When the Brandeis School of San Francisco shifted all of its instruction online on March 17, after the state announced the coronavirus lockdown, Jessica England, who has children in kindergarten, second grade and seventh grade, went to the campus on Brotherhood Way to pick up their study materials for distance learning.
“Of course, we’re very fortunate,” said England, who has been working remotely at home, as has her husband, James. “On the other hand, it was terrible,” she admitted about balancing her children’s schoolwork and her own job as a psychotherapist.
She says while the K-8 school handled the unprecedented situation as best it could, “somehow Zoom was worse than nothing,” England said. “It was like reduced-fat cheese. You’re not getting the good stuff.”
Now, as the new academic year approaches, Bay Area Jewish schools are preparing for one of the most challenging scenarios they’ve ever faced.
In the middle of that planning, and with coronavirus infection numbers spiking statewide, Gov. Gavin Newsom on July 17 issued an order preventing both public and private schools from offering in-person learning unless they meet strict benchmarks and show reduced infection rates for 14 days.
Nearly half of the state’s counties, including most in the Bay Area, are on a “watch list,” meaning they have not brought the virus under acceptable control and must offer only remote learning. That upends the planning of all but one of nine Jewish schools — the K-8 Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City, in San Mateo County. The county is not currently on the watch list and schools can move ahead with in-person learning.
The other K-8 Jewish schools are looking at a key provision in the new state order that would make exceptions for elementary schools, which can apply for a waiver to offer in-person instruction. Individual county health departments have the discretion to grant the waivers.
As of July 22, Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto and Oakland Hebrew Day School in Alameda County were planning to submit waiver requests, and Yavneh Day School in Los Gatos and South Peninsula Hebrew Day School in Sunnyvale were considering doing so. San Francisco County’s health department has not yet approved the waiver option. Other Jewish schools did not respond to J.’s inquiry about whether they would submit a waiver.
Jewish schools say they would much prefer to bring students and teachers back into the classroom. Given the ever-changing state rules and the variance in each county’s response to those rules, however, most schools have had to design multiple reopening plans. These range from hybrid systems — a mix of in-person and remote learning — to total distance learning. And of course they could change at a moment’s notice if infection rates spike or new mandates are issued.
The schools with elementary grades that are hoping for a waiver say they will comply with rules set by their county health departments, dictating such matters as how many students can be inside a classroom.
Nine Jewish schools have plans to implement “cohorts” or “pods” of students in the classrooms. In this arrangement, isolated groups of about a dozen students are set up for every grade.
Schools also are looking at hybrid models, in which students switch off the days they go to campus for in-person instruction versus stay at home and learn online.
Before the recent state order, Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco had developed four different scenarios for reopening.
“The task is overwhelming,” head of school Howard Ruben said. “It’s like an impossible challenge.”
Peg Sandel, head of school at Brandeis Marin, concurred. “Literally everything has to be reconceived and rethought. It’s an enormous task, with so many details.”
At Brandeis Marin, according to its original plan, the cohorts would come into school through different entrances and have lunch and recess at staggered times. Inside the classrooms, students would be spaced 4 feet apart from each other, and teachers 6 feet apart from students. The school already has purchased new furniture to accommodate social distancing protocols, and would also use its outdoor spaces for classes.
The Jewish schools hoping to reopen point to research that shows school closures do not help reduce Covid rates, since children are less likely than adults to contract and transmit the virus. Furthermore, according to the Marin County Office of Education, if schools are closed, many families would turn to alternative care for their children, entering situations in which they are more likely to intermix and less likely to maintain social distance.
Jewish schools benefit from the nature of private schools, with fewer students and more resources than public schools, a major advantage when it comes to plans that require additional staff and sufficient space to allow for social distancing.
It’s a disparity that Brandeis School’s head of school Dan Glass is acutely aware of. His school has large classroom spaces and a smaller student-to-teacher ratio.
“We just have more resources as an independent school. It’s crystal clear what a privileged position we’re in,” Glass said. “I just feel really grateful and lucky — and a little guilty, to be honest.”
But even with those resources, he said, the crushing economic impact of the coronavirus has put many families in a tough financial position, and requests for financial aid have increased.
“It’s a ripple effect,” he said. “We’re definitely seeing it hitting our families.”
With the additional outlay of financial aid meaning diminished tuition revenue, Glass said Brandeis S.F. has received help from the Jewish Community Federation’s Jewish Day School Emergency Scholarship Fund. The fund contributed $225,000 to the school’s financial aid pot, which in normal years disburses about $2.5 to $3 million.
A full year’s tuition in 2019-2020 was around $34,000. In January, the tuition increased by 4 percent, but Glass said the pandemic has forced the school to spend an additional $200,000 for extra staff, supplies to clean the schools and new technology purchases, such as personal iPads for younger students.
The Federation said it has granted $970,000 to 11 Bay Area Jewish day schools that applied for funds to cover gaps in financial aid. Spokesperson Kerry Philp said the Federation also will distribute funds to schools that need help covering the increased spending on such things as cleaning and technology.
“It’s costing a significant amount of money to upgrade rooms. That’s a big part of what our planning looks like,” said Adam Eilath, head of school at the K-8 Wornick School, the only Jewish school currently permitted to hold in-person instruction. Wornick also received money from the Federation’s emergency scholarship fund. “Thankfully, we are able to make decisions on a smaller scale,” he said.
While families may be pleased about the prospect of reopening, there isn’t the same consensus among teachers, who would face risks inside the classroom with a virus that is much more likely to affect adults than young children.
“The parents are more in line of wanting to go back,” said Cindy Schlesinger, Yavneh head of school, but teachers have “mixed” feelings about returning to school.
Glass said he’s “seeing a lot of teacher anxiety crop up” at the Brandeis School and attributes it to public school districts around the country going fully online.
At Wornick, Eilath said a survey was sent to teachers to gauge their comfort level in the classroom. While a “majority” said they would come back, he said, a few responded that they were uncomfortable with the idea. He said the school will do its best to work with teachers to accommodate their needs.
While sensitive to teacher concerns, parents who have struggled to balance child care with their work responsibilities for the past four months are more than ready for school to reopen.
Another survey at Wornick, this one sent to parents, showed that 83 percent were “likely or extremely likely” to send their children to school for in-person instruction.
Every school interviewed by J. has had inquiries from public school parents seeking late admission for their children.
“Typically, admission season winds down in March or April,” said Hillary Hazan-Glass, who oversees admission and outreach at Palo Alto’s Hausner School. “I’m having daily meetings with interested families.”
Requests from public school parents are not just a Bay Area phenomenon, said Paul Bernstein, CEO of the New York City-based Prizmah, a nonprofit network for Jewish day schools.
“We’re seeing it at the national level that there are a good number of inquiries like that,” Bernstein said.
Parents who spoke with J. commonly cited concerns about their children’s social and developmental growth as a key reason why returning to the classroom and their peers is so important.
Rabbi Joshua Ladon, a Bay Area Jewish education leader and parent of a third-grader and kindergartener at Oakland Hebrew Day School, said that without in-person learning, his children will lose out on key life stages.
“I’m worried about my kids and their capacity to have social and emotional growth,” said Ladon, who also has a 2-year-old. “Being around friends their age. Being around teachers. The challenges are many.”
Ronit Bodner-Alcheck, who has a second-grader and seventh-grader at Hausner, said that while her children handled remote learning pretty well, she’s “thrilled” that the school might open in-person if it receives a waiver.
“My kids need their friends,” said Bodner-Alcheck, who serves on the school’s board as vice president. “Children need children. The benefit of these kids being together and learning from teachers far outweighs the risks in my mind.”
For one East Bay parent, all-online instruction would be a game-changer. In that case, he said, he and his ex-wife would take their children out of school and look for other alternatives.
Micha Adam Levin, who has a sixth-grader and seventh-grader at OHDS, says it’s likely their mother will take the children to Israel if the school will only offer online learning.
“I don’t think online school is going to be an option,” he said. “Israel, or some alternative, definitely becomes a more obvious option.”