Jewish preschools reopen with strict protocols, fewer pupils

Photo: Bill Motchan
Staff members at The Nest at Central Reform Congregation: Maxine Weil (director of congregational learning), Carly Palans, Gracie Devasto, Tristyn Morrell, Teona Keys and Sally Brown (director).


On the last day of June at 5 p.m., a vacuum cleaner whirred in a hallway at the Nest Early Childhood Education Center at Central Reform Congregation. Maxine Weil, director of congregational learning, recognized the sound.

“You hear that?” Weil asked. “Sally is vacuuming.”

Sally Brown, director of the Nest, has added routine cleaning to her administrative duties.

Weil said: “We want to limit the germs and the exposure in the rooms and the hall, so we don’t let the facility crew come in anymore. Now we are doing the cleaning and vacuuming and mopping.”

Because of the constant risk of infection in our pandemic world, Jewish preschools that reopened this summer made sure they were ready to welcome kids back. That included a laser focus on cleanliness.

“Prior to COVID, we were doing what the (Centers for Disease Control) recommends,” said Carly Palans, who teaches infants at the Nest. “We were vigilant before, but now we’re hypervigilant.” 

In mid-March, the 11 area Jewish preschools went dark. Many reopened in June after weeks of planning. Elliot Kalmes, 18 months, has been back at Linda Rotskoff Early Childhood Center (ECC) at Congregation B’nai Amoona for several weeks, a blessing for both him and his parents, Brett and Tzivia.

“It gives me a chance to get stuff done at home after working full time,” Brett Kalmes said. “And it gets him in a situation to be a lot more social.”

The reopening of Jewish preschools is good news for kids and parents alike, said Jody Rubin, who is a co-director of the Early Childhood Center at the Jewish Community Center’s Staenberg Family Complex.

“Early childhood education doesn’t get enough attention,” Rubin said. “There are so many great things going on. The teachers who are coming out are frontline workers. It’s important for us to be here so parents can go to work, not to mention the great things that early childhood does normally, which is to make sure that kids get social and emotional education and growth.”

The pandemic has drastically changed preschool operating procedures. Fortunately, Jewish preschool directors in St. Louis share information and best practices in a truly collaborative fashion. They have shown a can-do spirit to create a safe and rich learning environment, said Marci Mayer Eisen, director of the Millstone Institute and primary staff person for JProStl, both programs of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis. 

Eisen is also liaison to the ECC Directors Council, which  includes Shaare Emeth, CRC, the J, Kol Rinah, United Hebrew Congregation, Torah Prep and Congregation Temple Israel. She said the council “have really impressed me with their dedication, their compassion, their passion and their attention to details. They made sure they could reopen with the kids’ safety and total enjoyment of camp and education in mind. They also collaborate and are there for each other to a significant extent and that is something the community should appreciate.”

Placing children in ‘bubbles’

A key to preventing COVID infection is limiting contact. The Shirlee Green Preschool at Congregation Shaare Emeth takes great pains to make that part of its new process, said Brandi Cartwright, the center’s director.

“We are keeping children in bubbles – cohort groups, I call them,” Cartwright said. “They are staying with the same adults and other children throughout the summer, all day, every day. Whereas they might have been able to commingle in the past, that doesn’t happen anymore. 

“Shirlee Green Preschool is fortunate in that there are several outdoor play spaces for kids to use. Previously, those areas were free for anyone to use throughout the day, but this campus is big enough that they each have their own play space. We’re lucky that we have that, because I don’t know how you can sanitize nature.”

Even with limitations of space and on freedom to move around the campus, she said, getting back to the physical preschool is a far more effective method of teaching and learning than the online version that’s been in place most of the spring season.

“When teachers aren’t teaching in the classroom, their ability to share the gift of their practice is stunted in a way,” Cartwright said. “It is very sterile to teach through a screen. Teaching to young children is a sensory experience. It’s sound and sight, and it’s a lot of touch and a lot of smell, and the teachers here at Shirlee Green build that into the experience. 

“We’ve had to spend the last few weeks planning, creating and re-creating sensory and saying, ‘OK, they’ve only seen us on a screen for all these months, now let’s make sure when they step into the classroom again, that classroom hugs them with sensory experiences built just for them.’ ”

Cartwright started her job June 1 and immediately began planning for a June 29 reopening. She and her staff oversaw the development of a 15page COVID protocol manual for parents and staff to review. Her 16 teachers trained for two weeks,  testing the new regulations and processes to ensure a smooth transition for kids coming in the door.

“We know there will be surprises, because we are doing the dry run without kids,” she said. “The benefit is that all of the teachers here on campus have been here for years, they’ve taught the children the previous years, so they know the families, they know the children and they know what to expect from the children.”

Keeping communication open

The leadership of the J’s preschool team stresses the importance of keeping an open mind, and an open line of communication with parents.

“Things are changing fast, so I think it’s important to be flexible,” said Debi Porfidio, early childhood center director at the J’s Marilyn Fox Building in Chesterfield. “We are doing everything we possibly can to maintain open communications.

“What I am so proud of is the way that all of the teachers came together during the closure to continue staying connected with our families. We held a graduation parade, weekly classroom Zoom meetings, end of the school year awards ceremonies and did our spring conferences over Zoom with the parents. We were transparent with the families and sent out daily emails with updates about the CDC, St. Louis County, state and licensing guidelines so that they were aware of all of the preparations we were completing before we reopened.”

One way of maintaining communications after reopening is by showing parents that their kids are engaging in the same fun learning projects that they had in the pre-COVID days. That’s where social media has been a useful tool, the J’s Rubin said.

“When this started, we created Facebook pages for the center, and now every classroom has a Facebook page,” she said. “Everyday pictures and videos are posted with the kids playing in a safe way. I think that parents know that their kids are doing normal things. The worst thing is we can’t give the kids hugs. We do elbow hugs. I used to go into all the classrooms during the day and hang out with the kids, but now if I go in one classroom, that’s it. I can’t go into another one.”

Attendance at the J’s centers has dropped about 50 percent from what it was before the pandemic. That’s consistent with other Jewish preschools the Jewish Light contacted. Most of them anticipate an increase by August. Rubin said the J’s reopening was seamless, in large part because the kids were so eager to return.

“I think our teachers are so grateful to get back to work, and our parents are so grateful to have a safe place to send their kids, and the kids are just so thrilled to be with their peers in a familiar place with their teachers,” Rubin said. “I don’t think we knew what to anticipate, but we didn’t anticipate the kids coming back so easily.”

The staff developed efficiencies early to get children in and out of the building in a safe manner, said Ellen Scholten, co-director at the J’s Staenberg Family Complex.

“At the beginning, we were going to get kids out of cars,” she said. “Then we transitioned as we were getting more children back on June 8 when we opened up to all families. We started a carpool line with 6 feet marked on the pavement, and it has gone so smoothly. We go out at 9 a.m., and the biggest part of the line is gone at 9:15, so the parents get to where they need to be.”

Planning began early at CRC

As soon as St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson announced the city’s  stay-at-home order March 13, CRC closed the doors of its early childhood education hub, the Nest. Brown, its director, quickly began developing a reopening manual.

“It was based on what the CDC was telling us and us talking to other early childhood education centers in the area,” she said. “We just kept pulling stuff together so we’d be ready to go.”

That reopening occurred June 1 and was extremely smooth, Brown said.

“It’s been a slow roll,” she said. “Not all families have chosen to come back yet. At the very beginning, we had three infants, three toddlers and three preschoolers. We are very small, and we have a room for each group. The biggest challenges have been ordering supplies and having appropriate personal protection equipment for our staff.

“I have six full time staff members, and each staff member was given a bin and a stipend. I provided them with a variety of face masks so they could choose what works for them. I had them bring in three changes of clothing in case a child gets sick or sneezes on them, so they would have a change of clothes at all time.

“We also have indoor shoes and outdoor shoes. Anything from outdoors goes into the bins. We have indoor garments, and hand sanitizers everywhere. We are lucky that we have a laundry facility and a dishwashing facility, so we’re able to run toys and clothes through those constantly.”

Protocols and guidelines

B’nai Amoona also reopened June 1. Parents and staff members were required to read and sign a list of protocols and guidelines. Those rules helped create a level of understanding that has made the reopening a success, said Anita Kraus, director of the center.

“Everything is going along really well,” she said. “The things we’re doing right now are keeping everyone safe. We don’t have parents inside, unfortunately, which is one of those things that we used to do. We are rethinking other things. Our classrooms have little cohort groups that stay stable throughout the day and our staff members stay with that little group throughout the day.”

B’nai Amoona didn’t start discussing reopening the preschool until mid-April, and it wasn’t until the following month that plans were finalized.

“Back in March, we were still figuring out the online preschool experience,” Kraus said. “Our teachers were doing group time on Zoom with activities and a lot of driveway visits. They also dropped off goody bags to parents to do projects. After that, we looked to the future. We put together a group to look at what reopening would look like. That group included some doctors and specialists, and then we talked to the board and teachers and parents. It was a very thought-out process.”

The planning paid off because when reopening occurred, kids were extremely happy to be back in their classrooms, perhaps even more than the staff anticipated.

“We totally underestimated how excited they would be,” Kraus said. “They were so eager to be back and so happy to see their teachers again. They didn’t mind that the teachers were wearing masks. Our parents seemed really happy, too, to have some work time without having their children with them the whole day.”

In addition to running B’nai Amoona’s Linda Rotskoff Early Childhood Center, Kraus is chair of the ECC Directors Council, which as been a great resource for all members during the planning stage of preschool reopening, she said.

“I reached out to the other EEC directors throughout the community,” she said. “We all use the CDC St. Louis guidelines. We also reached out to the other broader groups of people, like United4Children and Kids Win Missouri. They are great organizations that are bringing St. Louis together to answer questions and getting PPEs and answering guideline questions.”