Preschools Push Forward Despite Pandemic

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A classroom at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El Early Childhood Center | Courtesy of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El Early Childhood Center

While many Jewish preschools are implementing rolling deadlines, early childhood care directors still find themselves lacking in numbers, both in enrollment and staffing, because of the pandemic.

“Preschool is going to look different,” said Eileen Weingram, director of early learning at Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park. 

The initial surge of COVID-19 cases directly corresponded with preschool registration season, she said. Beth Sholom had tours scheduled every week in March and throughout the summer, “but then everything stopped.” Since then, the school has gotten only a handful of new students, leaving its overall enrollment below normal. 

Beth Sholom’s experience appears to be commonplace, with other preschools reporting similar situations.

Schools such as the Beth Tikvah Bnai Jeshurun Early Childhood Center in Erdenheim and the Early Childhood Program at the Germantown Jewish Centre started earlier this summer, opening camp programs with limited kids. 

“When we came back in June, we only had a couple handfuls of kids,” Germantown ECP Director Michelle Bernstein said. “People were hesitant, so our camp program was less than we anticipated by maybe 10 or 15 kids.”

The school, however, is back on track for the approaching season.  

Directors are hoping that parents will reassess enrolling their children in upcoming months.  

“As people realize that these changes are here to stay, and that COVID is not going anywhere for a long time, parents will start to reconsider,” Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood Early Childhood Center Director Judith Scarani said.  

Some parents are holding off on sending their children — enrolled or not — until January. 

“They’re not coming for all the reasons we would expect,” Weingram said. “Their parents are either working from home, are unemployed or are too afraid to put their child at risk.” 

Baby rooms specifically are taking a hard hit, Scarani said.

“Most of the infants and the 1-year-olds are just not ready,” she said. “Those are the age groups in which we’ve seen a significant drop.”  

Students are not the only demographic taking the year off. 

Temple Sinai’s Ann Newman Preschool and Infant Center Early Childhood Education Director Beth Rabinowitz noted that, “It is already difficult to get staff in preschools.” Now, with the pandemic, “staffing numbers are going to be a problem across the nation.”

Part-time staff, older employees and those at high risk are reconsidering their teaching roles for this year. Substitute teachers are also scarce, Scarani said. 

While most teachers are eager to get back in the classroom, missing one another and the children, there is still an underlying level of concern about hours, sufficiently clean environments, isolation from others and extensive training. 

Parents have related concerns for their children, so preschool directors are stressing the importance of constant communication with families. 

“Every parent has my cell phone number,” Rabinowitz said. 

So far, parents have been kept up to date through Zoom, BTBJ Early Childhood Center Director Marcie Leshner said. 

With CDC regulations seemingly changing daily, directors such as Rabinowitz are “living and breathing the guidelines.” 

“There are so many policies and procedures right now, it’s exhausting,” she said. 

Some of the changes that will be implemented are smaller isolated classrooms, specialty activities through Zoom, increased outdoor play and the absence of parents in the building, according to Barbara Sharofsky, director of early childhood education at Adath Israel Early Childhood Learning Center.

Scarani, Weingram and Rabinowitz credit Jewish Learning Venture for creating a close-knit community of preschool directors. Meeting virtually every Thursday, the organization has become a support group.

“The directors have really united. We may not have as many kids as we did when we left in March, but were going to do what we have to do for this field,” said Rabinowitz said.

The directors all said their focus will always be the children. 

“We’re here to support our families. Their children are in the safe, loving and creative environment that they always have been, just with more protocols that we have to follow,” Bernstein said.

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