Children are heading back to school, but their classes are about to look like a whole new world compared to last year’s.
As Baltimore Jewish schools proceed to open in person next month, they’ve set preliminary policies in place to boost safety and prevent the spread of the pandemic. Given the almost hourly changes to safety precautions, all the organizations in this article noted that these plans are subject to change.
Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School in Pikesville has specific guidelines per school division.
These are based upon CDC and county expectations, with advice from the school’s task force and medical specialist. High school students will be required to wear masks, there will be an increase in cleaning, and lunches will be moved to individual classrooms.
As for schedule changes, Beth Tfiloh’s kids will have classes at the same times as usual but will schedule arrival and departure times by grade, so that there is not a flood of students. The school will even assign students a specific door to use.
The classes will physically look different too. Students may have to sit a few feet farther from their friends, and there could be limits to class sizes in the fall.
“Here’s what we have that others don’t: space and personnel,” said Zipora Schorr, director of education at Beth Tfiloh. “I have space to put our students together while staying socially distant, and some classes may still be distanced but for the most part students can be in small groups. That’s a huge benefit.”
Schorr trusts the transition will be smooth. She is already used to picturing an imaginary bubble of space around her and her colleagues at work. “Even in my office, if anybody is in communication with anyone, we wear masks, we socially distance, and we open the windows,” among more cautions, she said.
For example, the school upgraded its filtration system, and air handlers will bring in a greater volume of fresh air. It also installed touchless faucets in all bathrooms and will provide touchless hand sanitizers. “The benefit of enhanced air quality during the pandemic is immeasurable, but there are other very real measurable factors attached to this option.”
Aligned with Schorr’s logistical safety concerns is her passion to have the school open.
“Safety also implies that they need an education. It includes their emotional well-being, which is to be with others, so that is also priority,” Schorr said. “The animating principle is we would like children to be in school. School is without question the backbone of the economy. Parents need their kids to be in school to go to work, and kids need education to be successful, and to be with other children for emotional well-being.”
Beth Tfiloh’s neighbors over at Ohr Chadash Academy in Park Heights have similar ideas.
Like Beth Tfiloh, the school is considering staggered arrival times. Students at Ohr Chadash will resume in-class school either Sept. 1, Sept. 2 or Sept. 3, depending on their age.
“We really wanted to pace ourselves,” said Deborah Rapoport, head of school. She will also stagger lunch and bathroom times, and be sure that classes are not dismissed at the same time so that there are less incidental hallway encounters.
Other methods of safety include its strategic organization of classes. Rapoport is using a space-design tool where she inputs room dimensions and adds some wiggle room, and the program solves for how many desks can fit. Ohr Chadash will then repurpose other rooms, previously common areas, to be classrooms for larger classes. The classes will also stay with only their grade level, and not change rooms. Instead, teachers will rotate from room to room. Within the rooms themselves, there will be acrylic dividers on kids’ desks so that they can face each other while working behind a barrier. “They will still be learning through social interaction,” Rapoport said.
When considering programming, she said, the school will keep in mind that “older kids are better to perceive and conceptualize information on a screen. When they’re very young, they’re not able to grasp and present information [as easily],” said Rapoport, who has a background in neuroscience.
Moreover, the school will require parents to take health screenings and temperatures.
In general, Rapoport said she is slightly nervous. “Our community is excited to go back to school,” she said. “They miss being in school with one another. I think it’s healthy to be nervous because being nervous to meet helps us think more carefully about the details. We want to have well-written protocols and not have to make as many decisions in real time.”
On the bright side, she noted, this thinking helps her be more innovative about instruction.
Krieger Schechter Day School in Pikesville is also taking measures to secure safety priorities.
The school created a three-tiered safety level system. For example, when the campus opens, it will open at a Red Safety Level. This means what students will be distanced, health screenings will be mandatory, and there are no field trips or hot lunches, among other precautions. The school will move into an orange and yellow safety level later this year.
Also similar to their neighborhood schools, KSDS will also keep children in cohorts, or kvutzah, of 14 students each and install air filters.
As with all the schools, KSDS will continue to adapt and update its policies. Specifically, it is still drafting procedures for things like snack time and library books.
The Macks Center for Jewish Education, which provides learning opportunities for families, has some ideas about safety too.
The million-dollar question, said CJE CEO Amian Kelemer, is how to make content both safe and engaging. “I receive that question a lot from schools; How do you make classrooms engaging for online and in front [of] students? How do I make an experience without touching each other, or hand out materials?” asked Kelemer.
One solution she’s seen is at Bais Yaakov of Baltimore, where they will have dividers on desks with an opening at their bottom to slip papers underneath to students, like at a bank teller. Yet another solution she’s seen is outdoor schooling.”It’s funny. In this country, we say, ‘Oh, it’s snowing so we can’t go outside.’ But other countries say, ‘There’s no bad weather, only bad clothing.’ So we’re doing a professional development program on outdoor classrooms.”
Kelemer also noted that there can be positives out of this. One teacher told her that quarantined schooling pushed her to work with kindergartners one on one, which actually led to her students reaching a certain reading level faster than in previous years.
But there are challenges as well, such as a learning disabilities or lack of access to technology.
“Everyone has to make the best decisions they can. Everyone is doing the best for students that they can,” Kelemer said. “The most important thing is to have flexible thinking and offer as strong of an education as possible.”