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Crown Heights Yeshivas Want to Test Kids for Covid-19
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Crown Heights Yeshivas Want to Test Kids for Covid-19

Some parents object to a waiver that would allow the schools to test their children 'as needed.'

Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week. She covers abuses of power in non-profit and religious settings. She heads up the Investigative Journalism Fund, an initiative to fill a gap in investigative and enterprise reporting. Reach her at hannah@jewishweek.org

Educational Institute Oholei Torah, a Chabad-affiliated school in Crown Heights, Brooklyn (ChabadInfo.com)
Educational Institute Oholei Torah, a Chabad-affiliated school in Crown Heights, Brooklyn (ChabadInfo.com)

Yeshivas in Crown Heights, mostly affiliated with the Chabad chasidic movement, are requiring parents to sign a waiver allowing their children to be tested for Covid-19.

Angering some parents, a joint statement informing parents of the testing policy for students came Monday as yeshiva students prepared to return to school after the Sukkot holiday.

According to the statement, testing children for Covid “as needed” is the only way to keep the schools open. “Testing as many healthy individuals as possible,” the statement reads, “will help bring down the average of positive tests and give the schools a fighting chance to remain open.”

The statement was signed by the administration of Oholei Torah, the largest all boys Chabad-Lubavitch yeshiva in the neighborhood, in conjunction with other local Jewish yeshivas and schools. An Oct. 12 email to parents, obtained by The Jewish Week, was titled “TIME SENSITIVE: WAIVER MANDATORY.”

Parents were instructed to sign a waiver that gives a “third party permission to test your child for COVID-19 as needed.” Signing the waiver was a precondition for children returning to school, the letter indicated.

The waiver sent shock waves through the community of Crown Heights parents, many of whom felt the requirement was infringing upon their civil liberties.

“I was completely blindsided,” said Dalia Shusterman, a mother of four who lives in Crown Heights and belongs to the Chabad community. One of her sons attends Oholei Torah. “The schools are saying that if we as parents don’t sign away our rights you won’t have a school for your kids.  This is not how our community operates at all.

“My first instinct was not sign away my rights as a parent. This is crossing lines beyond,” she said.

Responding to parent concerns — which multiplied in a WhatsApp group called “Ch parents/Free choice” that amassed about 300 participants in one day — Oholei Torah sent a follow-up email to parents Wednesday night “amend[ing] the procedure.”

“Any parent that wants to test their child by their primary care physician or urgent care will be able to do so,” the email reads.

My first instinct was not sign away my rights as a parent. This is crossing lines beyond.

The letter aimed to reassure parents that the “Yeshiva will not be administering the painful COVID test; it is a gentle swab and the testing will be done in a calm and professional manner.” It encouraged them to sign the waiver. “Having your child tested in yeshiva is the most convenient and efficient option for parents and students.”

Shusterman declined to sign the waiver and said her son was not sent home from school today or yesterday; still, she has heard from other neighborhood parents that children are being sent home if parents fail to sign the waiver.

One parent posting in the WhatsApp group referred to students who were removed from class earlier this week, apparently because their parents had not signed the testing waiver, as “korbonos,” or sacrifices.

Oholei Torah, known as the “flagship school of Chabad Lubavitch,” did not respond to requests for comment.

Dr. Moshe Lazar, a pediatrician in Borough Park and Flatbush who was instrumental in helping several yeshivas initially open in the fall, said that ideally, all students would be tested.

“The goal is to test, trace and contain,” he said. He said that in Brooklyn neighborhoods bordering Crown Heights, yeshivas that were closed by city health officials were being punished for positive tests before being given a chance to trace and contain those cases.

“If communities are punished for testing, they will have less success in tracing and containing the spread,” he said.

In yesterday’s follow up email to parents, Oholei Torah administration stressed to parents that “school shutdowns” due to Covid-19 remain a “real threat” for the Crown Heights community.

‘I need my kids to stay in school’

Tanya Rogalsky, a mother and member of the Crown Heights Chabad community, said she signed the waiver. “I need my kids to stay in school,” she said, noting this is the first day since March that all three of children are reliably in a school setting.

The Chabad-Lubavitch section of Crown Heights was not among the 20 hot spots in Brooklyn and Queens instructed by Mayor Bill de Blasio to implement new lockdown measures because of spiking cases of Covid-19. Unlike other Orthodox Jewish communities in the surrounding neighborhoods —  Borough Park, Midwood, Kew Gardens Hills and Far Rockaway among them — Crown Heights is not a “red zone,” indicating a surge in positive Covid-19 cases.

Still, according to Professor Yaneer Bar-Yam, an expert on pandemics and the founder of EndCoronavirus, a volunteer coalition to combat the global outbreak of COVID-19, while the use of tests can “somewhat reduce risk, it is much much better to stop the transmission in the community and then open the schools.”

This is like a fire, it is essential to put it out completely.

“If the community stops considering this a government action and instead considers it a community responsibility, then the community can stop the outbreak in a matter of weeks and open normally,” said Professor Bar-Yam, who has served as an advisor the Center for Disease Control (CDC). “The key is not to satisfy oneself with just reduction in the number of cases, but rather to stop community transmission. This is like a fire, it is essential to put it out completely.”

Residents of neighborhoods in red zones, almost all of which have large Orthodox populations, have protested lockdown efforts they consider discriminatory or unnecessary.

Orthodox residents of Borough Park burned masks and blocked city buses Tuesday night to protest Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s announcement that he would impose new restrictions on areas with upticks in Covid. (Screenshots from WhatsApp)

The Oct. 12 statement from Oholei Torah referenced the recent Federal Court ruling upholding Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s right to order closures.  a lawsuit, brought by the charedi Orthodox umbrella group Agudath Israel of America, claimed the restrictions constituted religious discrimination.

“The need for this is even more Critical in light of the Federal Court ruling right before Yom Tov, upholding the Governor’s right to order closures,” the statement said.

The focus on getting more children tested in order to keep positive rates down is the latest salvo in the efforts by schools to stay open under the scrutiny of state and city officials.

Earlier this month, an anonymous message making the rounds of charedi Orthodox WhatsApp groups urged parents of students attending Jewish schools in New York City to not have their children tested so that the schools could stay open.

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