COVID Outbreak at Montreal Jewish High School Worsens

Sept. 16, 2020 – By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL – All students in five classes at Herzliah High School were sent home to quarantine for 14 days after 11 of them and one staff member tested positive for COVID, the Montreal Gazette reported on Sept. 16.

This is the largest outbreak to date at any of the more than 3,000 schools in Quebec so far.

It is traced to a bar mitzvah held Sept. 6, according to the Gazette’s information. The first student with the virus was identified two days later, shortly followed by a second, following a public health department inquiry.

The public health department held a screening clinic at the school on Sept. 11.

As with the CJR, school officials did not respond to the Gazette’s request for an interview, releasing instead the same general statement previously given to the CJR.

The Gazette did obtain a copy of a letter sent to parents by Herzliah head of school Michelle Toledano, which is quoted: “We are understandably concerned and are conducting our own investigation to determine common factors among the children in this group. We know that some of the students are friends and have contacts outside the school, but we are still investigating whether transmission may have occurred in school.”

Eight of the 11 infected students are in grade 7, two are in two separate grade 8 classes, and one in a grade 10 class. It has not been made public whether the staff member is a teacher.

The quarantined students are learning at home online, a contingency for which Herzliah was prepared.

One student at its elementary Talmud Torah has also been confirmed to have the virus, and is reportedly a sibling of one of the infected Herzliah students.

Under Quebec guidelines, students stay in one class through the day forming their own “bubble.” Face masks and physical distancing are not obligatory in the classroom, only in common areas of the building.

The three initial cases at Talmud Torah and Herzliah were made publicly known on the privately managed website Covid Écoles Québec, which compiles verifiable reports from school parents or staff. As of Sept. 16, 329 schools in the province are listed as having at least one confirmed case.

After the first two Herzliah cases were confirmed by public health, Toledano appeared confident an outbreak could be avoided. In a letter to the school community obtained and posted by covidecolesquebec.org, she wrote that public health officials “informed us that for one of the cases the risk of transmission is weak. For the other, the students of this class must be put in quarantine for 14 days and learn online…”

COVID Cases Confirmed at Montreal Jewish School

Sept. 14, 2020 – By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL – Less than two weeks after opening, Talmud Torah and Herzliah High School are contending with three confirmed cases of COVID, the first Montreal Jewish day schools known to be affected by the virus.

Two positive cases at Herzliah were listed on the privately run website covidecolesquebec.com on Sept. 7, and one case at its elementary Talmud Torah on Sept. 10.

The school issued the following statement to CJR: “As one of the many schools in Quebec with COVID-19 cases, Azrieli Schools Talmud Torah/Herzliah is working in close collaboration with Quebec Public Health and following their directives to manage the situation.

“We are in constant communication with all our stakeholders and continue to stress the critical importance of appropriate health and safety measures to contain the spread of the virus, including hand hygiene, physical distancing and mask wearing,” the statement continued.

“We remain committed to delivering high quality education while ensuring the health and safety of our students, teachers, staff and families.”

Brigitte Fortin, the school’s director of strategic marketing and communication, did not respond to further questions from CJR.

It is not known whether the three cases are students or staff, or whether anyone other than those who have tested positive has had to go into isolation.

Talmud Torah has about 200 students and Herzliah 450. Both began the school year on Aug. 27.

Herzliah, which is located in a new building opened two years ago, is on the Jewish Community Campus, the seat of Federation CJA and its affiliates. The high school is the campus’s southern anchor and is physically connected to the Sylvan Adams YM-YWHA by an enclosed passageway.

The Y has been closed since March and its projected reopening is Sept. 30.

Talmud Torah remains in the building vacated by Herzliah, a block away.

The Quebec government plan requires all students in grades 5 and up to wear face coverings while in common areas of the school, but masks in the classroom or for younger children is optional.

Schools can recommend mask wearing beyond the government requirements, as  Jewish schools are doing, but they do not have the legal authority to impose it, Education Minister Jean-Francois Roberge has said.

According to information on the Santé Québec website, when a case is confirmed at a school, all staff, students and parents are to be notified. Public health authorities will determine, with the administration, what “close contacts” the affected person has had at the school. If the risk to others is deemed to be high enough, those contacts will have to go into isolation for 14 days as well.

Covid Écoles Québec was created by Montreal IT specialist and parent Olivier Drouin after the government initially refused to make publicly available data on COVID cases in schools.

The government subsequently did make such information available on the Santé Québec site, but its running tally of affected schools lagged well behind Drouin’s and, on Sept. 10, the government  took down the web page – temporarily, it’s been stated – to make adjustments to the data collection system.

(Talmud Torah and Herzliah never appeared on the official list, which was far shorter than the unofficial one and, for reasons unexplained, from which English schools were mostly missing.)

As of Sept. 11, covidecolesquebec.com had compiled 226 schools with at least one confirmed case of COVID since Sept. 1 based on verified reports from parents or staff. There are approximately 3,100 schools in the province from pre-schools to adult training centres that qualify for the count.

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.