Jewish day schools confront challenges in quest to reopen

Cheryl Maayan is head of school at Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School.

By Ellen Futterman & Eric Berger, Editor & Associate Editor

At Torah Prep School of St. Louis, a majority of the families not only live in University City, they also attend Agudas Israel of St. Louis, an Orthodox synagogue in the suburb. 

As educators and government and health officials anxiously work through plans for reopening schools in August amid the coronavirus pandemic, the close proximity of students and families at a small, private religious institutions like Torah Prep could make it easier to welcome students back for in-person learning. 

“There might be things that are easier for us to do because we are a smaller, close-knit group,” said Rabbi Tzvi Freedman, executive director of the preschool through eighth grade Torah Prep, which has separate locations for girls and boys. “We can make certain rules possibly about traveling, or not traveling, which we might be doing, where a public school probably can’t do that.” 

Still, plenty of challenges remain for Torah Prep and the four other local Jewish day schools, but in spite of ongoing concerns about increases in the number of coronavirus cases in St. Louis and across the United States, administrators say they hope to reopen their buildings for the coming school year. 

“I think all of the schools are looking forward to opening,” said Freedman, who expects to have an enrollment of about 275 students. 

When government officials started to implement lockdown measures in March because of the pandemic, the Jewish day schools moved to a distance learning model using tools such as the online meeting platform Zoom. Teachers, students and parents said they still saw a quality education.

“It’s actually been going really well,” said Yosef Bloom, who sends three of his children to Torah Prep. “The school did a really exceptional job as far as getting on Zoom and doing distance learning. … I think the school has an advantage of having pretty small class sizes, and I think that’s easier to handle.”

But Rabbi Moshe Shulman, head of school at Epstein Hebrew Academy and Yeshivat Kadimah High School, which merged last year, described not being able to reopen for in-person classes as “a worst-case scenario.”

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“We are working on contingencies at all levels, but I would really hope that we would be in a position to open our doors in the fall, and all indications are that will be the case,” he said.

In order for that to happen, the leaders of local Jewish schools have been meeting to compare ideas and develop a common plan for safety measures. That means following guidelines from St. Louis County and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and taking steps such as  temperature checks; installing plexiglass dividers; dividing students into small cohorts so the same students and teachers remain together throughout the day; and requiring face coverings on some students, among other protections.

Administrators at Esther Miller Bais Yaakov (EMBY), an Orthodox high school for girls, also are conducting surveys of faculty and parents to find out what their concerns are about reopening, and they plan to incorporate that feedback into their plans. They hope to start the school year Aug. 26.

Tova Greenblatt, EMBY principal of Judaic studies, pointed out that while the student body is small with about 40 students, the building in University City is small, too, which makes social distancing difficult. 

She also said the school has “a number of (health) compromised teachers, and they are not going to be able to come back to school. We may have to implement remote learning in some classes and figure out how to seamlessly go into that. So (upcoming school) will probably be some type of hybrid.”  

Torah Prep’s Freedman anticipates that the school will probably need to hire additional staff members to fill in for teachers who are at a higher risk of becoming seriously ill because of the virus and not able to safely return to school.

“It’s a big challenge,” he said. 

Cheryl Maayan, head of Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School, said the school plans to have its 170 students outside as much possible and for them to eat lunch in the classrooms. They also are planning to have teachers and the 40 middle school students wear masks. 

Maayan says the school hopes to employ plexiglass barriers in some classes for more physical protection and full-face shields for teachers when visualization of the mouth is important, such as in teaching phonics and Hebrew.

Parents of students at Mirowitz and elsewhere say they have confidence that administrators will ensure their children remain safe. 

Rachel Thimangu, whose daughter Eva will be a fifth-grader at Mirowitz, said that’s because she knows school officials are “paying attention to the science and not the politics.”

“I feel really fortunate to have Eva in a school that is small enough and has the resources and space to go back as safely as any school can,” Thimangu said. “As long as we all take the right precautions, which I think they are, and monitor the situation and stay flexible, realizing things may change on the fly, I feel confident in sending her back. She’s missed the social interaction and activity and being with her friends.”

Other parents also said that while they are pleased with the education their children received over Zoom, having children at home throughout the day was often challenging. 

Stacy Kass has six children. One will be a senior at EMBY; three attend Torah Prep; and two others study at a yeshiva in Baltimore. She sees leaders of local Orthodox synagogues and schools as “being very cautious and deferring to medical experts. Politics are very divisive right now.”

“I’d love there to be in-person school, but I know if it’s not safe, the decision will be made not to do it,” said Kass, adding that school officials are consulting with a medical advisory board of Orthodox infectious disease doctors and other specialists.

“Having six kids with six different Zoom schedules was challenging, to say the least, but all of the schools, as well as my kids, did an amazing job with online learning.”

Bloom, the Torah Prep parent, who is a biologist and geneticist at Washington University School of Medicine, is in regular contact with the head of his department who is leading the medical school’s research response to COVID-19. Based on those conversations, Bloom says, “Everything is going in the wrong direction both in Missouri and in St. Louis County.”

“Unfortunately, that’s a risk to opening schools again, and I really thought that by the end of summer things would be calmer and make opening schools again an easy decision, and the decision is getting harder,” Bloom said.

He and his wife are constantly discussing plans for their six children, who range in age from 9 to 20. They plan to send three of them back to Torah Prep “following whatever guidelines” the school chooses, he said.

The remote learning “went well for my kids, but I know people who go to Torah Prep and have younger kids, in preschool, kindergarten and second grade, and had a much harder time,” Bloom said. 

Merahem Bloom, who will be an eighth-grader at Torah Prep, said distance learning has been more difficult than in-person learning. Sometimes he gets disconnected from meetings because of internet issues; other times he can’t easily ask teachers a question because they don’t see that his hand is raised. Friends who were supposed to have bar mitzvahs haven’t been able to perform the usual parts of the religious rite of passage or celebrate because of the pandemic. His own bar mitzvah is scheduled for Aug. 7, which will no longer “be a big thing,” he said.

On not being with his classmates, Merahem said, “I still talk to them sometimes, but you can’t go over to their house and play with them. It’s like not as fun because there is not much to do and you can’t see your friends.”

If Merahem is able to return to the classroom, he expects that “it’s going to be different, like wearing a mask and doing other procedures that you wouldn’t normally have done in school. I think learning will work out basically just as fine.”

No matter how much time teachers and administrators spend on planning for the school year, they also recognize that they are subject to larger forces. 

“This thing throws us curveballs all the time, so we adapt, but we are nimble enough that we can adapt quickly, and we will continue to do so,” said Shulman, head of Epstein and Kadimah.

And that could mean another period of remote learning, Mirowitz’s Maayan said.

“That may be an eventuality, and we want to take what we learned from weeks of remote learning and improve upon it,” she said. “We want to move the students forward. We don’t want them to miss a beat with their education. Parents have signed their children up for a school of excellence, and we are committed to that.”