Vaccine Approval for Kids Relaxes Religious Schools

Five children in masks are painting on a table filled with paint bottles and plates. They are supervised by an educator, also wearing a mask.
Inside, Makom students are diligent about wearing masks, according to Founding Director Beverly Socher-Lerner | Courtesy of Makom Community

In August, when religious schools were just starting their first year of in-person learning since 2019, Germantown Jewish Centre Youth and Families Director Abigail Weinberg described the year’s plan as a “moving target.”

As of November, Weinberg’s predictions have largely proven true. With the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5-11, GJC’s religious school program, as well as other religious and after-school programs, are planning to adapt yet again, hoping to eventually ease restrictions put in place earlier this year.

The FDA’s vaccine approval, announced Oct. 29 and recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Nov. 3, could have a substantial impact on vaccinated students, area religious schools report.

At Makom Community, a childhood enrichment center with locations in both Center City and South Philadelphia, 56 children are eligible for the jab; at Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel’s Neziner Hebrew School, 50 children are eligible.

Many have already received their first dose, religious school administrators said. 

“A lot of our parents are really excited, and we already see many of our families having their kids vaccinated,” BZBI Director of Youth and Family Education Rabbi Max Nissen said.

GJC and Makom Community have had similar responses from parents. Some Makom families volunteered to participate in the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s clinical trials for the vaccine; one child at Makom is already fully vaccinated.

“This is the moment where, for the first time, our kids are going to have some immunity, and we can worry about them less; we can worry about them impacting their community less,” said Rachel Marcus, a GJC member.  “And we really can start transitioning out of this pandemic mode that we have been in for so, so long.”

Marcus and her wife have two children: Maggie, 7, who has already received her first dose; and Elliott, who turns 5 next month. They are counting down the days until Elliott’s birthday, when she, too, can receive her first dose.

Schools are still slow to make any massive changes to restrictions. BZBI and GJC have COVID safety committees or health professionals they consult to decide on synagogue-wide precautions. Both want to give parents ample time to vaccinate their children, a process that can take a couple of months, given the gap between the two doses. 

“Being fully vaccinated is probably not going to be required before the first of the year,” Weinberg said. “We have two weeks off over the winter, and we’re not going to expect people to show proof of full vaccination before mid-January, February.”

Both religious schools have varied rules on vaccination: BZBI mandated that all staff are fully vaccinated; at GJC, only fully-vaccinated members could enter the building, except for the early childhood program, which meant many religious schools and some family programs were held outside.

However, colder weather has forced programs to make changes anyway.

Three children in masks are sitting in a line of chairs outside with open textbooks in their laps.
Makom Community, along with other religious and after-schools, keeps many activities outside. | Courtesy of Makom Community

On Nov. 7, GJC held its first religious school classes inside its building’s auditorium. Makom Community will make a similar decision. They have also been holding outdoor programming and only allowing children to eat snacks outside.

Beverly Socher-Lerner, Makom’s founding director, admits that staying outdoors as winter approaches isn’t ideal.

“[Being outside] works, but it’s also hard,” she said. “There’s no noise barrier; there’s all the distractions of being outdoors; it’s busy.”

When Makom students are vaccinated, indoor snack time will resume. 

Though programs all intend on relaxing precautions at some point, all are waiting on additional CDC recommendations to follow. And while religious and after-school programs wait on more data, parents are the ones making decisions about their children’s program attendance.

“A small number of families who were nervous about sending their kids to school have expressed interest in sending their kids back this semester or after winter break,” Nissen said.

Though eager to vaccinate their children, parents are still wary about a premature return to pre-pandemic learning.

Marcus and her wife — both nurses — are remaining cautious as well. They pulled Maggie from indoor programming at GJC, just until she is fully vaccinated.

Maggie attends an in-person second-grade classroom, which was already a big step for the family.

“We just felt like adding an additional indoor cohort was more risky than we were willing to take on,” Marcus said.

Marcus believes the wait will be worth it for Maggie.

“She has a whole list of things that she wants to do, like have a slumber party, go to the grocery store, go back to swimming — all of these things that she wants to do,” Marcus said. “When she got that first dose, it really made her actually feel a lot of what has happened in the past two years.”

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