A way forward for Jewish Day Schools in today's new world

Experts weigh in on what to do so that US Jewish Day Schools can open safely in September, and what Israel's schools can do now. Op-ed..

Rabbi Elchanan Poupko ,

provides sevveral hours of immersion per Hillel Torah North Suburban Day School
provides sevveral hours of immersion per Hillel Torah North Suburban Day School
Courtesy of Hillel Torah

According to the most optimistic voices in the medical community, a vaccine for coronavirus will be ready in 12-18 months. This means Jewish Day Schools need to brace for a new world and another hugely different school year. In addition to the logistical and educational challenges that come with life during a pandemic, communities will need to deal with the financial hardship afflicting our economy in ways we have not seen during our lifetime.

What can Jewish Day Schools do to remain attractive, affordable, and safe during these difficult times? Here are some ideas to think about now:

Safety. Safety. Safety- as we continue to discover new things about COVID-19 with every day that goes by, safety needs to be the first and foremost concern of schools. Now is the time for schools to strengthen their communication and relationship with private and public health experts to make sure they have both strong and adaptable plan in place once September comes. Every school should have an open line of communication with more than one infectious disease physician and public health expert.

Hybrid teaching systems- even if schools do open in September, there are likely to be many shifts back and forth between school and home. This could be due to a second wave of COVID-19 in the fall, due to radically changed work-home schedules parents will have with an evolving workplace and some students that will not be able to return to classrooms because they are immunocompromised. Schools should prepare educational systems that can quickly fluctuate between classroom and cyberspace and account allow for smooth transitions between the two. Curriculums that accommodate these aspects of teaching should be prepared extensively, and schedules should be made accordingly.

Do not reward or penalize students based on attendance. Students should know they are free to learn from home just as much as they are free to learn in school. No one should be rewarded or penalized in either direction. Health must be the only consideration when a student considers coming to school or not.

Rethink busing- in a world infected by the coronavirus, buses are at risk of becoming disease centers. Schools and parents will need to rethink busing and transportation. This may mean making sure children go to a school closer to home, examining options for bikes, scooters, or walking, or having children driven to school individually. In cases where busing is needed, busses would need to be disinfected daily, and hand sanitizing would have to be mandated and installed inside the bus. With busing or without, masks and high standards of hand hygiene would need to be mandated and monitored. According to many, the public does not need to use gloves as that can increase the risk of contagion. In this case, schools should not mandate the use of gloves.

Vaccination Vigilance- with a real concern for a second—even bigger— wave of coronavirus coming in the winter and the fall, schools cannot compromise on vaccinations. Every child that walks into school must have updated vaccinations, and if allowed for children by health auhorities, including the flu shot. Schools should work with physicians and public health experts to make sure this is done in the safest and most rigorous way possible.

Learn & Educate About Germ Transmission- students should be vigilant, responsible, and committed to the highest standards of safety. Schools should maintain a healthy balance between educating students to be vigilant and knowledgeable about the coronavirus, and keeping them from extreme germaphobia. We must keep students calm and fully aware of their statistical safety.

Implement Mask Breaks- wearing a mask all day can be challenging. In Israel, the heat made it impossible at this point. Ensure that students have comfortable masks and give them time and place to refresh and adjust their masks. Make it fun, creative, and child friendly.

Disinfecting & Hygiene Supply Chain- the coronavirus pandemic has been characterized by a lack of medical supplies and personal protection equipment. Schools thinking of reopening in September must work hard now to establish a reliable supply chain of disinfecting and sanitizing materials, as well as masks to the extent possible.

Visitor Restrictions- every person carries an added risk for infection. If someone does not have to be in the school building, they should not be allowed in. Students can be dropped off and picked up at the entrance in a safe and socially distant way.

Mass Fever Scanners- while the main danger of the coronavirus comes before carriers are even symptomatic, it is vital we minimize risks wherever we can. Good mass fever scanners can scan up to sixty people at a time and eliminate unnecessary problems. The entrances to schools must be equipped to detect fever. Anyone with a fever cannot be allowed into the building under any circumstance.

Strict cleaning protocols- janitorial staff should be prepared to disinfect school daily after school. Teachers should disinfect high-touch surfaces periodically throughout the day. Teachers should have their own personal whiteboard and smartboard markers.

Communication plan- schools should have updated, efficient, and instantaneous communication methods so that parents and students can get information in a fast and efficient way.

COVID Case Action Plan- What if someone in school got the coronavirus? Who knows about it? How soon? What actions will be taken? How will school balance privacy laws and public safety? All these questions need to be addressed before the first person sets foot in the building. Schools must have an organized and thought-out protocol.

Personal computers only-as schools focus on minimizing germ transfer and any kind of contagion; students who come to school should be using their own laptops, which they then can take home. If a school does not have power bars and accessible charging for the entire classroom already, now is the time to do that. No two students should be using the same computer together. Schools should be ready to support students with no appropriate devices and be efficient in pointing them in the right direction in case of technical difficulties, loss, or dysfunction. Any computer that must be used by anyone other than the original owner due to financila limitations, would have to be disinfected in between uses.

Science and hands-on experiments- if kids loved learning about science through hands-on experiments, this is the year to find ways to encourage discovery digitally. This can mean anything from going on NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, to digital visits in science labs. Hands-on experiments and labs should be minimized to the very bare required minimum while exploring more digital opportunities.

No Netilat Yadayim- ritual washing of hands with a special cup (netilat yadayim) before eating bread is an important component of Jewish observance. The idea of many people using the same washing cup is hazardous during these times. School lunches should not include bread to avoid this issue or students should be instucted to bring their own disposable cup to school.

No shared books-All books should be either on devices or personal.

School on Sunday- As schools consider reducing density; some will likely give the option of different grades coming in on different days of the week to reduce the density. Now is the time to prepare for bringing in students on Sunday and not waste a day so that classes can come and rotate in a low-density environment. (Israeli pupils always have school on Sunday).

Mental Health and Resilience- our students are living their childhood through an event equal in magnitude do a world war. Daily doses of resilience, perspective, inspiration, and support should be part of everyday school. I see students responding best when being asked to call seniors, grandparents, and others, empowering them as helpers. Now more than ever is the time to empower our students' emotional, mental, and spiritual wellbeing.

New forms of socialization- facilitating healthy social interactions is at the heart of any school's mission, much more so Jewish Day Schools. It is essentials that schools facilitate social strong and healthy social interactions among students in their own schools, as well as interschool programming. Benefits from programs like Torah-Ball, Yeshiva League Basketball, Chiddon Hatanach, and more are all good examples of making sure students get to socialize with others.

Day Schools need to thoughtfully design programs that provide children with healthy and extensive socialization opportunities. When doing so, we should be inclusive and think about that child who is an only child, immunocompromised, and at home. Every child should be part of the new forms of socialization we create, and those opportunities should not depend on being physically present in one place or the other.

Digitizing non-digital rituals- a huge part of Jewish education is practicing rituals from washing our hands for bread to Teffila, lighting candles, and so much more. As we get to practice those less together, schools should find ways of practicing together—yet apart. It can be more school Havdala's on Zoom, videos of candle lighting, dancing together on Zoom, or asking kids to make tutorial videos of ritual. We must keep and strengthen our rituals despite minimizing our in-person contacts. GRR (gradual release of responsibility) educational models should also be considered here.

Intermittent Teffila- while online teaching has been highly successful in many ways, running Tefilla online is hard to do and even harder to engage others in doing. Once school is back in session, it will be very difficult to have Teffila the way we used to. Schools may not be able to social distance enough for Teffila or not have enough space for class and Teffila without added risk.

The most important goal of teaching Tefilla, and any other subject, is to get students who can and will practice it on their own. Now is the time to phase kids into independent Teffila. Begin by gathering online and then dismiss them to do it on their own at home. Ask them to reflect on that experience. Make sure they have printed a siddur they like. Only by giving students ownership and responsibility can we be sure they will take up this vital aspect of Judaism. We will need to trust them.

I will never forget how in sixth grade, I stopped showing up to my school's Teffila. The principal called me in and asked me why I was not coming. I told him it was because I wanted to pray with a minyan, so I woke up early and went up to the grownups' minyan in synagogue. Despite being very strict and serious, he looked at me without a blink and said, "okay." I continued to do so. To this day, that trust and independence empower me in my commitment to Teffila. We need to be fostering much more guided independence for Teffila. We can do it on some days and reflect on it in others. Schools should consider and embrace GRR (gradual release of responsibility) educational models to make sure students grow into independently spiritual and connected members of the community.

Teach & Mandate Hebrew Typing- it has never been easier to get Hebrew on your commuter. Beginning in first grade, every child should have Hebrew enabled on their computer with Hebrew stickers for the keys. Teachers should be teaching younger students to type in Hebrew, and older kids should be capable of producing high-level work in Hebrew. Schools should make this a requirement. (Israeli computers have both English and Hebrew).

Screen-casting and Hebrew Reading Practice- reading practice is key to proficiency. As there is less opportunity for in-class reading practice, and as masks will make reading out loud less likely, now is the time to find more options to let kids read at home. One excellent option is to have kids screencast. This is an excellent way for them to practice and the teacher to check it. While in the past there have been multiple ways to do that from phone recordings to online sites with audio recording options, teachers should consider more ways of casting. One way can be Zoom screen casting. All students need is to open a Zoom call with themselves, share the screen with the text on it, and record themselves reading. This allows students and teachers an easy way to follow reading practice. Sites like Flipgrid or Screencastify can also be very useful.

Collaboration with Schools in Israel- As Israel emerges victorious from the coronavirus battle, they are in a better position to help. Educational programs that involve virtual tours of Israel, zoom discussions in the Hebrew language, and other opportunities to enrich students' educational experience would help compensate for the limits imposed by digital learning.

Affordability -We have not begun seeing the economic impacts of COVID-19. Many families will likely face economic hardship. Private schools will also face economic hardship. Now more than ever is the time for schools to be sensitive, kind, sympathetic, compassionate, and wise. Partnership with community, philanthropy, non-profits, business, and government are now more critical than ever.

Hyper excellence-now more than ever is the time to make sure our schools have unparalleled standards of excellence and creativity. Parents who are working through these tumultuous times to send their children to Jewish Day Schools need to know they are getting the absolutely best product there can be.

While there is so much that can change between now and September, as schools begin to plan, there are some ideas to have in mind. Israeli schools have opened, but there is much they can find useful in this article.

Entrusted with the most precious thing in the world and our very future, may we be blessed with the wisdom, judgment, and providence to make the best decisions possible.

Huge thanks to the amazing professionals who in their kindness took the time to share feedback, ideas, and comments on these issues including: Doe A. Kley, RN, MPH, CIC, Connie Hamilton Ed. S., Kimi Chernoby, MD JD MA, L. Nelson Sanchez-Pinto, MD, MBI, My mother in law, Lisa Goldstein MD

Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a rabbi, writer, teacher, and blogger (www.rabbipoupko.com). He lives with his wife in New York City and is the president of EITAN - The American-Israeli Jewish Network



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