As Omicron Spreads, Jewish Organizations Stay Cautious

Fresh into the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the omicron variant of the virus breaking records for spread in Minnesota, Twin Cities Jewish institutions are continuing a careful approach to public health that has kept caseloads down and community members safe.

Some synagogues have moved programming online, while others are introducing stricter testing and vaccination requirements for in-person activities. The Twin Cities Jewish Humor Fest, organized by the Minnesota JCC, will now be almost entirely virtual.

And in response to rising COVID cases, the 5-8th grade students at Heilicher Day School in Minneapolis are spending this week learning from home.

Even with widespread concern over omicron, the pandemic response is driven by caution, not panic, say community leaders, especially given the anecdotally high vaccination rates in the Jewish community. Vaccines dramatically reduce the risk of being hospitalized or dying from COVID, and vaccine boosters help sustain immune protection, including against the omicron variant.

“That’s the way most people that I know are relating to this,” said Rabbi Adam Spilker, senior rabbi at Mount Zion. “Thankfully, [for] most people we know who are getting this it’s not as significant as it used to be.”

Jewish organizations are now used to responding quickly to changing COVID trends. The “new normal” is simply normal, and the pandemic doesn’t look like it will disappear anytime soon. “We have learned to accept that COVID is a moving target and we have to adapt,” said Michael Waldman, CEO of Minnesota JCC, in an emailed statement.

For some synagogues, that means switching from in-person to virtual programming is now a distinction without a difference. On Jan. 4, Mount Zion in St. Paul moved all activities, except for life cycle events, to an online format for the month with a possibility of extending the policy into February.

Given that the synagogue invested heavily in technology and staff to support online streaming, and already reorganized around digital programming, the change had practically no effect on Spilker.

“For services, we are going to be in the sanctuary, and we’re going to livestream the service. So my preparation, the way we do it, that doesn’t change,” the rabbi said, speaking on Friday afternoon. “It’s just that people are not going to be in the buildings. We didn’t have to rethink that.”

At Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, there are currently no plans to cancel in-person activities due to omicron. The synagogue requires that proof of vaccination, or a negative PCR test within 72 hours of an in-person event, be shown to enter the building.

On Jan. 8, consistent with CDC guidance, the vaccination requirement was extended to 5-11-year-olds, and at the end of the month the vaccine policy will also require boosters for those who are eligible.

Like other synagogues, Beth El offers both in-person and virtual services, and has a team of medical professionals and lay leaders advising the organization on how to approach COVID safety in context of the pandemic’s various effects on people.

“There’s the physical health, of course, there’s also the mental and spiritual health of people,” said Matt Walzer, managing director of Beth El. 

“We have to balance all those. And that doesn’t come from any one news source that has an editorial angle on how they feel society should feel about COVID. It has to come with public health. It has to come with an appreciation for the unique circumstances that we as a synagogue are in.”

Day schools aim to stay in-person

On Sunday night, the Heilicher Jewish Day School decided 5-8th grade students would learn remotely this week. After winter break, several parents of students tested positive for COVID, and this past weekend two students also tested positive.

It’s the highest number of cases the Heilicher community has seen in 19 months, said Maia Poling, acting head of the school. 

Ninety percent of the students are vaccinated, and all faculty and staff are required to be vaccinated and boosted. The school runs K-8th grades and has addressed COVID safety in a variety of ways, including by rebuilding student and teacher schedules to reduce potential cross-contamination between grades.

Originally, Heilicher — which is committed to keeping kids learning in person during the pandemic — communicated to families that students would attend classes normally, but anyone who tested positive for COVID would need to take a PCR test five days later to make sure they were safe to return to school. Feedback from parents cast doubt on that plan.

“It is difficult right now to get PCR [and antigen] tests,” Poling said. “All of a sudden, we were in a situation where following our guidelines to really limit in-school transmission…we were not going to be able to do that.”

The close contact of many students to positive COVID cases also changed Heilicher’s math on staying in person.

“We were looking at a high percentage of our middle school being remote,” Poling said. “That creates a very hard situation for a teacher who might have seven kids in class, and eight kids at home, and [figuring out] how to Zoom them in appropriately.”

Poling is confident that students’ learning won’t suffer while remote, as teachers have learned how to provide quality education virtually. And while the focus is on returning to the classroom, there is a possibility of taking the entire school remote for a few weeks in response to omicron.

“We have let families know that this is a dynamic situation, and our priority is to keep students in school while keeping everyone safe and healthy,” Poling said. Medical professionals project that Minnesota’s omicron wave will peak in the coming weeks.

At the Talmud Torah of St. Paul, all supplemental educational programs are entirely virtual for this school year. “There’s a lot more schedule flexibility around not having to deal with getting your child to the school,” said Sho Garland, Talmud Torah’s executive director.

But the Newman School, Talmud Torah’s K-5th grade day school, also is focused on keeping kids learning in person. Like Heilicher, all staff are vaccinated, and most are also boosted. Air filters were installed in the Talmud Torah HVAC system. And alongside a mask mandate, the Newman School also has a testing mandate, where families have to provide a weekly PCR test for students.

The precautions have successfully kept the Newman School from having any COVID outbreaks and going virtual, though there have been some close calls. In late fall, one student got COVID, which was only detected because of the testing mandate.

“When the student took their test, they were feeling no symptoms,” Garland said. “The following day, when they had gotten their results back by email, they had a runny nose.”

Even with the challenges of finding PCR tests, the Newman School plans to continue being in-person during omicron, and currently has no plans to go remote. 

“Based on our risk calculus and…the other layered protections we [are] doing around COVID risk mitigation, being in-person didn’t present a greater risk than any” other potential point of COVID contact, Garland said.

The day schools have had a tougher time navigating both the quick changes of the pandemic, as well as the rapidly changing guidance on COVID safety from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Keeping track takes an enormous amount of time.

“Our nurse and I are reviewing updated COVID guidelines daily,” Poling said. Every minute detail needs to be processed, like when understanding guidance on how long to isolate after a positive COVID test. 

“How do you count the days? Well, now it’s a seven-day [isolation period]. Oh, but now they’ve changed it [to five days]. If you’re unvaccinated and you’re a close contact in the household? What if you were unmasked during lunch? What if you wore a mask the whole time?”

Any change in CDC guidance needs to be evaluated for the day school community before being adopted, and there isn’t a lot of time to do so if schools want to stay on top of safety procedures.

“It is frustrating to be in a position where people look to you to make decisions of authority, and you don’t necessarily feel like you can” do that, Garland said. “When the guidance comes down, the expectation from the community is that you will have digested it [in a way for you to] disseminate it for your individual institution in a very rapid timeframe. And it’s challenging.”

COVID fatigue also affects parents’ expectations about how CDC guidance is integrated into the school. A year ago, many families were on board with Heilicher having a stricter approach to some COVID safety policies than the CDC.

Now, families are “still very appreciative, but there are many who say, ‘I need my kid in school. I need you just to follow…CDC and try not [to go] above and beyond,’” Poling said. “It’s an incredible balancing act.”

And managing COVID safety with student growth takes a toll on everyone in the classroom. Kids “know that they have to be masked…but it’s hard for them to feel like they can’t readily go up to their teacher as easily,” Garland said. “In the same vein, it’s hard for their teacher to feel like she needs to keep her students at a distance.”

Still, students are doing well under imperfect circumstances. “The kids are learning, the kids are smiling, they want to be here,” Poling said.

The challenge of looking to the future

While Jewish organizations have gotten used to spending time and energy on addressing the near future of COVID trends, doing so has taken up much of the bandwidth for more visionary planning and development. Staff are facing burnout in keeping up on day-to-day responsibilities.

Educators and administrators are “feeling the real weight of running a school, keeping kids academically learning, but [also] socially, emotionally balanced and supported during this period of time,” Poling said.

Without a reliable indicator of how the pandemic will continue to unfold, basic future planning has also taken a hit.

“Are we gonna have a mask requirement in the fall? I don’t know,” Garland said. “Are we still going to be social distancing our classrooms in the fall? I don’t know. There’s a lot of ‘I don’t know.’”

Waldman, CEO of Minnesota JCC, said: “The spread of omicron is impacting the JCC in the same way it is impacting our society – for example, staffing shortages…[still] we are strong, optimistic and are in planning for growth – to provide more programs to more people.”

At Beth El, Walzer said staff are “kind of used to having three plans for every plan that we need.” For Jewish professionals and community leaders, it’s just something that needs to get done to serve the community as best as possible during the pandemic.

“It’s more work and stress on staff and clergy…[but] they do it with pride and a smile on their face, knowing that they’re able to support the congregation,” Walzer said.