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Going back to school in the age of COVID-19

CM 28/08/2021 2

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NEW YORK – As schools across the US welcome back students, skyrocketing case numbers of COVID-19 and the spread of the Delta variant have meant that a year and a half into the pandemic – the third school year of coronavirus – Jewish schools along with others have come back to debates about masks, vaccines and social distancing.
“Each year of COVID has been an entirely different experience,” Gary Pretsfelder, cohead of Schechter Manhattan, a K-8 day school affiliated with the Conservative movement, told The Jerusalem Post.
In March 2020, when New York City was the epicenter of the virus, the Upper West Side school swiftly pivoted to remote learning.

Last year, with students masked and separated into “pods,” Schechter stayed open in-person all year.
“We’d say: ‘OK, if we make it through the chagim [religious holidays] we’ll be lucky.’ And then Thanksgiving passed, January and [Passover] passed, we were in session all year,” Pretsfelder recalled.
“Last year was successful, which is kind of a crazy thing to say in a pandemic. Like everybody else, we’ve been making it up as we go along,” he continued.
After last year’s success, Pretsfelder said he saw the light at the end of the tunnel.
Now, with high rates of breakthrough infections and children under 12 years old not yet being eligible for the vaccine, Pretsfelder expressed frustration that we’re not rounding the corner on coronavirus, but going in circles.
“We’re an elementary school, we’re coming into the year knowing that two-thirds of our population won’t be vaccinated,” he said. “As the Delta variant has strengthened, we’re mandating masks, we’re social distancing, we’re still meeting twice a month with our medical advisory committee.”
In the Washington suburbs, K-12 Modern Orthodox day school Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy is enforcing mask requirements regardless of vaccination status, as per Maryland state guidelines.
Additionally, faculty and students over 12 will be required to show proof of vaccination.
Sarah Sicherman, Berman’s director of marketing and communications, expressed confidence in safely bringing students back full-time despite rising infection cases, because of the school’s 100%-vaccination rate.
Last year, students alternated weeks of in-person and remote learning.
“The biggest difference from last year is we are pleased that all students will be learning full-time on campus,” Sicherman told the Post. “We have not heard of any students staying home at this point,” she added.
 BERMAN STUDENT Kayla Sicherman during the 2020-21 school year. (credit: Courtesy of Sarah Sicherman) BERMAN STUDENT Kayla Sicherman during the 2020-21 school year. (credit: Courtesy of Sarah Sicherman)
SICHERMAN NOTED that currently student coronavirus testing will not be required, as Maryland guidelines state “screening testing may be most valuable in areas with substantial or high community transmission levels, in areas with low vaccination coverage, and in schools where other prevention strategies are not implemented.”
But like everything in the pandemic, the decision is fluid, she added. “We are constantly monitoring the situation with our Medical Task Force and will update accordingly if needed.”
Other states have yet to issue statewide mask mandates for schools, leading to these fights taking place on the school district level. In a district outside Pittsburgh this week, a parent who opposed masking flashed a Nazi hand signal after the board voted to require masks.
Schools are reopening against the backdrop of state and national debates over whether students need to mask and whether teachers should be forced to vaccinate, as well as concerns about the Delta variant’s increased transmissibility. Public school districts in Texas and Florida are imposing mask mandates on their students, defying bans on mask requirements issued by the governors of those two states. In Texas, the ban on mask requirements has also faced legal complications.
Because Jewish day schools are private, they aren’t subject to public school district policies or proclamations from governors aimed at public institutions.
The Shlenker School in Houston, Texas, is requiring all students and faculty to wear a mask while indoors, Head of School Michelle Barton told the Post.
But the school is taking a different approach when it comes to vaccine mandates. “We’re not requiring it,” Barton said. She estimated that close to 90% of teachers have been inoculated by choice.
Barton noted that their mitigation strategies have worked so well that many public school families switched to the school last year. “A statistic that I’m most proud of is 100% of the public school families who joined us last year reenrolled,” she continued. “It’s a silver lining of the pandemic.”
In Oregon and most of California, public school students will be mandated to mask. And California requires that its teachers either vaccinate or be tested for COVID regularly. This week, the two largest teachers’ unions in the country both signaled receptiveness to such requirements.
“Vaccines are the single most important way of dealing with COVID,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said on Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press. “It’s not a new thing to have immunizations in schools. I think we need to be working with our employers, not opposing them, on vaccine mandates.”
“Amid a global pandemic, we’re blessed to have the resources to keep everyone safe and give our students in-person learning,” Shlenker’s Barton said. “It takes all of us to work together as a community to keep our students safe.”
JTA contributed to this report.


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