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Day School Enrollment Is as Uncertain as the Pandemic
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Day School Enrollment Is as Uncertain as the Pandemic

With public school restrictions in place, Jewish schools draw interest from new families.

The Hannah Senesh school in Brooklyn expects enrollment to hold steady or increase slightly in the fall of 2020. (Hannah Senesh Community Day School)
The Hannah Senesh school in Brooklyn expects enrollment to hold steady or increase slightly in the fall of 2020. (Hannah Senesh Community Day School)

(JTA) — Far from facing devastating enrollment declines, some Jewish day schools are finding that the pandemic is bringing them new students — particularly if their facilities enable them to space out students sufficiently to permit a full five-day schedule.

Jewish schools in New York City have seen increased interest as it became clear that the city’s public schools will not be opening with a full-time in-person schedule this fall.

“We are picking [that] up in a lot of places,” said Paul Bernstein, CEO of the Jewish day school network Prizmah. “There’s a lot of interest from students at other schools. Jewish day schools of course are doing their best to accommodate the interest they are receiving, but it won’t always be possible given all the restraints.”

But the schools also have been coping with the loss of families who left the city to escape the pandemic. And the enrollment surge is uneven, with many schools in the New York City area, where most day school students live, contending with enrollment declines. And continued uncertainty about whether and how schools can safely open means much could change between now and the start of classes, in most places next month.

Bernstein said the trend of increased interest seemed particularly strong in suburban communities, where families have stayed put and in some places seen that their local public schools were not able to pivot to online learning as quickly as nearby day schools.

“Some of the contrasts that people are experiencing between Jewish day schools and other schools, including public schools, is happening in wealthier areas,” he said. “What they’ve managed to offer is nothing like what Jewish day schools have offered.”

In Brooklyn, the Hannah Senesh Community Day School is fielding inquiries but may not be able to accommodate everyone who wants to attend. The K-8 school is planning to reopen in the fall with full-time in-person learning for younger students and a blend of in-person and online learning for older ones.

Head of School Nicole Nash said she’s had inquiries for every grade level, but doesn’t expect to be able to accommodate them all given space limitations. As it is, the school intends to use every inch of available floor space, including the gym, library and art room to accommodate an anticipated increase in enrollment from the 220 students who attended last year.

“At a minimum we’ll hold steady, but I anticipate some incremental growth,” Nash said.

In New Rochelle, just north of New York City, Deganit Ronen said she expects increased enrollment at Westchester Torah Academy. The Modern Orthodox day school has incorporated online learning since it opened in 2013 and boasts a relatively low price tag as a result — a potential boon for newly cash-strapped families for whom public schools may not feel like an option.

Still, hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers have vacated their homes in recent months, often from wealthier neighborhoods, and whether and when they will return is unclear.

Beit Rabban, a nondenominational K-6 school in Manhattan, is bracing for a decline in enrollment this fall from the more than 140 students it had anticipated, according to a recent report in Tablet. The school’s director said she was most nervous about the effect of families moving out of the city.

Luria Academy in Brooklyn also anticipates a dip from the 320 it expected prior to the pandemic even as it ramps up its search for additional space to permit the necessary social distancing.

“It is my sense that most day schools are down in the city,” said Amanda Pogany, Luria’s head of school.

Some schools are better positioned than others to weather the crisis.

In Los Angeles, where public schools are going to be entirely online when the school year commences in August, the Kadima Day School was hoping to see a 10% jump in enrollment in the fall. With just 250 students and a large campus, the school was confident it could safely open on a full-time basis while maintaining 6 feet of distance for all students.

But that plan was thrown into disarray earlier this month after Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that the pandemic remains too severe to permit in-person instruction in Los Angeles. Now, Head of School Steven Lorch hopes his school may be granted a waiver, but the situation remains fluid.

“Everything is a little up in the air,” Lorch said.

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