Back to school? Jewish schools plan for uncertain year

Distance learning from Jewish Community Day School in Metairie

After a summer of uncertainty where summer camps were closed because of coronavirus concerns but Jewish Community Center Day Camps eventually opened — under restricted capacity and social distancing — the Jewish schools in the area are planning for pretty much anything as they open their doors for the new school year.

While the situation is subject to change at any notice, Slater Torah Academy in Metairie was planning on an Aug. 7 opening for in-person classes, while Jewish Community Day School in Metairie opens Aug. 12 and the N.E. Miles Jewish Day School in Birmingham, just to show how fluid the situation is, announced on Aug. 3 it was delaying its opening from Aug. 12 to Aug. 19.

At NEMJDS, families have the option between in-school learning or an alternate remote learning option.
Unlike public schools, the Jewish schools are smaller, generally with small class sizes that facilitate social distancing. At the NEMJDS, the total enrollment is around 50 students.
All of the schools closed in March as states went into lockdown during the early days of the pandemic, and finished their school years online through virtual classrooms.
During the summer, the school convened task forces and committees, assembling the best advice from medical and workplace safety experts, mental health professionals, government officials, educational networks, staff and parent voices.
Guidelines include face coverings, social distancing, health monitoring, increased hygiene protocols, extensive cleaning and enhanced ventilation.
All of the schools have plans in place for a “seamless” transition to distance learning if the schools have to close once again, and have adjusted their online learning experience in response to what was learned on those platforms in the spring.
The schools are introducing health protocols that include a daily health check while still in the car. Anyone with a temperature of over 100 or other symptoms will be sent home. That also includes students who have been given Advil or Tylenol for a headache or sore throat, because the fever reducing properties can mask Covid-19 symptoms.
Students who are unable to attend in person will need to attend virtual classes if they are able.

Masked staff will escort students from cars into the school, and parents are discouraged from entering the school building. Similarly, at pickup, students will be escorted out by staff.

Students will be required to have masks, including a spare, as appropriate for their age, and as water fountains have been turned off, students need to bring their own refillable water bottle each day.
While all of the schools emphasize a community feel among the grades, health protocols dictate that the students remain with their core group throughout the day, and not interact with other classes. That includes having lunch in the classrooms or a socially-distanced picnic lunch outdoors.
The schools are also encouraging outdoor classes whenever possible. NEMJDS said there will be many outdoor opportunities during the day, including lunch outdoors and fresh air breaks.
At JCDS, the Beit Midrash will become a studio, broadcasting to the classrooms. Webcams will also be used to have virtual contact with friends and siblings in other classes.
Through grants and CARES funding, JCDS doubled its technology supply. Students in Kindergarten through second grade will be assigned an iPad, while upper grade students will have Chromebooks. A donor also enabled the school to secure individual desks for grades 1 to 6.
If distance learning becomes necessary, JCDS students will be able to check out their devices, and “because much of our all-school programming will be set up to unite the classrooms electronically anyway, it will be a small step to shift that programming to beam out to everyone’s home.”
Any student who has direct, extended exposure to someone who has tested positive will be required to stay home for 14 days.
Torah Academy explained that is someone tests positive, that class will close for two weeks and be deep cleaned.
The NEMJDS said all students and employees in that pod will stay at home for 14 days following the last known exposure. Testing should take place four to six days after final exposure, to reduce the chances of a false negative. Those who test positive can return if at least 10 days have passed and there are no symptoms, and there have been at least three days without a fever over 100 degrees.
Because of the shifting nature of the situation, none of the schools are saying for certain what the year will look like, but Debra Abolafia, head of the NEMJDS, said “We believe if everyone follows the guidelines we have proposed for in school learning, we may be able to remain open” even if other schools in the area have to shift to virtual instruction.
AT JCDS, plans are in place for in-person and distance learning, “and experts tell us that this year is likely to feature both.”