With smaller class sizes and more flexibility, Milwaukee-area Jewish day schools are tentatively moving forward to reopen in the fall, while adhering to public health guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Administrators at three schools – Yeshiva Elementary School, Milwaukee Jewish Day School and Bader Hillel Academy – said they plan to take precautions as they transition to in-person learning from the online instruction forced by the coronavirus shutdown in March.
“We are intending to be back in person for the fall with modifications to accommodate social distancing in the classroom” and other safety protocols, said Rabbi Aryeh Borsuk, director of development and advancement at the 218-student Yeshiva Elementary School.
Not allowing large groups of students together limits the potential spread of the virus that causes COVID-19. “No single student could infect 60 at a time,” said Borsuk, whose school opening plan must be approved by the City of Milwaukee Health Department. “We will also train students in handwashing and other essential steps to limit the disease.”
MJDS’s 150 students will be in groups no larger than 15 for the duration of the school day. They will also eat in the classrooms, said Head of School Aaron Lippman.
Bader Hillel Principal Deborah Shmotkin said when the school likely reopens there will be mandatory temperature checks for students and teachers. No visitors will be allowed in the building.
Maintenance will increase daily cleaning and sanitation as well, school officials said.
As of late July, children wearing protective masks was still an unknown. But staff will most likely use them. Policy evolves with the science and the course of the pandemic, school officials said.
“We’re still trying to understand how to balance,” Borsuk said. “A mask policy will be determined as we get closer to school.”
Lippman said MJDS is taking guidance from a group of public health nurses representing several school districts. A local pediatrician and the Milwaukee Jewish Federation are also consulting with the school. The other two schools are taking comparable advice.
Parents interviewed said they welcomed their schools reopening safely. They commended teachers for their heroic efforts at converting to virtual curriculum in a matter of a weekend.
Bader Hillel surveyed parents this summer about the online learning experience and plans for reopening. The fall options included a hybrid virtual and in-person class structure at the 150-student school.
“The vast majority of our parents have indicated as their first option that they would like their children to go back to school,” Shmotkin said. She added that the school’s 40 teachers and support staff have expressed similar interest in full-time, face-to-face instruction along with addressing safety concerns. “We’ll only bring children back into the safest environment and we want to make sure that we are creating that.”
Samara Shapiro has two children at MJDS, a son, Peyton, entering fifth grade and a daughter, Elana, who will be a third grader.
“We were really impressed by how quickly the school adapted to distant learning,” said Shapiro, who is an executive search recruiter working from home since her children started online learning. It’s no replacement for in-person instruction, she said. “I would love my children to be back in the classroom, to see their teachers be a part of that environment and to see their friends that they’ve missed so much.”
Peyton Shapiro said, “It will be more fun in school and more work will get done.” He misses his classmates. “I like doing projects with my friends.”
Ora Gross, an event planner with three Bader Hillel students, leads the parent-teacher organization, which is involved in making decisions for the fall. She said she would like to see increased testing of families and teachers and mask wearing.
Teachers are concerned for safety, but want to return to the classroom. “I felt good about what we were producing and what the kids were producing online, but that amazing community feeling was missing,” said Linsey Kimmel, a fifth-grade teacher at MJDS.
Nicole Lesnick, a Bader Hillel second grade teacher, agrees with Kimmel. “It’s hard to be as loving and caring on a computer as it is to be in person.”