WALTHAM – Although area colleges and universities are reopening this fall, due to Covid-19 they will use either a hybrid model involving reduced in-person numbers and online options, or an entirely virtual campus. It’s a new situation for both Jewish institutions of higher learning and for Jewish student organizations.
“As we start this semester, it is critical that we all unite behind the common goal of a safe campus and be ever vigilant in following the strict protocols established to make the return to campus successful,” Brandeis University President Ron Liebowitz wrote in an Aug. 14 letter to the campus community.
It has been a challenging time for Brandeis – including a recent emergency. On Aug. 20, the university received a report of a bomb threat. After issuing a stay-in-place order, campus police searched the area, consulting with other law enforcement personnel. The order was lifted when no devices were found, according to a release.
That day, approximately 140 Brandeis students were moving into their residence halls, with 660 more having already returned to campus. Brandeis is using a hybrid model of in-person and online learning, and students who are coming back to class will find a new normal.
As the university explains on its website, students, faculty and staff who come to campus or live there must complete a health assessment online each day. They must agree to frequent testing, and faculty and staff must inform the university about where they are commuting from. Masks/face coverings are mandatory, as is social distancing.
Brandeis maintains a Covid-19 dashboard online with weekly updates. According to the dashboard, the university has collected 7,234 total tests of 3,226 unique individuals. Three new individuals tested positive for the week of Aug. 16 and one tested positive for the week of Aug. 23. Three students are currently in isolation because of a positive or presumed positive test, and 17 are in quarantine after contact tracing identified them as a close connection to someone who tested positive.
In Liebowitz’s Aug. 14 letter, he wrote that Brandeis has conducted over 3,000 tests of the campus community since mid-July. The university estimates that it can conduct 1,000 to 1,200 tests per day.
Liebowitz wrote that “we carefully examined options for the coming semester before moving forward with a return to campus this fall. We did so because we believe strongly in the value and advantages of a shared learning environment, and we remain confident that the plan we established creates the safest possible environment for doing so.”
Hebrew College is also starting the fall with a hybrid model.
“We worked very hard over the summer to create a safe environment for our graduate students to return,” said Rabbi Dan Judson, the dean of the graduate leadership programs. “We gave students an option. We do allow class on Zoom if you feel you are at any risk.”
Judson directs rabbinic and cantorial training programs for 82 students. Fifty-five, or around 70 percent, are coming back in person, while 30 percent are opting for online learning.
Returning students must wear masks, socially distance and answer questions about their health. Any symptoms of Covid-19 will mean that they must stay home. High-use areas such as classrooms and bathrooms will receive regular cleanings.
Hebrew College moved its community learning programs, including for teens and adults, entirely online. The reduced in-person numbers help Hebrew College follow state requirements, Judson noted.
“Limiting the number of students on campus is a good thing,” he said. “Less than 50 percent of normal capacity is in line with what the state requires.”
And, he said, “We said the same thing to faculty and staff that we said to students. Anybody who is not comfortable, who has an underlying medical condition or is simply not comfortable physically coming into the building, does not have to. The faculty, if they choose to, can teach class online. The staff can work from home, obviously.”
Judson recognizes that online campus offerings can sometimes be difficult depending on where students are logging in from. If students in California have a class that starts at 9 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, that means 6 a.m. Pacific. Morning prayers begin an hour earlier.
Miriam Berkowitz Blue, a Lynnfield resident who is the assistant director of the Hillel Council of New England, also said it’s important to remember that the students accessing online offerings might come from beyond New England and might face a time difference. Overall, however, she said that virtual options can increase accessibility. An online Jewish learning fellowship program offered by both the Boston College and Emerson Hillels this past spring attracted 15 students from all over the country. The Hillel Council of New England mainly works with four schools in Boston: BC, Emerson, Simmons University and Suffolk University.
Blue said that area Hillels are overwhelmingly transitioning activities to the online sphere, even at schools that have brought back in-person learning, such as BC and Emerson.
In some cases, Hillels have been able to add a more personal connection. They have mailed Rosh Hashanah gift packages to students’ homes. Students can also participate in grab-and-go Shabbats by picking up a meal kit.
However, Blue said, “Pretty much all of our programming is online.”
As she explained, “A lot of students have anxiety or mental health issues in the pandemic. We don’t want to add to it. If anything, we want to be able to minimize it as much as possible.”
Colleges and universities that have reopened are taking precautionary measures that require some staff members to be physically present – such as to clean classrooms and bathrooms.
“They are amazing,” Judson said of the staff members doing this work at Hebrew College. “They had their heart on making themselves part of the planning process from the beginning,” including with regard to “how much disinfectant we need, how many wipes.”
Despite such precautions, there remains the issue of what happens should someone on campus contract Covid-19, as has happened elsewhere in the U.S.
“If somebody is a student and has been in the building, it will have a complete cleaning,” Judson said. “Following medical advice is the next step, from doctors we work with closely – noted doctors in the community who are providing advice not just to us, but other schools and colleges in the area.” He added that if “one person comes down with Covid in the building, it does not mean shut the entire campus down for them,” but rather “clean, reassess, test.”
According to the Brandeis website, the university will use contact tracing should anyone test positive. Any student who contracts the coronavirus must self-isolate, while any faculty or staff member infected cannot come to campus. If a student becomes infected, the university has housing reserved.
Blue, of the Hillel Council of New England, said that students who live outside New England may hesitate to come back to class should infections arise on campus.
“It’s such an expense if there’s a possibility, two weeks in – as we’ve seen in other [campuses] around the country – to go back to remote learning,” she said. “At Emerson, a lot of students live in California. It’s a huge undertaking to move across the country … Students live in off-campus apartments and there are leases to worry about. They might break their lease, or pay for not being able to be there.”
Although questions remain, classes and campus life are set to start, even if it’s with some new twists.
“It’s definitely going to be a different year, that’s for sure,” Blue said.