Schools are welcoming students, with and without masks, for a safe start to the school year


With summer ending, kids of all ages are gearing up for the perennial tradition of heading back to school. Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, however, it may be unclear to parents what their school’s policies are on masking and vaccinations.

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Administrators at multiple local schools said they are following the updated CDC guidelines for COVID-19: Wearing a mask is optional, but staying up-to-date with COVID vaccinations is still encouraged, if not required. Those who test positive for COVID-19 should quarantine at home for at least five days and increase the length of their quarantine if they do not test negative on the fifth day.

Some schools, however, are taking additional steps to ensure their students are learning in a safe environment.

Gerstell Academy, a private pre-K to 12th grade school in Finksburg with a high population of Jewish students, has been taking a “layered approach” to keeping their students healthy, according to school president John Polasko. Practicing multiple small preventative behaviors — social distancing, regularly using hand sanitizer and going home if a person has COVID symptoms — will help students stay safe in the long run, regardless of whether they are vaccinated or choose to wear a mask.

But the school will not tolerate harassment of students who do mask up, either. “If families want their children to wear masks, they’re welcome to,” said Polasko. “Those children are going to be treated with kindness and respect by others.”

Gerstell Academy has been working closely with the Carroll County Health Department and will be following its specific guidelines. They have also implemented an isolation room where students who test positive or have symptoms can quarantine if they are not able to go home immediately.

Gesher LaTorah, a Jewish Educational Services program for students with special needs, is following the guidelines of Park Heights JCC, where they hold their classes. Instead of the CDC’s recommendations, however, their practices are based on those of the Baltimore City government. Masks are recommended for indoor programming and vaccinations are required for staff. All of Gesher LaTorah’s current students are vaccinated, according to Rachel Turniansky, the director of disability and inclusion services at the Macks Center for Jewish Connections and Gesher LaTorah’s principal. Because the student body includes immune-compromised individuals, the school needs to be extra conscientious about health and safety.

But even as schools do their best to prepare for another year of teaching during the pandemic, some children may still be nervous about returning to the classroom. How do schools help them acclimate?

“We welcome [kids] back with great enthusiasm and invite them to ask questions and participate in new activities as they feel comfortable,” said Deborah Rapoport, head of school at Ohr Chadash Academy in Baltimore. “Before they know it, the new year will feel comfortable and just like home. School is an exciting place to try new things, to meet new friends, and to help kids learn to look at the world in new ways.”

Gerstell has a specific philosophy that they try to espouse in their new students, Polasko said. “A big thing that we try to remind our students and faculty of is what we call the rule of one, it’s based on small improvements on a consistent daily basis that produce significant results and progress. Our rule of one is to do one random act of kindness a day, learn one new thing a day, and compliment one new person a day. If you apply that rule of one to all areas of your schooling and community, you’ll see tremendous growth.”


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