Open air tents. Beach-style chairs equipped with arm rests and a place to hold a clipboard and water bottle. And stylish face masks with the Epstein Hillel School logo. That’s just part of the COVID-era back-to-school plan as the Marblehead Jewish day school prepares to reopen its building in September for full time, in-school learning in the midst of a pandemic.
Other new safety measures, guided by advice from health care experts, include upgrading HVAC air filters; introducing new arrival and dismissal patterns to minimize contact; and handwashing and other hygiene practices that will now be mandated. The newly purchased open-air tents will allow more time in outdoor learning.
Reopening the school building in these perilous times is a daunting responsibility, Epstein Hillel head of school Amy Gold told the Journal. But Gold and her colleagues are not in it alone.
Since March, Jewish day schools across Greater Boston have been working together to address concerns, get expert advice, and share best practices as a way to sustain community and bolster each school’s success as the vicious virus continues to threaten residents. Schools across Massachusetts are facing these decisions at a time when the state’s COVID-19 infection rate ‒ which had dropped dramatically since the spring ‒ has ticked upward again.
Eleven Jewish day schools from across the religious spectrum are part of a collaborative that formed last March. At that time, before Governor Charlie Baker closed all schools due to the pandemic, the day school leaders decided collectively to close their schools and shift to remote learning. Together, the schools educate more than 2,000 students.
“It was a shared decision,” Rebecca Lurie told the Journal. Lurie, head of Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston in Newton, said school leaders recognized there was an advantage to pooling their expertise and experience.
“The power will be in all of us together,” she recalled.
Since then, the school heads have spoken weekly in remote conversations with support from Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston.
In addition to Hillel Epstein and Solomon Schechter, the group includes New England Hebrew Academy in Brookline; MetroWest Jewish Day School in Framingham; Boston’s Jewish Community Day School in Watertown; Yeshiva Ohr Yisrael in Chestnut Hill; The Rashi School in Dedham; Gann Academy in Waltham; Maimonides Day School in Brookline; Shaloh House Jewish Day School in Brighton; and Striar Hebrew Academy in Sharon.
In response to the pandemic, CJP is funding a $400,000 scholarship program for day school families impacted by the virus as well as a kindergarten incentive program. The schools were provided a $15,000 Personal Protective Equipment grant as well as $10,000 for security enhancements, according to Kimberlee Schumacher, CJP’s vice president of partnerships and services.
Rather than each school getting advice from its own health care experts, the collaborative established a working group that draws on guidance from a field of infectious disease specialists, pulmonologists, and other authorities from the area’s top hospitals and universities.
Nearly 300 faculty and staff participated in a recent forum the collaborative organized with its health care specialists. More than 220 questions were submitted in advance.
Gold said the collaborative hopes to arrange a similar forum for parents.
The fact that the schools are being guided by medical professionals is reassuring, especially at a point when there is so much uncertainty, according to Rabbi Yaakov Jaffe, a teacher and part-time administrator at the Maimonides school. Faculty concerns vary. Some may be at risk, others have children in schools with remote learning who will remain at home, said Jaffe, who was speaking only for himself.
Gold acknowledged the Jewish school leaders are not approaching these decisions lightly. It’s been helpful to talk openly and to have a “safe space to brainstorm,” she said.
The collaborative’s special education and mental health working groups, facilitated by Gateways, a Boston organization that provides inclusion services for Jewish education, developed a list of principles to support students. The groups planned several scenarios for reopening, including both in-person and remote learning, according to Ali Butter, the director of academic and behavioral support at MetroWest Jewish Day School.
As of now, that school will open with remote learning only, with the possibility of moving to a hybrid format.
For some MetroWest students, remote learning was a challenge last spring, Butter wrote in an email. To meet the needs of all students, the school is planning social time innovations such as Zoom lunch calls and possible outdoor events.
As September approaches, and public school plans are still emerging, interest in the area’s day schools has spiked.
Enrollment at Epstein Hillel is expected to increase from 58 students last year to 90 this fall. In one recent week, Schechter had inquiries from 12 new families. MetroWest anticipates similar interest from new families.
The camaraderie among the collaborative’s leaders has been inspiring, Gold said.
“There’s zero competition or one-upmanship. We are making joint decisions for the Greater Boston Jewish community. It feels really good.”