In light of the recent worldwide outbreak of the COVID-19 virus, or coronavirus as it is commonly referred to, officials of the New York City Department of Health and the New York State Department of Health have been issuing guidance to area schools about appropriate precautions they should be implementing to prevent the spread of the virus. With Monday’s announcement that a member of the Jewish community in New Rochelle was stricken with the virus and was in serious condition in a NYC hospital, the Health Department ratcheted up its communication with local institutions in an attempt to prevent further infections.
On Monday morning, the Health Department publicized that an individual in his 50s living in Westchester County but working at a law firm in Manhattan was hospitalized in the ICU at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center in Manhattan and has upgraded from critical to stable condition. The man’s 14 year old daughter, who attends SAR Academy and High School in the Bronx, has been diagnosed with the virus but is asymptomatic at this time; his 20 year old son, who attends Yeshiva University in Manhattan, his wife and his neighbor who drove him to the hospital have all come down with coronavirus.
As a result of these developments, three schools, SAR, Westchester Day School and the Westchester Torah Academy, are closed until Friday, and all three schools are working with the appropriate health officials to contain the situation. YU announced that the Wilff Campus will be closed until Friday out of an abundance of caution. The university will be disinfecting all relevant common areas.
At the direction of New York State, Westchester County Health Commissioner Dr. Sherlita Amler directed [Temple] Young Israel in New Rochelle to halt all minyanim immediately and for the foreseeable future due to potential COVID-19 exposure connected to the man who tested positive.
Besides the incident in New Rochelle, Yeshiva Bais Hillel of Passaic cancelled their scheduled Parents-Teachers Conference because one of their staff members was possibly exposed to coronavirus. The staff member is undergoing voluntary quarantine, and the school conducted a thorough cleaning and disinfecting of the building that evening instead.
The newest developments moved many Jewish school administrators to examine their own planning, both in terms of precautions necessary for the prevention of infection and contingency plans for school closings. “This was something that was on the table for the last week,” the Menahel of a Brooklyn elementary school told Hamodia, “but today’s events spurred us to take immediate action. We had a meeting of administrators who studied the material sent to us by various government agencies, and consulted with some trusted medical professionals to clarify the best practices. Tomorrow, we have a general meeting planned where we will explain our plan of action to all staff members.”
Yeshivat Or HaTorah, an elementary and high school which caters to boys in the Sefardic community in Flatbush, has already been discussing with their students the implication of the outbreak for the past week. “When the B’datz of Yerushalayim declared a Yom Tefillah for Erev Rosh Chodesh Adar (February 29), I spoke to them in Israel, and we decided that we would add some special Tehillim to our daily routine in our yeshiva,” said Rabbi Yaakov Marcus, the Dean of Or HaTorah. “After shaharit, I spoke to the boys of the older grades and explained to them that the gemara in Taanit (21b) says that a plague which is spreading can be a danger. I stressed that in all situations, the first line of defense is prayer, and we added some Tehillim to our daily tefillah.”
When asked what other measures will be taken moving forward, Rabbi Marcus mentions that they received guidelines from the Health Department, and they will follow these procedures as instructed by the government and medical practitioners. “We have already instituted the recommendations for extra sanitizing of certain items and the monitoring of students and staff who appear ill. In addition, we will conference with the teaching staff to plan for any possible interruption or suspension of learning.”
Another Brooklyn school which spoke with Hamodia shared the preparations they developed with the staff over the past few days. “Our teachers were taught how to convey some crucial methods to their students, especially the younger grades,” an experienced first grade said. “The youngsters may not be trained in proper handwashing techniques, which is one of the most crucial means of preventing the spread of any infection in community settings. We also participated in a meeting with the administrative staff who informed us of several remote methods of instruction in order to maintain ongoing teaching in case of any suspension of classes.”
On Monday, The Jewish Education Project presented an instructional webinar titled “Remaining Vigilant, Staying Healthy, and Keeping Calm in the Face of Coronavirus” for local yeshivos, Bais Yaakovs and day schools. “The webinar was scheduled for 2:30 pm, which is in the middle of the school day,” a Menaheles of a Bais Yaakov related, “so we selected some teachers who were not in the classroom to join it and relay the vital information to the rest of the staff. The seminar was very informative, and we based our plan of action on the advice we received from it as well as the guidance of the government agencies.”
According to the Menahel of a large Bais Yaakov in Brooklyn, the NYC Department of Health communicated that the epicenter of the epidemic is not expected for another few weeks, which allows them some time to train the staff and students in the best practices of infection prevention. Handwashing with soap under running water for 20 seconds is suggested, and when a sink is unavailable they recommend using an alcohol based hand sanitizer that contains a minimum of 60% alcohol.
Many schools have used their regular lines of communication with parents to disseminate informational material prepared by the CDC and Board of Health, explaining the symptoms of COVID-19 and the steps to take if they are ill. Parents were instructed to keep their child home if they are sick, and to seek medical clearance before allowing them to return. Staff members who exhibit symptoms were encouraged to stay away until they are cleared for return by their physicians.
“We sent out an email to our parents detailing the steps we are taking to reduce the chances of infection,” said the administrator of a yeshiva in the Five Towns. “We were happy to inform them that through the generosity of one of their own, we installed hand sanitizing dispensers in each classroom, which will facilitate simpler and more frequent hand cleaning. By corresponding openly and often, we are doing our part to reduce the anxiety of the parents and the students in these trying times.”
The CDC Interim Guidance for Administrators of Childcare Programs suggests to routinely clean frequently touched surfaces (e.g., doorknobs, light switches, countertops) with cleaning agents, and providing disposable wipes for commonly used surfaces (e.g., keyboards, desks, remote controls) to be wiped down before and between each use.
“Given these guidelines, I will have to alter some of my usual teaching methods,” a Rebbi from Boro Park said. “I often call on a boy to come up to the white board to fill in an answer. Since it is suggested to wipe down all commonly used surfaces, I would have to use a disposable wipe between each boy who handles the marker. I’m afraid the disruption to the lesson will be more than the gain from the participation of the talmid, so I may have to reduce or eliminate it. But the safety of the talmidim is paramount.”
When Hamodia reached out to the local schools, most had already implemented sanitizing and disinfecting routines. There were some, however, which had not yet begun using the recommended procedures. “I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that we did not commence employing the recommendations,” one administrator sheepishly replied, “but I assure you it will be done the first thing in the morning.”
Adherence to the suggestions of the Health Department vary from one locale to another. “In our neighborhood, the administrators of the many mosdos speak to each other all the time,” the building manager of a cheder said. “So once one of us heard about it, we told others, and we all jumped on the bandwagon. In other localities, the communication may not be the same, so you may find that some mosdos have not yet begun. The Health Department has reached out to them, and I am sure that within a short while, all will be on board, since we all want to protect our children and provide them with a safe environment for learning.”