Why These Parents Are Sending Their Kids Back to Jewish Day School, Despite COVID Fears

The COVID-19 crisis actually did something nothing else managed before: to make the city’s Jewish day schools collaborate. They’re confident their shared learning, and months of preparation, will keep students safe as the academic year starts on Tuesday

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A student's view of a classroom at Kinneret Day School in the Bronx, with the teacher behind a transparent shield.
A student's view of a classroom at Kinneret Day School in the Bronx, with the teacher behind a transparent shield.Credit: Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
New York
Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
New York

NEW YORK – Sending her three children back to school wasn’t a decision Annie Hoffnung took lightly. But on Tuesday they’ll be among tens of thousands of private school students returning to classrooms across New York City armed with masks, hand sanitizer – and a lot of trust.

“We ultimately felt that the school setting is also essential to all of our mental health,” Hoffnung explains, speaking to Haaretz in a phone interview.

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Beyond the usual first-day jitters, Hoffnung’s children – daughter Violet, and sons Teddy and Jack (11, 9 and 7, respectively) – are excited to be heading back to Kinneret Day School in the Bronx’s Riverdale neighborhood. “Sending our kids back to school is really important for us as a family,” she says, adding that “socialization and in-person learning were our key drivers.”

Jewish schools across New York have spent the summer developing safety protocols for the new academic year – even setting aside their usual rivalries to collaborate on the endeavor. Now those plans are about to be put to the test.

For Hoffnung, 44, and many parents who opted for in-person learning, their decision ultimately came down to one of trust. “If we didn’t have confidence in our school, we’d be having a different conversation,” she says.

Teddy Hoffnung, left, with sister Violet and brother Jack. All three will be returning to Kinneret Day School in Riverdale for the start of the new school year. Credit: Annie Hoffnung

Kinneret Day School head Rabbi Aaron Frank concurs. “The foundation of everything when it comes to school is trust,” he says. “If you don’t have trust, you have nothing.”

Jonathan Cannon, who heads the well-known Ramaz School on the Upper East Side, adds that for parents to entrust their children to a school is a “huge decision” at the best of times, thus making it even harder in the current reality. “Being as open and transparent as possible is appreciated by the parents,” he says.

Five of Erica Schwartz’s children attend Ramaz and she says she didn’t hesitate to send them back again this year. After spending the lockdown months on Long Island, she says her children had found it very hard socially, especially her three girls in high school.

“It was a given that they would return to Ramaz in whatever format Ramaz would be teaching,” Schwartz, 44, told Haaretz by email. “I know that my children will be in a safe environment that takes the risks of COVID-19 very seriously, and that gives me great confidence.”

Straight out of ‘Ghostbusters’

On a Thursday morning in late August, Frank is unpacking protective children’s masks (the kids will be encouraged to draw on them) and rearranging chairs in classrooms at the Kinneret Day School as he and staff members prepare for reopening. “We have a plan, we’re ready to go – and ready to close if needed,” he says.

The school, located in the basement of an apartment building, is considered small by Jewish educational standards, hosting some 220 children from nursery to eighth grade.

A teacher's view of a classroom at Kinneret Day School, with a protective screen separating the educator from their students.Credit: Danielle Ziri

Classes have been divided into pods of 12 to 17 students, with classroom tables set 6 feet (1.8 meters) apart. A large, mobile, transparent screen is placed between the students and teacher’s desk for added protection. The students will spend their days in the same classroom, including for lunch, and be required to wear masks at all times. “There’s going to be very minimal to no traffic in the halls,” Frank says, conjuring an image at odds with most people’s memories of school.

Like elsewhere, parents have added responsibilities as well: they’re required to sign a waiver each morning certifying that they’ve checked their children’s temperatures before setting off for school. By 9 A.M., a second temperature check will be done by teachers.

Hoffnung says she understands that much of the plan’s success relies on parents’ compliance with the new rules, in order to “keep our children safe and others safe, because it’s really a circle and it takes the community.”

Once the students go home for the day (noon next week; normal school hours of 8 A.M.-3 P.M. thereafter), the cleaning work will begin: Kinneret Day School has purchased equipment ranging from sanitizing products to portable UV lights, and even a handheld fog gun – a bulky sanitizing machine that looks straight out of “Ghostbusters.”

Kinneret Day School head Rabbi Aaron Frank outside his school in the Bronx, August 2020.Credit: Danielle Ziri

“My dream is that once the bell rings at 8 A.M. next Tuesday, the school looks the same” to the students, Frank says. “But we’ll have a number of children home, ‘Zooming’ into classrooms.” Both Frank and Cannon estimate that about 5 percent of their students will be studying from home.

Among those opting for remote learning are Jill Forman’s three children Aidan, 13, Eli, 11, and Leia, 9.

“When we started getting the emails with the laundry list of changes and rules, it seemed a bit overwhelming and exhaustive and challenging,” Jill Forman, 44, told Haaretz in a phone interview.

Her children also felt that the social elements they love at school – such as having lunch with friends – would be missing and the idea of wearing a mask all day didn’t thrill them either. In addition, not having to commute in from their home in Mount Vernon every morning would allow for precious extra sleeping time.

Jill Forman, her husband and their three children Aidan (left), Eli and Leia.Credit: Emily Main

As Frank sees it, all families made the best decision for their circumstances. “These are very high stakes and this is a very sensitive time, so we want [families, teachers and staff] to feel comfortable,” he says.

Reflecting the new reality, Kinneret Day School has purchased Caterpillar cameras (moveable devices on a pole clamped to the teacher’s desk) in a bid to ensure high-quality remote learning for those studying from home.

‘Different school from March’

A detailed plan is also in place at the Ramaz School. With close to 1,100 students from nursery to 12th grade and with three buildings, it’s one of the city’s biggest, most established Jewish day schools.

Despite her confidence in the school’s preparedness, Schwartz is still concerned about all of the unknowns. “How long will in-person learning last? How will it be for the kids? What will school be like for these kids socially? How will it be wearing masks all day long?” she asks.

The entrance to the Ramaz School in the Upper East Side. Credit: Hesham Nouh

The school’s head, Cannon, admits it’s “going to be a little bit of a shock for the students, because they’re coming back to a very different school than the one they left in March.”

With the need to reduce class sizes, Cannon and his staff have had to overcome significant challenges in recent months. To avoid overcrowding, they’ve opted to keep younger students – nursery through sixth grade – in school full-time, while seventh- to 12th-graders will be following a hybrid model, alternating between school days and remote learning days.

Like at the Kinneret Day School, a live feed will be available from every classroom for students opting to stay home.

“We feel that the younger students need more to be in the building, whereas we want the older students in the building as much as we can, but they’re more able to cope with remote learning than the younger ones,” Cannon explains.

Despite his school’s meticulous preparations, Cannon stresses that flexibility is going to be key. “Circumstances have been changing and guidance has been changing, and there’s a need to pivot as that happens,” he says. For instance, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo only gave the green light for the city’s schools to open less than four weeks ago.

Ramaz School head Jonathan Cannon. Credit: Mara Lassner

‘Close to the bone’

Tuition at the city’s Jewish day schools is notoriously high, ranging from some $10,000 to almost $30,000 a year. For families with more than one child, those expenses can be particularly onerous, especially during a financial crisis.

“I’m not sure it’s worth it, but we don’t have great public [school] options in Mount Vernon, which leaves me with private,” Forman says. “We’ll do this year and then if nothing changes, maybe we’ll reevaluate,” she adds, referring to her children’s remote learning.

But for Hoffnung, the investment was definitely worth it. “I think you get what you pay for,” she says. “I believe that my kids really lucked out: Our school was up and running on Zoom on day one [last March], and that’s because of the investment we’ve made in it.”

She understands that those not physically heading to school this year “may feel like they might not be getting all the resources that others are getting. But at the same time, to have that flexibility – that also has a value.”

Walk this way: Social distancing guidelines on the floor at the Ramaz School.Credit: Hesham Nouh

According to Frank, every private school in the city has experienced some families contesting tuition fees because of remote learning. However, he adds that his school has also gotten “more inquiries in August than we’ve ever had – because a lot of public school families want to send their kids to [Jewish day] school.

“This has been a very interesting time for Jewish education, because you’re getting families who never would have thought of sending their kids to a Jewish school, but now because of all kinds of reasons are doing it,” he observes. “Frankly,” he adds, trying not to sound too brash, “we offer a better product. We have more resources.”

Both Frank and Cannon are keen to stress that their schools have had to pour significant resources into preparing for reopening – from purchasing sanitizing equipment, to doubling the size of their programs by dividing classes, adding personnel and investing in technology.

“We’re very close to the bone and we’re using some of the resources that we keep for emergencies,” Cannon says. “We don’t want to compromise on the quality of the education that the students are getting, and so we’re just having to be very careful with what we spend, very thoughtful.”

Even though the Ramaz School is “a very established school with established funding,” Cannon concedes he’s definitely felt the effects of the financial crisis. “Many families have taken a strong financial hit, and we remain committed to those families,” he says. “A number of our families who are in a position to do so have given money to the school.”

A socially distanced hall at the Ramaz School.Credit: Hesham Nouh

Even so, if Ramaz finds itself having to close its gates and go back to remote learning for an extended period of time, it will “look at the finances and see if there’s any reduction that we can make,” Cannon says.

“Most of the tuition goes to the salaries of the teachers and faculty, and they’re very loved, so I think the parents are being very supportive,” he adds.

For Schwartz, providing Jewish day school education to her children was a “nonnegotiable.”

If Ramaz was reopening exclusively with remote learning, she believes tuition should have been adjusted to accurately reflect the expenses. But given the fact that it’s physically reopening, the cost is justified, she says.

“If anything, schools have had to invest more in facilities and technology, and health services,” she notes. “I hope the value of a day school education – not its monetary value, but its religious, spiritual, educational and communal value – will continue to be appreciated for all they provide to our children and families.”

A covered rooftop area at the Ramaz School.Credit: Hesham Nouh

Setting rivalries aside

When the first COVID-19 cases emerged in New York last March, Frank and his staff immediately made the decision to keep the students home. A few days later, they were running their first Zoom classes.

“I’ve been in the business for almost 20 years, I don’t think any of us ever imagined anything like this before,” he says.

But within the first weeks of the lockdown, a group of some 30 Jewish school principals across New York was formed. They began virtual meetings every Friday morning to share best practices and resources, and to discuss potential reopening plans. This despite usually fierce competition over securing Jewish families’ tuitions.

“We all really banded together in our communication, in our comradery, in our ability to work together,” Frank says. “I can’t remember a time when I felt so connected to other Jewish day schools as I have during this entire thing.”

Frank’s school was even able to receive a dozen projectors from another school that didn’t have use for them.

“In a situation like this, it just reminded us how much more in common we have versus what distinguishes us,” Cannon reflects. “Parents are still choosing between schools, but I think all of our students are better off because we’ve been able to make some shared decisions.”

He adds that this coordination also “gives parents confidence to know that they don’t have to be comparing this school with that school, because they’re all talking to each other.

“Hopefully it’s something that will continue long after the pandemic,” he concludes.

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