms. Those are components of holistic education.

“What it really means is meeting your students where they are, and giving them a path for growth, no matter what it involves. That’s the whole picture — social, emotional, families, religious identities, struggles, doubts, questions, arts, sciences, math — that is all part of who they are.

“Education needs to be rigorous, and to give them the tools they need to be in the world, but the mix between the concrete building blocks and the culture and the matrix and the environment and the relationships — that’s the part that’s unique and special about each school.

“There is a reason why we are doing it this way instead of the way we were were doing it last year,” Ms. Neugroschl said. “We all have to do things differently now.” And maybe some of those different things, even though they were born of miserable necessity, will end up being better than what they replaced.

Rabbi Aaron Fink is the dean of Ateres Beis Yaakov, a girls’ school, from kindergarten through 12th grade, in New Hempstead.

“We are re-opening,” Rabbi Fink said. “We have studied the guidelines put forth by Governor Cuomo, and we are implementing them in a way that lets our students have a normal set-up for school.” Like most of the Bergen County schools, Ateres is opening a week early, “to get a head start on face-to-face learning.

“We are installing desktop plastic barriers for each student,” he said. Each will be three-sided; the sides go back a few inches behind each student, and the back is open. It’s a clear plastic barrier, not made of Plexiglas because that’s not allowed according to New York State law. “So when students are at their desk they can learn without a mask and without any additional social distancing,” Rabbi Fink said. “Each student is in her own cubicle, and the teacher can see them all. They can also raise their hands to participate. When they are out of their seats, they need to wear a mask or a face shield, and the same is true for their teachers.”

Teachers who cannot return to school for health reasons can teach over Zoom — there are only a few such teachers, and one in the lower grades. “Each class will be its own cohort, and we hope that they will be able to be maskless, but the state hasn’t given us a green light for that yet. Each class has about 22 students, and there is a teacher in every class.”

There are no tents, and no need to use outside space, Rabbi Fink said. “Each one of the classrooms is on its own HVAC system, and the windows can open, so air does not circulate from Classroom 1 to Classroom 10.” Everything has been sanitized, and all bathroom fixtures are touchless.

“The one big change is that we won’t be able to have the same number and style of assemblies,” he added.

What are the long-term effects? “Schools are primarily social institutions, and going back to the very beginning, humans were designed by God to be primarily social beings,” Rabbi Fink said. “That goes back to the text of Bereishis,” the book of Genesis. “There was a lot lost in the spring, when children could not be in school. They were not able to have the interactive level of learning they need, not only to concretize information but to concretize their relationship to it, and to each other. Yiddishkeit is social.

“But I do believe that even if damage was done, if we put them back in a more normal environment they can heal. We can overcome it. It is not irreparable. But if it were to continue, it would be.”

The school has a handbook detailing the return to school. It’s called “Hashiveinu,” we will return. “That’s because our kids want to come back to school,” Rabbi Fink said. “It puts a face on the children’s yearning to come back to school.”

Out of all the school leaders, who have been sharing information and plans, perhaps the ones who know the most about what different schools are doing — about how the abstract plans work out in reality — are the leaders of the Sinai Schools. Sinai, which individually tailors education for special-needs students, and integrates them into the school life around them, is housed in eight schools. Six are in New Jersey — five in Bergen County and one in Essex — and two are in New York — one in the Bronx and the other in Queens.

“It’s super-complicated,” Sinai’s dean, Rabbi Dr. Yisrael Rothwachs, said. “It’s super-complicated for every school, and even more for us. We sometimes are not the masters of our destiny. Some schools have come up with 30-page opening plans; we have eight sets of 30-page reopening plans.

“That’s what makes it complicated. What makes it easier is that thank God we live in a community in northern New Jersey where there is a lot of communication and collaboration with the schools.

“I am truly grateful for it.”

Each one of the eight schools is reopening, and none of them has reallocated space in such a way that left no space for Sinai. And that’s a very good thing. “Our kids need to be back in the swing of things.”

This year’s theme is flexibility; that’s important for all kids but particularly for many special-needs kids, whose natural tendency often is to be inflexible. Sinai would post large schedules for each kid, “and at the bottom, in big letters, it always says ‘Subject to Change,’” Rabbi Rothwachs said. And resistance to change is widespread; “We have to teach ourselves what we are preaching to our students,” he said.

“Overall, so far our kids have done remarkably well,” he continued. “I’m painting with broad strokes, and certainly there are exceptions, but I know that kids are resilient. I saw that this spring; the kids really rose to the occasion. I anticipate that we will get into a new groove this year, and as sad as it is, it will be a new normal.

“Our kids are resilient — maybe because they have stronger layers of support, but they do remarkably well.”

In the spring, Rabbi Rothwachs said that learning online is even more challenging for special-needs students than for others, because so much that comes naturally to many people has to be taught to special-needs students. One of those basic skills is making eye contact, and it is impossible to teach eye contact online, because it is impossible to make eye contact on line. So how does that work?

“It’s a challenge,” he said. But it’s not insurmountable. He talked about speech therapy. “We have kids who need oral motor therapy to learn to use the muscles in their throats and their tongues.” That needs one-on-one modeling. So he and the therapists brainstormed, “and one therapist said that she thinks it would be easier to do on Zoom from another room, because the alternative is to do it with masks on.” That can’t work; on the other hand, a therapist can get closer to a computer camera than to a student.

Sinai students will not get the inclusion that is so integral a part of their education. No one will. Everyone will be socially distanced. Rabbi Rothwachs talked about davening; although as a rabbi he doesn’t always like to admit it, as a special educator he knows and appreciates that when students gather to pray together, it’s both a spiritual and also (and maybe for some people primarily) a social occasion.

That’s not happening now. Everything is masked and socially distant and not at all social. “It won’t be an opportunity for inclusion, and that’s not a reflection on anybody,” he said.

Although students must be masked, the Torah Academy of Bergen County discovered clear masks — not face shields, but masks, clear plastic worn over the nose and mouth, that allow air to come in through the sides and do not fog — and Sinai is using them too. That will help.

What does he think the long-term effects will be? Ironically, for his students, in some ways they will be less harmed than other kids — aside from very important specifics like eye contact and speech therapy — because their education is so tailored, so individualized, that they can work with teachers in very small groups. They don’t have to worry about pods. They’re generally podded anyway.

He is worried about the future of education — not just special education — because he thinks that this crisis might make education seem like a less safe and therefore less appealing career to young people. “I know that there are people who don’t want to be in a classroom with other people sneezing all over them,” he said. He’s worried about the appeal of teaching as a profession for some time, he added; this just exacerbates the worry.

“The rate of change over the last months has been drastic, and I think that people will be more open to thinking about things in a different way, which ultimately will benefit the kids. There is more of an appetite to test things, to try different approaches.”

But technology has its limits, Rabbi Rothwachs said. “Technology is great. It’s wonderful. But in the end, education is founded on relationships — relationships between the students and a student and a teacher or a therapist. You can’t replace that with technology.”

On the other hand, “not all the long- term effects are likely to be bad,” he said. “The world — and schools are no different — was forced to adapt very quickly. We have learned. We have grown. We are all more flexible; in some cases we are better at communication, in some cases better at technology. There are dozens of examples where we are better off as individuals and as organizations.

“As a community, we have risen to the challenge, and we are better for that, and please God, one day soon, when this is over, the quality of what we offer the kids in the classroom or experientially will be much better.”

To view the article as it originally appeared in The Jewish Standard click here