MARBLEHEAD — With numerous precautions in place, the Epstein Hillel Jewish independent day school welcomed back students on-site last week.
“The first day was fabulous,” said Head of School Amy Gold. According to Gold, all of the school’s faculty – nearly 30 – returned. The K-8 school also saw a 58 percent jump in enrollment from last year, from 58 students last spring to 92 students this fall.
The in-person reopening for students occurred amid a Covid-19 pandemic that has generated safety concerns about schools nationwide, with many opting for remote instruction, or a hybrid of both in-person and remote learning during the first few weeks.
Epstein Hillel students’ days so far have included a “lunch lane” under a canopy set up alongside the building, and classes held outside under tents.
Epstein Hillel parent Cassie Bruner of Peabody said she was thrilled with the return of her second- and third-grade kids to in-person learning last week.
Bruner said her children have been coming home with “an overwhelming response to their day,” happy to be back after attending school remotely in the spring due to the pandemic.
“They absolutely love school,” said Bruner, the co-chairperson of the school’s parent organization, Yad b’Yad. “They are so glad they can see their friends in person,” said Bruner, who said her kids have also formed a connection with their teachers by going back.
Yad b’Yad co-chairperson Erin Cullen of Marblehead said the school’s reopening went well for her third-grade daughter.
“I’m really impressed with Amy and all of the staff,” said Cullen. The school has been sharing pictures of the kids social distancing in class and eating lunch outside.
Gold said she recently outlined for the school’s board and the community the three reasons why Epstein Hillel has seen a spike in demand during the pandemic.
She credited the school’s “outstanding” faculty and curriculum, bolstered by changes in recent years that have improved the school’s educational experience.
The fact that the school is small is also an advantage in an age of social distancing. The average class size, Gold said, is approximately 12 students, which is a recommended cohort size in a school.
“Our size is our superpower,” Gold said.
The robust online learning program the school offered last spring also proved attractive.
“We worked hard to ensure that students continued to learn new content all spring and that we maintained a community for students and parents,” Gold said.
Cullen said the school was up and running virtually within three days of the shutdown on March 13.
Cullen said her daughter was able to finish two reports learning virtually, one on the assassin bug, and another on aviator Amelia Earhart.
Cullen did have some reservations about her daughter returning to school. She did not go to summer camp.
However, Gold’s town hall meeting to explain the school’s safety protocols and seeing a panel of physicians who have been advising Jewish day schools in the area “was helpful and very informative,” Cullen said.
Ready, set, go …
To get Epstein Hillel ready to reopen, a Moving Forward Task Force of 10 faculty, administrators and staff have been planning since the school closed in March.
At the time, Epstein Hillel joined a collaborative of 14 Jewish day schools from across the region to work together on reopening plans.
Gold said she has been consulting with the collaborative’s medical advisory board of 12 physicians from some of the region’s top hospitals.
These doctors are also parents at various Jewish day schools, Gold said.
The school’s task force studied school reopening guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the medical advisory board, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
The medical advisory board, Gold said, did not advise Covid-19 testing for students, faculty and staff unless the school could commit to it being done twice a week. Adhering to safety procedures was the way to lower the risk, Gold said.
If the virus does emerge, the school has protocols in place. Keeping kids together in small cohorts helps.
“We have very clear guidelines in a flowchart that explains how to handle illness, testing and potential positive cases,” Gold said. “By cohorting our students, we will be able to contact trace more easily and potentially quarantine a class and move to remote learning if necessary.”
To get ready to reopen, the building’s HVAC systems were upgraded, and the school got a good cleaning in the summer. The school is cleaned daily and on weekends on an ongoing basis.
Classrooms were reconfigured so that students are sitting in rows instead of in clusters, with students spread out 4½ to 6 feet apart. Masks are mandatory for all students both indoors and out. Hand-washing stations have been installed outside for recess.
The school has set up tents around the building, and students sit in new Epstein Hillel folding beach chairs to learn or eat lunch.
“A lot of learning is happening outside,” Gold said.
The school has also added some Plexiglas dividers for indoor lunch, the front office and the librarian where books are checked out.
The school worked with the Boston architectural firm Eck MacNeely to reconfigure the building.
The school is offering a remote learning option, but families have not opted to go this route.
Classrooms have been outfitted with cameras on a tripod to provide remote learning in case the school has to go remote.
Other precautions include the use of a health attestation app before faculty, staff and students arrive for the start of the day, Gold said.
The school has banned visitors, including parent volunteers, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
The school is also reimagining community gatherings. The school can’t hold a Kabbalat Shabbat service all in one place, and announcements are made over the loudspeakers instead of in large gatherings at the school.
“Obviously,” Bruner said, “the community is one of the things that makes Hillel Hillel. We are just coming together in a different way.”
Also important, Gold said, was the creation of a Boston Jewish Day School Community Pledge in which members of the school community commit to a level of safety, including measures such as mask wearing and social distancing, outside of school.
Bruner said the goal of the pledge is “to make good decisions outside of school to keep in-school as safe as we could be.”