May 17, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

NY Schools Open in COVID-19 Era

When the novel coronavirus closed school buildings in March, no one expected remote learning to continue for the rest of the school year. As teachers and students adapted to the new reality, time passed, and eventually summer began. For the schools, however, this was merely the start of extensive discussions and debates concerning the potential opening of school buildings for the start of the 2020-21 school year.

While many public schools have chosen to continue with remote learning, or attempt a hybrid model, yeshivas and day schools, for the most part, worked hard all summer to ensure that their students would be able to return to campus in the fall. Schools have devised scenarios whereby both synchronous and asynchronous learning is able to take place.

The Leffell School produced a detailed, multi-page handbook, “Reopening Plan, Fall 2020,” explaining the principles and values involved in opening school this fall with COVID looming in everyone’s lives. Michael Kay, head of the Leffell School, explained that the school’s guidelines were determined in partnership with senior staff members, a medical advisory committee, teachers and members of the school’s board of trustees, following New York State guidelines. “It was most important to determine if it was possible for everyone to be together, safely, at school, every day of the week.” Kay continued, “We feel strongly that being together in person, whenever it is safe to do so, is crucial for achieving our unique educational, Judaic and communal mission. We have therefore been eager to take whatever steps are possible to create a safe, healthy comfortable learning environment for our students and faculty/staff members, while also being flexible and sensitive in addressing the diverse needs of members of our community who are not yet fully ready for an in-person return.”

With two 23-acre campuses, in White Plains and in Hartsdale, the lower school, middle school and high school had sufficient room to open school on a five-day-a-week schedule, while adhering to social-distancing requirements. Two modular buildings were installed on the lower school campus. The high school saw renovations to large gathering areas, where “real” classrooms were created, with walls being built and the rooms equipped for learning. Faculty workspace was added to the building. Kay explained that in the spring, remote learning was instituted for everyone. Now, however, remote learning will be made available to those students who are not yet ready to return to the building, but who will be learning along with their peers, in real time.

As with all schools in this article, masks will be required to be worn at all times. At Leffell, a daily health screening will be administered through a mobile-phone app. On both campuses, the school nurses’ offices have been reconfigured so as to include an isolation area, equipped with its own air-filtration system. Face shields will be provided to teachers upon request, as a supplement to mask wearing. Mask breaks will be permitted while eating or drinking (socially distanced) and when outdoors, with teacher permission.

Recognizing the challenges that will become apparent as the school moves forward, Leffell created a Junior Faculty Program for young adults who are post college or who are in their gap year. These young adults, mostly alumni, will be on both campuses to assist teachers and students negotiating new rules and requirements.

Jackie Herman, head of school at the Bi-Cultural Hebrew Academy (BCHA) in Stamford, Connecticut, reported that reopening the school “wasn’t easy,” explaining, “We started out by asking ourselves, ‘Why should we open? What is the upside of opening our school in the midst of a global pandemic?’ Ultimately, we determined that while keeping our doors shut clearly minimizes risk, the benefits of opening the doors for the sake of our students and families are great…Our main concern was the ongoing health and well-being of our most precious commodity: our students and staff and all of their families. We set out to devise a plan that would take into account every eventuality and cover every base in terms of maintaining a safe environment.”

Adhering to the guidelines of the state of Connecticut, several committees of parents, teachers, administrators, physicians and other lay leaders were established to determine guidelines for opening the school. Herman said the answer to the question, “Why should we open?” is “Because we’re ready. We’re well-prepared to effectively ensure the safety and health of our students, staff and families. Because we are fortunate to be located on a sprawling 13-acre campus, (we have) the ability to spread out, using tents and the like and because we have the full support and confidence of parents and staff.”

She continued, “Children need to resume their routines, to interact with their teachers and friends face to face. Their social and emotional well-being depends on it.”

BCHA produced a booklet, “Live, Learn, Lead: The BCHA Plan to Restart Learning on Campus,” which explains that BCHA has created three different models, to be ready to adapt if the current public health situation should change. The “Full Return to Campus” model has the students returning to a full schedule of in-person instruction on campus. The “Hybrid Learning Model” will halve the size of cohorts, with half of students attending on-campus instruction, while half will simultaneously learn at home on alternating days. The “Remote Learning Model” will become effective if local, state and national health authorities deem it unsafe to continue in-person instructional models, including hybrid models, and will move to a ull-distance-learning instructional model.

At Westchester Day School (WDS) in Mamaroneck, Rabbi Josh Lookstein told The Jewish Link, “So many parents have gone out of their way to tell me how excited they are that their children will be back in school. There is a strong feeling that no matter what school will look like, children are better off there than at home. One of the main challenges will be getting children and educators used to being around so many people after so many months of basically isolation. One of the social-emotional challenges will be helping children deal with the seriousness of COVID-19 while keeping them calm at the same time.”

WDS will open its doors on September 8 for K-8 and September 10 for Ganon, with everyone in school five days a week. Arrivals will occur between 8 and 9 a.m. and dismissals between 3 and 4 p.m. Public and private busing will be in place. An educational leadership team, together with a medical advisory team, chaired by Dr. Jana Romm, WDS parent and pediatrician, determined guidelines such as wearing masks, mask breaks, temperature checks and COVID testing, along with the use of a screening app prior to arrival.

Utilizing its 26-acre campus on the Long Island Sound, WDS will have 10 “learning tents” installed on their grounds so that children can take off their masks as often as possible. Physical education and art classes will be conducted outside. Lunch will be served in classrooms or outside. WDS faculty have participated in remote-learning professional development over the summer months, but the school is hoping to be in-person for most of the year.

Westchester Torah Academy (WTA) in Harrison, New York, established a reopening task force including expanded medical personnel, a consulting architect, therapists and nurses. Dr. Jennifer Duchon, a pediatric infectious disease specialist, will keep the school up to date with all New York State and CDC guidelines. School will open on September 8, but to ease the transition and acclimate everyone to the new routines established by the school, an orientation week began on August 31. New protocols include staggering student arrival and dismissal times, posting signage throughout the school reminding students about masks and hand-washing, serving individually packaged lunches to be eaten at students’ desks inside the classroom, and slightly shortening the school day because of the difficulty in having to wear masks all day. Outdoor learning time will happen as much as possible, in addition to outdoor recess time and outdoor mask breaks.

Deganit Ronen, WTA head of school, explained, “We are so excited to reopen school in person. WTA was one of the first schools in the country to close in early March in response to the coronavirus, and since then we have been actively researching and exploring creative ways to make a safe return to school possible. Our leadership team has put together a viable reopening plan with health and safety as a first priority. While our own building is being constructed, we began by scouting a new temporary location which would enable us to enact the necessary protocols for social distancing. We were very fortunate to find a wonderful space at the JCC of Harrison.”

The JCC of Harrison offers spacious classrooms, a large gymnasium and extensive, landscaped grounds where students can spend as much time outdoors as possible. Ronen credits the WTA parent body for their trust and support. “Their positivity, partnership and pledge to uphold our health and safety procedures, including daily health reports and temperature checks for all students, truly demonstrates Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh BaZeh. In addition, our special team of educators, and their genuine excitement about being with students…has been an inspiration to witness.”

SAR Academy in Riverdale opened its doors to students beginning with virtual orientations and virtual town hall meetings on August 31 and September 1. Lower school and middle school in-person orientation as well as the Early Learning Center (ELC) transition days were scheduled for September 2 and September 3.

Rabbi Bini Krauss, head of school, shared, “We believe deeply in the power of community as well as the importance of experiential learning and living for SAR students. Coming together in person is critical to their growth each year. Despite the unfortunate situation presented by COVID, our staff and faculty have worked diligently to prepare a safe and exciting environment for the upcoming semester. No doubt there will be numerous challenges along the way, but with strong communication and a commitment to health and safety guidelines, we are more than prepared for a fulfilling, healthy and inspirational year.”

In SAR’s “2020-21 Welcome Back Guide” Rabbi Krauss noted, “After several long months, we are now looking forward to carefully and planfully transitioning our community back to school in September for in-person learning. This is, for all of us, an exercise in what we have come to refer to as ‘radical’ or ‘maximal’ flexibility.” Rabbi Krauss explained that the many policies and procedures adopted to ensure safeguarding the health and safety of our community will require a unique approach to rethink “existing models, even successful ones, and explore new ideas.”

Introducing this year’s theme of achrayut, responsibility toward others, he wrote, “We must consider the ways in which we conduct ourselves and how our actions and decisions impact the health and safety of those around us.” To determine the necessary protocols, SAR organized several reopening committees: the medical advisory committee, academic transition team, space redesign team and business office team. With the support of professionals and a devoted parent body, rules and requirements have been introduced such as reconfiguring the school to allow for optimal social distancing, required mask wearing and creating small classes.

Aura Lurie, director of the SINAI School at SAR Academy, discussed the unique needs of her students: “Getting students with special needs back into a classroom setting is so important. School, whether it is the classroom, outside on the field or during lunch, is where our students practice taking turns, making eye contact, modulating the tone of their voices. We infuse our SINAI students’ days with social skills, emotional regulation and so much more than what we are teaching them on the academic side. Our teachers are constantly watching for subtle clues to tell them if a student is understanding and absorbing the material, which is much more difficult to detect on Zoom. While the benefits of in-person learning [are] obvious for all students, it is magnified for children with special needs or complex learning disabilities.”

For the Kinneret Day School (KDS) in Riverdale, the reopening theme is “We are the same but different.” Rabbi Aaron Frank, head of school, said, “It is important for us to be back in our school with onsite school. We see our school as what Chayim Nachman Bialik called, ‘The laboratory for the creation of our nation’s soul’ and the schoolhouse is where this laboratory comes alive.”

Kinneret has a medical advisory committee composed of KDS parents who are experts in the fields of epidemiology, public health and pediatrics who established guidelines for school opening including the use of masks, mask breaks, temperature checks, COVID testing etc. All students will be in school every day and will be assigned to pods. Students will bring lunch from home and eat in their assigned pod and classroom. Partnering with neighbors has enabled the school to add more outdoor space to their current facility. Bus transportation will be provided for those who request it and arrival and dismissal times will be staggered. In addition, KDS faculty members have received remote-learning training sessions and families who prefer their children remain at home can have them Zoom their classes from their homes.

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