Jewish Parents, Schools Join Opposition to Montco School Closures

Parents and students protest in front of Dr. Val Arkoosh’s house. | Photo by Liz Spikol

It’s 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning on a quiet residential street in Wyndmoor, but a car is blaring “We’re Not Gonna Take It” in front of Dr. Valerie Arkoosh’s house. Along with the Twisted Sister song, there are children chanting “We want school, open our schools” through megaphones and about 30 people waving signs — though it’s unclear if Arkoosh is even at home.

It’s the second Sunday the protesters have come to make their voices heard here: Arkoosh is the chair of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners, and the Montgomery County Board of Health announced on Nov. 13 that all K-12 schools would close for two weeks in the face of an unprecedented spike in COVID-19 cases.

Many members of the Jewish community were outraged by the decision, and decided to fight back. A Lower Merion Jewish parents listserv touted the Sunday morning protest, urging, “Make your voice heard by participating.” On Nov. 22, protest organizer Jaret Gale, who is not Jewish, said his efforts have been strongly supported by the Jewish community, and that the owner of a Jewish day care was one of the first people on the scene.

Gale choked back tears as he spoke to the Exponent about his opposition to the school closure.

In the spring, he said, he found a note written by his teenage daughter, in which she expressed a desire to commit suicide in concert with a few friends. The shock of the pandemic and the isolation of at-home schooling had pushed her to her breaking point. She’s feeling all right now, but Gale remains on constant edge.

“As a parent, I can’t sit back and watch that happen anymore,” Gale said. “I just can’t do it.”

The Board of Health’s 5-0 decision to mandate the two-week closure, made with guidance from CHOP PolicyLab, has also rankled leaders of Jewish day schools in Montgomery County, along with the parents and students they serve.

Parents at Kohelet Yeshiva received an email on Nov. 17 from Rabbi Gil Perl, head of school. Acknowledging “the rising prevalence of COVID-19 in our area,” Perl nonetheless expressed disappointment that schools appeared to have been given no ability to apply for an exemption from the order, based on precautionary measures or rates of in-school transmission.

Additionally, he wrote, the fact that the order failed to distinguish between school for students K-5 and schools with students in grades 6-12 “was similarly difficult for us to understand.” Perl informed parents that a letter was submitted to the board, with the support of the school’s Medical Advisory Committee, requesting flexibility or an exemption for the K-5 students.

The Montgomery County Board of Health did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Arkoosh, for her part, has responded to the protests that have taken place outside her house: “As a parent, I understand that the past 37 weeks have been extremely difficult for everyone in our community, and I respect these parents for advocating for what they believe is best for their children,” she said in a statement distributed to media outlets. “I want to make clear that I want in-person school to continue, and based on our data in Montgomery County, our team believes this five- to eight-day pause in in-person schooling will support this goal.”

Kohelet parent Nachi Troodler was one of those who objected to that pause. Writing in his publication Philadelphia Jewish Link, Troodler expressed the anger felt by many.

“While we should all be fully supportive of measures intended to curb the spread of COVID-19, including wearing masks and engaging in social distancing,” Troodler wrote on Nov. 13, “I cannot in good conscience endorse a nonsensical directive that unnecessarily and unjustly impacts my children in an adverse fashion.”

Audrey Gornish, mother of three Kohelet students, was more succinct.
“It’s absolutely ridiculous,” she said.

If kids had been “dropping like flies,” Gornish said, then the decision would’ve made sense to her. It was the fact that no allowance was made for schools to be judged on a case-by-case basis, she said, that she was objecting to. Her children experienced distance learning once already and, with the weirdness of the spring, it just seemed like what one had to do.
But now that they’ve been back in school, the idea of returning to distance learning is devastating.

“They always say, ‘Follow the science,’” Gornish said. “The school is following the science. So I’ve kind of lost faith in people that want to make those types of decisions.”

Deborah Kleinman’s children are split between the Morris and Rose Caskey Torah Academy of Greater Philadelphia and Kohelet. What they’re not split on is a desire to remain in school, where they’ve been able to see their teachers and friends in person since school began again in the fall. Their mother doesn’t feel any particular tension when it comes to her assessment, either.

“I was sort of surprised that they were closing schools when they were leaving open restaurants and gyms and bowling alleys and all these other places where we know that there’s been transmission of disease,” she said.
Daniel, Kleinman’s sixth-grade son, has enjoyed his time away from Zoom school.

“I get to play recess and get outside,” he said.

Montgomery County Judge Richard Haaz denied an order on Nov. 20 by parents seeking to stop the board’s directive, according to the Inquirer. A second lawsuit has been filed in federal court.

Despite the protests, public health officials — and a significant portion of the population — back the restrictions. They note that new cases of COVID-19 in Pennsylvania have roughly tripled since the end of October and that similar restrictions are being implemented across the country.

Barbara Wadsworth, a member of the Montgomery County Board of Health and senior VP of patient services and chief nursing officer at Main Line Health, told The Philadelphia Inquirer, “If we don’t do this, we will be in a significantly worse situation post-Thanksgiving holiday.”; 215-832-0740


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