Parents, Teachers Weigh Pros and Cons of Fall School Reopenings

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From left: Erik Schneiman, Rhona Gerber, Avigail Gerber Schneiman and Eitan Gerber Schneiman

Rhona Gerber has mixed feelings about sending her son Eitan to in-person classes at Kohelet Yeshiva High School this fall.

“There’s a part of me that wants him to go back to school no matter what because it’s good for his mental health,” she said. “They did an amazing job with online learning — it’s more the mental and emotional aspect. There’s something about that age where you need to be with your peers.”

However, Gerber helps care for her 90-year-old mother and must take her safety into account.

“We can’t have her exposed to the virus. We moved her out of a long-term care facility to protect her,” she said.

She is waiting to hear more about Kohelet Yeshiva’s safety precautions and plans to discuss them with her family and pediatrician before making her decision.

“I’m sure they’re not going to do anything that would put the kids at risk, or put families at risk,” she said. “I have great faith in their decision making.”

Gerber is one of many Jewish parents weighing the pros and cons of sending kids back to school in the fall. As both private and public schools prepare for reopening, families and staff members must consider the merits of returning.

Those who opt to go back will have to observe safety precautions, including face masks and social distancing.

Rachel Zidel, whose two children attend the Forman Center campus at Perelman Jewish Day School in Melrose Park and who serves as the Forman Center PTO president, said the school released new safety guidelines and plans to renovate the facilities to reduce contact with surfaces. 

An email from the school to parents said it would replace water fountains with touchless bottle refill stations, and toilets, sinks and doors would be made automatic. Cleaning teams will regularly sanitize facilities, and tents without walls will host outdoor learning sessions when possible.

The students will be organized into small learning groups, or “pods,” and families that travel out of state will be asked to self-quarantine and use online learning before returning to school.

Zidel said she felt conflicted about sending her children back, but was impressed by the school’s commitment to safety.

“We’re all in uncharted territory right now, and I absolutely applaud them for their efforts in trying to get ahead in these scenarios,” she said. 

Perelman is also ready to pivot back to online instruction if case counts start to rise again, Zidel said, adding that parents were impressed with how quickly teachers adapted to online learning. 

“They really did a fantastic job of keeping the kids engaged,” she said. 

Wendy Armon, whose three children attend Abington Senior High School, recognizes that many families would prefer to have children in school full time due to a lack of child care options.

However, she said a hybrid model with in-person instruction limited to a couple of days a week would be safest for reopening. 

“I received a survey from our school district about what type of program we would prefer,” she said. “The more time kids can be in front of a teacher the better, but keeping the kids’ and teachers’ safety in mind, a hybrid model seems to be best.”

Some parents don’t feel confident about sending kids back to classrooms.

Jack Marine teaches a socially distanced “Science with Nature Jack” lesson | Photo by Katy Marine

Jack Marine, an independent teacher and consultant who runs the nature education company Science with Nature Jack, has received numerous requests from parents and schools for private socially distanced science lessons.

“Parents have reached out to me and said, ‘We’re very unsure what we’re doing with our children in the fall,’ especially parents with kindergartners,” he said. “Kindergarten is such a pivotal year for children getting interaction with other children.”

Prior to the pandemic, Marine taught science lessons at 25 private preschools. This summer, he is running a socially distanced outdoor science camp for small groups of kids. He is planning to continue that model into the fall for parents who feel home-school and private lessons are a safer option.

For parents with younger children, preschool classrooms full of shareable toys may seem risky.

A classroom at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El’s Early Childhood Center | Courtesy of Barbara Bookman

Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood is planning to resume Hebrew school classes and Early Childhood Center preschool classes in accordance with safety guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and from state government. 

“There are a lot of changes across the board,” preschool teacher and board member Barbara Bookman said. 

Drop-off will include a health screening with temperature checks and a questionnaire. Once children are in classrooms, they will stay together and limit interaction with outside groups of children and educators.

The school used to invite specialists in to lead activities, but those visits will be virtual and conducted via Zoom. Children older than 2 will be expected to wear masks.

Classrooms will be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected between uses and any materials that cannot be cleaned will be removed. 

Parents will be asked to provide individual art supplies and meals for students. Other shareable items — like dress-up clothes, wooden blocks and group snacks — will no longer be allowed.

“Anything can happen, unfortunately, but I feel that everybody will be following the precautions and the procedures and everything is very well mapped out,” Bookman said. 

She plans to spend time preparing her classroom for the new protocols this summer. She will also undergo safety training with her colleagues.

“As teachers, we’re going to be on the front line. The most important thing to me is safety for the children and the staff,” preschool teacher Lisa Lassoff said.

Some teachers do not feel safe returning to classrooms. Rich Wexler does not plan to go back to in-person classes during the pandemic, for example. 

“I have some immune problems, nothing major, but I don’t have a ton of protection from my immune system to be in that environment,” he said.

His experience working in schools and hospital settings made him skeptical about schools reopening.

“In old-age homes, prisons, residential programs, it’s all gone really bad,” he said. 

He plans to pursue independent teaching options, including home-school oversight and online teaching.

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