Montreal Jewish Schools Say They’re Ready

Aug. 27, 2020 – By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—Jewish day school officials here say they have put in place all of the measures required under Quebec’s COVID back-to-school plan, and even exceeded them – but only within the limits of the law.

In an online discussion Aug. 25 organized by the Communaute Sepharade Unifiee du Quebec as part of the annual Festival Sefarad de Montreal, officials offered assurances that their schools are ready to provide a safe environment for students and staff when they open after being closed since mid-March.

The schools are members of the Association of Jewish Day Schools (AJDS), an independent body funded by member schools.

A key point of divergence between some of the Jewish schools and the government’s plan, unveiled on Aug. 10, was the wearing of masks. The plan stipulates that masks must be worn by students in grade 5 and up at all times in the school’s common areas, such as corridors. Wearing them in the classroom, however, is optional.

Some schools had wanted to make masks obligatory in the classroom or for younger children as well, as a few non-Jewish private schools in Montreal said they would. In reaction, the government was firm: That neither private nor public schools have the legal authority to impose measures beyond the public health directives.

The AJDS-affiliated schools, which open as early as Aug. 27, are now “strongly recommending” that students cover their faces while in class.

The discussion, moderated by journalist Elias Levy and conducted in French, heard that some schools have also implemented such extra precautions as Plexiglas shields between desks and air purifiers in classrooms. At least one school will be doing temperature checks.

The Quebec plan does not require social distancing in the classroom. Students in each class are expected to be a “bubble”’ that stays together, with teachers moving between classrooms.

Connecting to the Zoom conference were: AJDS executive director Sidney Benudiz; Lucienne Azoulay, director of Academie Yechiva Yavne; Laura Segall, Hebrew Academy’s head of school; Jennifer Benoualid, principal of Solomon Schechter Academy; Alexandra Obadia, president of Talmud Torah/Herzliah High School; and Esther Krauze, president of Ecole Maimonide.

Another AJDS affiliate, Jewish People’s and Peretz Schools/Bialik High School, which did not take part in the panel, had to retract a message it sent to parents that all students from kindergarten and up would be required to wear masks in class after the government made clear that no school could make such a decision.

Under the province’s plan, all students must go to school fulltime this fall, at least up to grade 9. For the two senior years, schools may opt for a combination of in-school and distance learning, as long as students are in class at least 50 per cent of the time.

The sole exemption is for medical reasons, either the child’s or a member of their household, and that must be certified by a doctor according to strict criteria the government has defined. A group of Quebec parents who want the choice of online learning extended to all students has launched a legal challenge to the government, led by constitutional lawyer Julius Grey.

About 150 doctors and scientists with school-aged kids have also issued an open letter to Premier Francois Legault criticizing the plan as inadequate to protect against the spread of the coronavirus, and urging masks and social distancing in class.

The government has not yielded to this criticism, insisting its plan meets the current advice of health and educational experts, but is open to modification if the situation changes. On Aug. 25, Health Minister Christian Dube described COVID as under control in the province, which now has an average of 80 new cases confirmed daily.

The panelists acknowledged considerable concern exists among their schools’ parents, but the number that have secured exemptions for their children is relatively small.

Benoualid said Solomon Schechter, which is has elementary grades only, has 10 out of an enrolment of 450, while Obadia said Talmud Torah/Herzliah, which has 650 students, has 20 that are exempted.

All of the officials affirmed that their schools are well prepared to provide a full education online to these students, as well as any others who may have to stay home for an extended period, citing the experience they gained this spring.

Benudiz noted that the member schools, under AJDS’s guidance, rallied when they were ordered to close in March to develop distance learning platforms, and quickly put them in place. This combination of real-time instruction by teachers and online materials available proved to be successful, said Benudiz, who applauded the co-operation that continues among the schools.

The schools have now installed cameras in classrooms that will enable students at home to follow along with their peers and even interact.

The schools have closed their cafeterias, and lunches will be eaten in the classroom. The Orthodox schools are using the cafeterias and other repurposed spaces for socially-distanced prayers.

The panelists were definite that their schools would be able to cope well should they have to shut down again due to a second wave of COVID, saying they could pivot within 24 hours to remote instruction.

The other AJDS members are: Akiva School and Hebrew Foundation School, both elementary; and Beth Jacob School, which has elementary and secondary levels.

* A previous version of this story stated that the Association of Jewish Day Schools (AJDS) is a Federation CJA agency. In fact, it is an independent body funded by member schools. The CJR regrets the error.

Jewish Day Schools Face Array of Issues as They Re-open

Aug. 21, 2020 – By LILA SARICK

Jewish day schools are reopening across the country next month after having been closed since March due to the coronavirus. But it is clear the schools will look very different, as they prepare for higher enrolments, more requests for financial assistance, and higher expenses to ready classrooms for new health regulations.

In Toronto, day school enrolment is up slightly for the first time since 2003, said Daniel Held, executive director of the Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Education.

For 2020, 7,198 students are enrolled, an increase from last year’s enrolment of 7,007.

Held said the increased enrolment can be attributed to the day schools’ efficient rollout of online learning last spring, when they were forced to close with little notice, and that day schools are able to offer smaller class sizes than their public counterparts this fall.

“Because schools were able to perform so well, not only can they retain students, but they’re growing,” he said.

But while increasing enrolment is a positive sign for day schools, more students than ever need financial assistance to pay tuition.

This year, 300 students who had paid in full in previous years required financial assistance, while those who were already receiving aid required 15 percent more money, Held said. UJA Federation of Greater Toronto intends to allocate $19 million for subsidies, up from $10 million last year, he noted.

Changes driven by COVID are evident at TanenbaumCHAT, Toronto’s largest Jewish high school. Students will attend school in person on alternate days to allow for physical distancing, and participate the rest of the time online, said head of school Jonathan Levy.

Reopening has come with increased costs. The school has already spent more than $10,000 on Plexiglas dividers, sanitizer and cleaning supplies, and PPE (personal protection equipment), and that’s before the school year has even started, Levy said.

Enrolment is up at TanenbaumCHAT, with 1,100 students committed, an increase from 1,014 last year.

A poll of parents earlier this summer showed 80 percent would send their children to school in person and not study solely online.

“Overwhelmingly, families would like their children to be in school,” Levy said. “We’re confident we can provide our CHAT experience, but in a different way this year. I think kids will be thrilled to see their friends again, just from six feet apart.”

While many parents are concerned about their children returning to school, they are committed to the reopening.

“I’m not going to say it doesn’t make me nervous,” said one parent who has three children returning to Associated Hebrew Schools in Toronto. “We feel the school is being careful and trying to do their best and making decisions in a thoughtful way.”

But Rachel Marmer’s children won’t be joining their classmates this fall. “We love our day school and want to go back so badly, it was a heart-wrenching decision” not to enroll in school, Marmer said.

Marmer, who has four children, is setting up a small group – a learning pod – for her two school-aged children. She figures they’ll be less exposed to the virus than in a larger school setting.

Supervising her children’s remote learning earlier this year was a full-time job and did not work well for her family, she said.

“With two babies at home and having a job, I’m spread too thin. They (schools) could close again at a moment’s notice and I would be stuck with distance learning again.”

Instead, she found a retired principal to design a curriculum and post it on Facebook for a few families to join her. The response was overwhelming, and she is now overseeing a rapidly growing movement of parents looking to set up their own learning pods.

At Winnipeg’s Gray Academy of Jewish Education, head of school Lori Binder acknowledged that plans can change quickly. In the spring, the school quickly rolled out a full remote learning program, called Gray Away.

Winnipeg Gray Academy
Winnipeg Gray Academy

“We are open and prepared for all scenarios,” Binder said. “The province at any time can change the protocols so it’s just developing a very, very flexible mindset.”

She expected that enrolment would remain the same, with 490 students, or grow slightly. With school set to reopen in a few weeks, she is getting numerous inquiries, especially since Manitoba public schools will have larger classes and high school students will not spend every day in class.

Gray Academy, meanwhile will offer instruction five days a week, but with some modifications, said Binder. The school’s size and layout will allow groups of students to be cohorts, as the province requires. Still, Gray has incurred expenses getting ready to open. It ordered 1,000 decals to go under desks to mark the spots for distancing.

At Vancouver’s King David High School, Russ Klein is also keeping an open mind, aware that the school’s plans could change quickly again. Enrolment is steady, with 230 students expected to arrive on the first day of class.

“Everything feels different,” Klein said, starting with signs on the school’s front door reminding people to wear masks and wash their hands regularly. Students will be grouped in cohorts depending on their grade, and will do most activities, from academics to sports, together.

Operating costs will increase by $50,000-$100,000, Klein estimates, with a large chunk of that for extra custodial services. The province has contributed a portion of those costs, he said.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the school reached out to families to see who might need financial assistance.

“We saw an immediate uptick,” he said. “About 30 families reached out immediately.” Requests for tuition assistance have also increased, although he hasn’t tallied it yet. “We are giving much more aid than normal,” he said.

For now though, the school is in stable financial situation, having received extra funding from the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver and its own donors.

While some families are nervous about school reopening, especially if they have an immuno-compromised family member, Klein says he hopes they will be reassured by the precautions the school is taking.

“The vast majority will come because they want to come. We’re really lucky, we’re in a warm, caring community.”