Milwaukee-area Jewish day schools reopened this fall with a dedication to safe in-person learning while offering a great learning experience under difficult circumstances, according to schools and parents.
“The safety measures – everything – is so normalized,” said Ellen Shupper, mother of Ari, 12, and Gabriel, 9, at Milwaukee Jewish Day School. “We’re seeing a lot of planning and effort by the administration to deliver the best education and experience, even in these strange times.”
The Shuppers switched their kids to private school this fall, dismayed by the upending of in-person instruction at public schools. But the couple also sought an immersion in the Jewish values they wanted their children to be taught, Brian Shupper said.
MJDS offered 12 weeks of in-person learning with a plan to finish the 2020 school session online. Administrators expect that their 175-student school will get back in the classrooms after winter break and continue the same safety measures for the foreseeable future.
MJDS has increased enrollment by 25 students. Head of School Aaron Lippman said that could be a dissatisfaction with mandatory remote learning in the public schools. “We’re fortunate that we were small and nimble enough to come back safely,” Lippman said. “We had great support from the community, the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, our families and other donors.”
Bader Hillel Academy has stayed in-person through winter break with stringent safety measures. They have daily saliva testing of 150 students and staff for COVID-19. Any unexpected results are back by evening. “It’s an early alert system that’s worked very effectively for us,” said Principal Devorah Shmotkin, who added there were a few positive cases early on.
Yeshiva Elementary School has not been virus free. “Some students and staff needed to quarantine at different times,” said Rabbi Aryeh Borsuk, director of development and advancement of the 220-student school. “We had a few cases popping up and were worried, not knowing who else might be positive, so we closed two days earlier than we had intended.” Following the Sukkot break there was one week of remote learning as a precaution, he added. “Other than those two periods, we’ve been able to keep our doors open.”
Tziporah Altman-Shafer, Jewish education community planner for Milwaukee Jewish Federation, said that “all of the schools have at one point or another closed down because of a case or an exposure.”
Altman-Shafer said the Federation has funded certain safety measures such as personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer stations and water dispensers instead of drinking fountains.
Chabad-Lubavitch of Wisconsin has funded daily testing for the 49-student Bader Hillel High School and more safety measures. “There’s no greater precaution you can take than consistent and daily testing,” said Yossi Bassman, high school director. Plexiglas dividers have also been installed. “Our parents are incredibly appreciative of the resources, attention and focus that we have, the physical safety with the same zeal.”
Kids like in-person learning
The Chronicle asked several Jewish day school students about safety protocols now in place like masking, frequent coronavirus testing, washing hands, social distancing, temperature checks, family health surveys, in-classroom eating and being confined to small groups of students that stay together all day.
The students had almost nothing to say about their new school environment, except that it’s better than remote learning. Educators and parents say that mindset is a good thing.
Judy Pierson, a kindergarten teacher at Bader Hillel Academy, said that she feels fortunate to be seeing her students every day. “I think the testing they have put in place makes me feel very safe.”
The students have adapted well to the new normal, Pierson said. “You don’t have to remind the kids anymore to put on sanitizer every time they come into the room and keep their masks on. They do get excited when they get social distanced enough to have masks breaks.”
Keeping kids safe
Eighth-grade science teacher Dacy Jirovetz said she is satisfied with all the steps taken by MJDS to prevent viral transmission. “We’ve been blessed to be able to be in person for 12 weeks.” What’s challenged her the most is offering a virtual learning option in addition to her classroom teaching. “We do have some families that have people in the household with medical issues that are very serious. So, they choose to keep their child home. They just didn’t feel comfortable yet.”
Talia Hellman, a parent with children at Bader Hillel Academy, said, “I don’t think they could be doing more than what they are doing. Everything that’s within their control they are implementing.”
“It’s a lot of changes with a lot of extra work and burden on our teachers,” Altman-Shafer said. “They are doing a fantastic job and I could not be more impressed with them. All of our schools are working very hard to keep our children safe and to keep our children learning in a way that is meaningful and engaging to our students.”