Across the country, yeshivos have begun to reopen with COVID-19 guidelines in place. Hamodia spoke to a few schools to find out how it is working out.
Yeshivat Torat Emet of Houston — Meeting the Challenges
In Houston, Texas, Yeshivat Torat Emet began classes on Thursday, April 20, with great success, b’siyatta diShmaya, albeit not without difficulties.
“There were, and still are, many logistical challenges,” reports Rabbi Yerachmiel Garfield, Menahel. “There has definitely been a learning curve, but we have a great faculty, and we are figuring it out. Everything has to be carefully planned out, and things may take a bit longer. However, if we follow the guidelines, then if one child gets sick, we do not have to close down the whole school. The key to all this is flexibility — on everyone’s part. Together, as a community, we can do it.”
Some logistical changes included transferring the school minyan from the beis medrash into the gym and dividing the gym into four different sections for recess. Arrival, dismissal and lunch times have to be carefully orchestrated to avoid having students congregate in the hallways.
All staff members and students in first grade and up are wearing masks all day. So far, it is working out well.
“The students all understand the value and are cooperating,” Rabbi Garfield says. “My second-grade daughter told me that it is ‘hard, but easy.’ Yes, there are complaints — even the Menahel is complaining! But we are all happy to have school, and if that is the cost, then that is what we have to do. For those who have not done it, it is hard to imagine. It seems so weird. But l’maaseh, it is totally doable.”
Some question how a teacher can properly communicate with students while wearing a mask, unable to show a smile or other facial expressions. Rabbi Garfield explains that some staff members are wearing masks with a clear section, so that smiles are visible, but that these masks are not comfortable for everyone. “But the real answer is that while wearing a mask, our teachers have been making an extra effort to communicate,” he says. “You can tell the child that you are smiling, he can see it in your eyes, or you can find another way. It is not beyond your ability to make sure that someone knows that you care about them, even while wearing a mask. It is a small price to pay for school safety.”
Another major development in the school is the appointment of a highly qualified school nurse who is dedicated to answering COVID-related questions. If a child is not feeling well, if there was suspicion of exposure, or for any other COVID-related matter, the nurse can be contacted via a hotline number or via email.
“I encourage every school to do this,” Rabbi Garfield emphasizes. “There are many questions that come up, and it is highly beneficial to have someone you can trust, who provides consistent answers for everyone, to address these issues.”
There are a few families who are not coming to school, and the school is doing its best to accommodate them. The plan is to for each teacher to have a laptop computer on the desk, and the students at home can participate via Zoom.
“The bottom line is that, although it may be a bit inconvenient, it is working. We have 370 children at school, baruch Hashem. The teachers are happy, the kids are happy, even the Menahel is happy! I am very willing to help out and share our experience with other schools on how to handle this situation.”
To contact Rabbi Garfield, please email Hamodia at firstname.lastname@example.org.
New Procedures at Torah Day School of Atlanta
At Torah Day School of Atlanta, school opened on Wednesday, August 26, with a “soft start.”Kindergarten began with half a day; more grades will be added each day until Thursday, September 3, when all classes will hopefully be in the building. With this gradual start, procedures can be ironed out and clarified in an orderly fashion.
The school has instituted new arrival and dismissal procedures, including temperature screening and daily health questionnaires for each student. “Safe routes” will be established for each child to walk to his/her classroom, with staggered entries into the building. A PA system was hooked up in the hallways, and leibidig music adds a special ruach as the children walk to their classrooms.
Parents are not allowed to come into the building or walk their children to the classroom, so teachers were assigned to greet the new kindergarteners.
“It was the smoothest first day of kindergarten that I have seen in 15 years of administration,” says Rabbi Meir Cohen, head of school. “The children just waved good-bye to their parents; they were just happy to be in school!”
Students and teachers wear masks in the building, and plexiglass dividers separate each desk. “This is different than what the teachers have ever done,” says Rabbi Cohen. “But we have master teachers, baruch Hashem, and everything has gone smoothly. This morning, I had such hanaah watching as Morah Dina, our veteran kindergarten teacher, showed the students how to act in the classroom and told them, ‘Things may look different, but we are still learning Torah together.’ Everyone is adapting and enjoying being in school together.”
The school invested significant funds in making changes to the physical structure of the school, such as breaking down walls to enlarge classrooms to enable social distancing. However, even with all of the protocols, a few parents were not comfortable sending their children, especially those who have specific health concerns. Therefore, classrooms are equipped with a webcam positioned on a tripod so that students can join the class remotely. The tripod can either be facing the teacher or moved around the classroom so that the student can join in group projects, etc.
Prior to the opening of school, on Sunday, August 23, TDSA conducting a mass testing for all students to ensure that no asymptomatic but infected students were coming to school. With so many controls in place, it is hoped that even if someone does test positive, school will not have to be closed.
“Parents have been filled with anxiety about school opening, and over the summer, it has been very difficult to work things out and get it right. However, seeing the children back in school, learning Torah together, makes it all worthwhile. It is just so wonderful to all be together in the same place. Our new motto is, ‘Torah — Together!’”
Torah Academy of Boston Implements Four Main Mitigation Strategies
Torah Academy of Boston plans to open school gradually, with a “soft opening” spanning seven days. The teachers came back for two days of training, beginning on Monday, August 31. The training included guidance on the new regulations and technologies that they will be using, and advice on how to help the children understand what is happening.
Over the next few days, the school slowly transitioned to a full schedule, with elementary, middle school, and then preschool students coming for half a day at a time, followed by a full day of classes planned for Tuesday, September 8. In this manner, students and teachers can all adjust to the new rules and procedures, and issues can be addressed as they arise.
“We will be welcoming back the students for the first time in six months,” said Mrs. Rachel Faibish, director of special projects for Torah Academy, who has been spearheading the communication related to the reopening. “We are very excited. However, there is a lot to learn, and there has been a lot of preparation over the summer to get us here.
Mrs. Faibish explains that Boston is home to many renowned doctors and infectious disease specialists, several of whom have been closely advising the local mosdos. These people are incredible leaders in their field, and the schools were able to glean advice from these doctors and formulate an appropriate reopening plan.
The new guidelines include four basic mitigation strategies: wearing of masks; social distancing when possible, including spreading apart of the desks in the classroom; cohorting (keeping each class separate from the rest of the school); and sanitization of high-touch areas throughout the day.
Furthermore, Torah Academy is in a unique position to be able to quickly transition to distance learning when necessary, as Chromebooks had already been part of the classroom before the onset of COVID-19. Upon the return, the school plans to continue using this technology to reduce the amount of paper being passed back and forth and to be prepared in the event of a school closure.
There is a small minority of parents who do not want to send their children to school due to the current situation, and there will also be children who will need to stay home when they are not feeling well. Therefore, the school is working out a plan so that those children will continue to receive a quality education and keep up with their classmates.
These plans are still in the development stages, but will probably include an OWL device, a 360-degree camera/microphone, so that children at home can have synchronous learning and livestream to the classroom. They will also participate in asynchronous learning, with self-paced work at home, and a staff member will follow up and assure that they are properly absorbing the material.
Hillel Academy of Denver Opens With Option to Zoom
At Hillel Academy of Denver, school started, b’ezras Hashem, on Monday, August 31. Rabbi Mordechai Hoffman, executive director, says regarding in-person classes, “Whoever wants to be in school will be there.
“Everyone is really ready to come back. I am not sure who is more excited, the parents or the kids! I think parents will be here at 5:30 in the morning, ready to bring their kids to school.”
Temperatures will be taken upon arrival, and masks will be required in school. Lunch will be in the classrooms, and masks can be removed during that time. Classes will be kept in cohorts, with all activities and recess being held exclusively with each individual class. With these guidelines in place, it is hoped that if there is an infection, the whole school will not have to be closed.
There will be an option for a student to participate in classes via Zoom, for those who are uncomfortable coming to school, or if a child is sick and needs to stay home.
“We all want to keep as careful and as safe as possible,” explains Rabbi Hoffman. “Colorado has a low state of infection, but we don’t want an outbreak to start with Hillel Academy.”
Yeshivas Doresh of Miami Opens Its Doors
After more than five months of a COVID-19 socially-distanced Zoom yeshivah experience, Yeshivas Doresh has, baruch Hashem, reopened its doors in Miami.
The past year has been a year of multiple challenges for the yeshivah. The Rosh Yeshivah, Rabbi Mordechai Salfer, said, “If there was any theme for the year, it would have to have been: ‘Embrace the Chaos.’ Everything is from Shamayim, and whatever challenges we are sent are to be embraced. And we were sent some serious challenges.”
The year began with Hurricane Dorian striking within the first week of the zman. Then, on the first day of Chanukah, there was a flash flood that overwhelmed the Miami drainage system and completely flooded the newly renovated yeshivah buildings. The beis medrash building sustained serious structural damages and required repairs over the next five months.
Then, three days after Purim, COVID arrived, and Yeshivas Doresh opened up online the next day using Zoom. Davening was scheduled three times a day, with baalei tefillah starting the day at 9:00 a.m. and ending the day at 9:30 p.m. Six shiurim and general studies classes were held simultaneously each day, and continued over the next five months through what would normally have been bein hazmanim. Attendance was taken all day long, and classes included online exercise classes, music classes and various guest speakers. Bachurim set various goals, and numerous siyumim were made on Gemara, Sedarim of Mishnayos and various areas of Shulchan Aruch.
Over the summer, there was continuous discussion of how to reopen the yeshivah, where to open, when to open, etc. Plans were made many times, and then each time, Hashem changed them. One lesson was repeatedly learned: While we must make our hishtadlus, we are not in charge; that is up to Shamayim.
The yeshivah has baruch Hashem opened for Elul under the supervision of Mr. Ross Polonetsky, a frum nurse, who has designed the protocol protection measures to safely operate the yeshivah during the pandemic and reduce the risk of infection.
Smooth Reopening at Mesifta Raishis Chochma of Montreal
“One of the big complications here in Canada is a very strict quarantine law,” explained Rabbi Chesky Buchinger, Menahel. “Anyone who returns from the United States has to quarantine for two weeks. The police really follow through — they will come to the person’s house, and he has to come to the window and show that he is really present.”
Consequently, before opening yeshivah, the hanhalah had to assure that a sufficient percentage of children had returned from camp and had completed their quarantine. As of last Thursday, 90% of the elementary school children were present; however, the mesivta talmidim had to wait until the following week to begin shiurim.
According to Quebec regulations, each class can operate as its own bubble, and within each classroom, masks are not required. Talmidim in grades five and up are required to wear masks when walking through common areas such as hallways. When the talmidim arrive at yeshivah each morning, their temperature is taken, they disinfect (using hand sanitizer or soap and water) and then go directly to their classrooms, where their Rebbi is waiting for them.
During the first recess of the day, the talmidim remain in their classroom. The yeshivah invested in board games and other activities for each class to play during recess. Lunch is also eaten in the classroom. Other recesses held throughout the day are staggered so that different grades have recess at different times, and the outdoor play areas are divided into zones, so that each class remains in its own zone. All common areas such as the library, gym, etc., are being used by only one or two classes per day and are disinfected between each class.
“I explained to the children that the Ministry is working with us, and if we follow these guidelines, then if, chas v’shalom, there is a positive case in one class, we will not have to close the entire school,” noted Rabbi Buchinger. “Rather, we will send the rest of the class for testing, and hopefully allow those who test negative to remain in school.”
“Baruch Hashem, we had two good days of learning,” reported Rabbi Buchinger last Friday. “It was beautiful to see the children back full-time in cheder, learning with their new Rebbeim. They are rebounding very nicely.”
Rabbi Buchinger related that he called up one child who could not attend classes on the first day as he was still in quarantine and told him, “We missed you so much in school today.” The boy responded, “Rebbi, I want to be in school so badly!”
“The children are thirsty to be in school,” Rabbi Buchinger asserted. “We need to give them what they need.”