NEWTON – When Jewish independent schools started the new academic year, students had to quickly absorb new protocols in response to COVID-19. Whether it’s wearing masks or physically distancing, they’ve been quick learners.
That’s one takeaway from a conversation with two heads of Jewish independent schools in the Boston area: Rebecca Lurie of Solomon Schechter Day School in Newton and Adam Fischer of the Rashi School in Dedham. Both spoke with the Jewish Journal over Zoom.
“Coming into the [school] year, parents were very concerned whether the students would be able to do these things: wear a mask or stay distanced,” Fischer said. “What we found, almost immediately, is that children adapt readily, quickly –much more rapidly than adults.”
Schechter and Rashi are both offering in-person learning to their students, with remote options for those who wish to stay home. Twelve Schechter students and five from Rashi are learning remotely.
Gann Academy in Waltham and Maimonides Day School in Brookline did not respond to interview requests from the Journal.
Attending school in-person entails changes for students, parents, faculty, and staff.
“I would say it’s the hardest time for me to be a head of school,” Lurie said. “It’s my fifth year, and running the school in-person is even harder [than] running a virtual school in the spring.
“The hardest thing of doing it differently is that it’s such an emotional time for people in so many [ways],” she added. “Nothing in their lives is as normal as this. This is as close to normal as possible. We have to do school differently than it’s ever been done before. Almost every aspect of the organization has to be reevaluated.”
For example, to minimize each student’s contacts, Schechter and Rashi are using the concept of cohorting: dividing their students into small groups to allow for easier contact tracing should the need arise.
“Kids are with the same group of kids all day,” Lurie explained, noting that even on the bus, there are assigned seats this year. “The Department of Education [in] Massachusetts has done a really good job laying out what cohorting should be and telling us what to do.”
There are both indoor and outdoor classes. Schools are seeking to maximize outdoor time, benefiting from favorable weather conditions.
“Teachers have a resilience to do this for the children,” Lurie said. “Their jobs have been turned upside down. I wish people could really understand how much more challenging this is than before.”
Despite the challenges, in-person learning at Jewish day schools is drawing more families. Schechter welcomed 95 new students this fall for a total of 400 from age 15 months through eighth grade – an increase from the usual 70 who join the school – including 49 transfers, more than twice the usual 17.
In Sept., the Jewish Journal reported that Epstein Hillel Academy opened to in-person learning. The K-8 school in Marblehead had 58 students enrolled last spring, and the number has grown to 92 this fall. It has retooled its campus for safety, as well as implemented measures such as daily health check-ins for all who entered the building, plus expanded outdoor learning.
Fischer said that Rashi – which enrolls more than 260 students in grades K-8 – also has experienced an increase in enrollment.
“There was a great deal of interest in the school last year,” he said. “Certainly, people were unsatisfied with what their local public school was able to provide … The most important aspect of increased interest in our schools is the great work that was begun online last spring, continuing into the start of this year. It made people pay attention and when they looked more closely, they saw the excellent programs we offer.”
Lurie recalls the early days of the pandemic in Massachusetts. All of the 14 Jewish independent schools in the Boston area closed their doors during the second week of March, ahead of the public schools.
“We quickly communicated our plan to everybody,” Lurie said. “We sent devices home with our students on Friday, March 13 [the last day of in-person school]. We trained our teachers on how to use Zoom Monday and Tuesday [March 16 and 17] and then launched our full day virtual school on Wednesday, March 18.”
As Jewish independent school heads contemplated next steps, they formed a medical advisory committee and kept each other updated.
“Our entire group, the heads of Jewish schools of Greater Boston, worked really close together,” Fischer said. “We share all the good information and advice we gathered … Maybe the details of the way we implement things are different, but overall there’s a very similar shape.”
One aspect of in-person learning is developing a response should anyone contract COVID-19.
People who have come into close contact with that individual would have to quarantine for 14 days.
“It does not mean the whole school, but the people with whom the individual infected has come in contact,” Lurie said.
For example, at Rashi, Fischer said “a learning group” recently came back to school after quarantining for 14 days.