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NY Day Schools Adjust to the Ever-changing Demands of Covid-19
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NY Day Schools Adjust to the Ever-changing Demands of Covid-19

Added costs, administrative fatigue and constant uncertainty are the hallmarks of the pandemic era.

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

Outdoor classrooms are among the options for learning during the pandemic at SAR High School in Riverdale, NY. (Facebook)
Outdoor classrooms are among the options for learning during the pandemic at SAR High School in Riverdale, NY. (Facebook)

Update as of 11/19/2020: After the announcement yesterday that New York City public schools will temporarily close for in-person learning due to an uptick in Covid-19 cases, Jewish schools and other private schools in New York City toldThe Jewish Week they will remain open as they continue to monitor the situation. 

When Salanter Akiba Riverdale Academy (SAR) in Riverdale was among the first New York City schools to shutter in the early days of Covid-19, it felt novel and temporary.

“There was something inspiring in March when our school shut down and we were all quarantining together for those first 14 days,” said the associate principal, Dr. Rivka Press Schwartz. At the time, she remembers thinking the situation “couldn’t possibly continue until Pesach.”

Now, nine months since the first Covid-19 outbreak in New York and three months into a school year that looks like no other in modern history, Schwartz said any lingering novelty has faded.

“Now we’re just tired,” she said, referring to the students, teachers, administrators and parents that make up the SAR community. “Keeping on keeping on is the biggest challenge.”

This week, Press Schwartz joined a virtual panel facilitated by UJA-Federation of New York on the ongoing challenges — and surprising silver linings — encountered by educators and students since schools reopened in September amidst the pandemic.

“Faculty and staff have to relearn everything we thought we knew,” said Dr. Michael A. Kay, head of school at The Leffell School in Westchester County. For teachers, coming into school on a daily basis “asks them to put their actual lives on the line,” he said, a risk they “didn’t sign up for” when pursuing a career in education. “They look around and see 90 percent of their peers working from home.”

Rabbi Joshua Lookstein, head of school at Westchester Day School, echoed the “enormous fatigue” faced by educators who must reinvent their curriculum and methodology on a constant basis to keep up with the rapidly changing circumstances. “Educators reinvent while knowing that any progress is fleeting.”

Press Schwartz described the experience as “constantly flying by the seat of your pants.”

“I’m a high school teacher, I know zero about epidemiology,” she said. Still, she and her fellow educators spent the “whole summer” becoming experts in risk theory, architectural design (to maximize classrooms and airflow) and information technology. “We miss feeling competent in something,” she said.

Masks, social distancing and outdoor classrooms are the new normal at The Leffell School in Westchester County. (Facebook)

Still, though the task to safely reopen schools was overwhelming and many doubted that the efforts would pay off, the return on investment is apparent: “school feels like school,” said Kay. In fact, not only are students “more grateful than ever before to be in school,” enrollment numbers are up, he said.

The need to accommodate increased enrollment and increased financial demands could qualify the school’s budget for a “greatest-work-in -fiction award,” Kay quipped.

Those increased financial demands include the building of temporary new classrooms, a significant increase in staffing (including more teachers for the reduced class sizes, a constant demand for substitue teachers and full-time cleaning personnel), and, notably, tuition assistance increases.

“We’re seeing a many families in our communities who did not fare well during the economic downturn,” said Kay. “We are not going to turn our backs on them now.”

The decision, at the beginning of the school year to open school meant the choice to “shirk no expenses,” he said.

Though the schools did not provide details, a recent survey conducted by Prizmah found that the average Jewish day school spent a total of $173,031 on Covid-related expenses, including the protective equipment, cleaning supplies and building modifications. One school surveyed spent $909,000 on Covid-related expenses.

‘We’re dealing with social emotional issues on Zoom. From behind a mask, we can’t read faces,’ said the head of Westchester Day School.

UJA-Federation of New York has been a vital source of financial support for schools during these strained times, the school heads acknowledged. When the pandemic first broke out in the March, UJA-Federation created a new $2 million Covid scholarship fund to supplement the $1 million UJA allocates for day school tuition assistance. In late August, as day schools prepared to open for in-person learning, UJA-Federation offset unexpected expenses related to health and safety guidelines by allocating an additional $2.1 million, with support from The Paul E. Singer Foundation, to 47 Jewish day schools, serving 34,000 students.

Chavie Kahn, director of school strategy and policy at UJA-Federation who moderated last week’s panel, called the reopening costs faced by schools “unprecedented.”

Some classes are held under tents (weather permitting) at Westchester Day School. (Courtesy)

The principals also cited the mental health challenges of students and staff under fraught conditions, and the challenge of integrating new students and families into a school community where parents are barred, in most cases, from entering the school building.

“We’re dealing with social emotional issues on Zoom. From behind a mask, we can’t read faces,” said Rabbi Lookstein of Westchester Day School. The pandemic has “exacerbated every other social emotional issue” that existed among their student population beforehand, he said, while making mental health challenges harder to treat.

Press Schwartz said SAR brought on two additional full time mental health professionals for the current school year, despite an already strained budget.

Silver Linings

Despite the difficulties, silver linings have emerged, some that may lead to lasting innovations.

One improvement: the level of inter-school communication. “Imagine 22 schools signing off together on anything before this,” quipped Lookstein, referring to a letter sent out in August by day school principals requesting community financial assistance and standardized safety procedures.

Other upsides: parent-teacher conferences over Zoom (“I don’t think parent teacher conferences ever need to be in person again,” said Kay); increased engagement from parents, alumni and community members in schools’ progress and functioning, including health committees staffed primarily by physician parent volunteers; increased fluency in informational technology; and a reevaluation of testing methods, now that tests cannot necessarily be administered in classrooms.

“Yes, we’re rethinking testing and we’re considering ending school earlier,” said Press Schwartz, who said the 4:00 pm dismissal instated for upperclass students has had unforeseen emotional and health benefits “Students don’t have to enter and leave the school building when it’s dark,” she said. “But, to any SAR students who may be watching this — no promises.”

And, ultimately, kids are kids, the principals reported. “If you asked a second grader how to improve school in the age of Covid, you’d probably get the same answer you’d get any other year,” said Lookstein. “More recess.”

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