Schools, much like the Biden administration, seem like they may never actually declare that COVID is over, and that we are back to normal.
But for all intents and purposes, Jewish schools in the Philadelphia area are…wait for it…back to normal! (Pretty much.)
School officials, though, are quite literally paid to be wet blankets, and if you have ever talked to even one of them, you know that they are great at playing the role. So naturally, while local principals are excited about how much each day is starting to resemble 2019, they are still using the phrase “close to normal” to describe the state of the pandemic as the 2021-’22 year ends.
“I would love to say we’re in the clear, but I’ve learned a lot over the past two years working in school with this,” said Rabbi Marshall Lesack, the head of school for the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr. “I’m not going to say I know what the future looks like, but I hope we can return to normalcy for students.”
But in 2021-’22, there were unmasked smiles, after-school sports and out-of-school trips; there was social gathering instead of distancing in classrooms and cafeterias; there was little fear of a single COVID case throwing the entire building off schedule.
Most area Jewish institutions implemented the five-and-five rule recommended by local health authorities and their medical teams. If a student got COVID, he or she left the building for five days and then returned with a mask for five more days. At that point, if the student remained asymptomatic, he or she ripped off the mask again and smiled like it was 2019.
Those smiles were nice to see. Even school administrators enjoyed them.
“It feels like a relief. Like everybody can take a breath of fresh air,” said Liora Knizhnik, the director of community engagement and admissions at Kohelet Yeshiva, an Orthodox institution in Merion Station.
What was interesting about 2021-’22, though, was that COVID cases were still very much present, especially during the winter omicron wave between December and February.
The Abrams Hebrew Academy in Yardley actually had more students get COVID in 2021-’22 than the previous year, according to Head of School Ira Budow. But Budow did not have to shut down any classes or, as he put it, “go Zooming.” He just had to enforce the five-and-five rule.
Other Jewish institutions, like Kohelet Yeshiva and the Kellman Brown Academy in Voorhees, New Jersey, also reported cases during omicron. But as Knizhnik explained about Kohelet Yeshiva, the day-to-day was not interrupted.
Budow compared it to dealing with a cold or flu. The rules were clear, he said.
“It wasn’t like two years ago where, God forbid, you get the bug and you think you’re going to die the next month,” the rabbi added.
Jewish administrators agree that keeping students in person is a priority. Once they figured out how to do that last year, with classroom cohorts, social distancing and strict masking policies, they had something to build on, according to Rachel Zivic, the head of school at Kellman Brown, a pre-K-8 institution.
So, even as they reopened more and more, both at the beginning of this school year and after omicron, they were not rewriting a plan from scratch. They were merely updating their existing blueprints to handle the changing nature of the situation. They also had the confidence that, if another variant broke out, they could revert to the original strategy.
In other words, after two years of dealing with the crisis, they knew what they were doing.
“It’s all been smooth sailing. We’re a microcosm of everywhere else,” Zivic said. “We certainly are impacted, but it certainly hasn’t impacted the learning or the morale.”
Judy Groner, the retiring head of school at the Perelman Jewish Day School, said that in 2021-’22 handling COVID became routine. When there was a case, Groner would get on the phone with her administrative team and decide if the student’s class needed to make any larger changes.
“It does work pretty much like clockwork at this point,” she added.
Administrators are not sure if another variant or virus will break out. But they know one thing as they look ahead to 2022-’23: They will not be caught off guard again.
Groner said she’s “beyond certain” that the Perelman administration will be able to handle a crisis in her absence.
“There’s definitely a feeling of lightness in the building,” she concluded. “People are healthy and safe.” JE