While public school districts are trying to figure out the best way forward to reopen school in a global health pandemic, the same can be said for the Jewish day schools. The Heilicher Minneapolis Jewish Day School and Torah Academy in St. Louis Park, and Cheder Lubavitch and Talmud Torah of St. Paul are all planning to reopen to in-person classes for the fall.
“The rationale for in-person learning is that Heilicher is uniquely suited to allow for small groups to learn together with minimal mixing of children or teachers from cohort to cohort,” Head of School Yoni Binus said in a video sent to parents last Friday. “We believe that we can deliver a top-notch Jewish and General Studies education using whatever modalities we have available to us. However, I think we are joined by all students, parents, and educators around the globe and saying, there is no substitute for the many educational and developmental benefits of being together in person.
Based on Minnesota’s safe learning plan, the recommendation in Hennepin County is hybrid learning, which asks schools to limit building attendance to half its physical capacity. Heilicher, which is located on the Barry Family Campus along with the Sabes JCC, has a maximum capacity of more than 500, and the full school and staff fall below 50 percent of that number, Binus said.
Torah Academy, also located in St. Louis Park, had been hoping to reopen in person since the pandemic forced schools to go virtual.
“That has been our plan that we’ve stated you since the end of the school year, and we’ve done everything to try to gear up for that,” said Rabbi Joshua Borenstein, the school’s executive director. “We believe that kids need to be back in school, and the vast majority of our parents have made it very clear that that’s their expectation also.
Borenstein said that both of those factors helped drive the process, but added that distance learning in the spring wasn’t without hiccups.
“Distance learning was an okay Band-Aid, but it was not a plan of learning for any sustainable amount of time,” he said. “Nobody really wants to go back to that.”
Binus talked about the risks of not opening, including the impact on the students’ emotional, social, and academic well-being. Cheder Lubavitch Rabbi Yossi Bendet echoed that concern, especially at the start of the school year.
“The priority is not as much academic, but more about the social and emotional well-being and making sure we can have staff connect well with students because of the possibility to go back to remote,” Bendet said. “We’re moving with one plan in place, and we hope it’ll be in person, but at the same time, we’ll have a parallel plan to move it [to] remote at the flip of a switch.”
Beth El Synagogue and Adath Jeshurun Congregation both utilize the Talmud Torah of Minneapolis for their primary Hebrew school programming. Hazzan Jeremy Lipton, the head of school at Talmud Torah, said specific decisions have not been made yet about fall reopening, but he is committed to providing Hebrew school for second through eighth grade in whatever capacity is possible. Using the guidelines provided by the governor, Lipton said the staff are preparing for a hybrid instruction model and have spent the summer learning new virtual technologies in order to support students in the fall.
At Talmud Torah St. Paul, Director of Education Heidi Tarshish says their Afternoon School religious program will be fully online, while the Newman School day program, which serves early childhood through fourth grade, will reopen full-time five days a week.
“We have children who are in early childhood all the way up through fourth grade this year, and it’s very difficult,” Tarshish said. “Anybody who has an early childhood program can tell you, it just doesn’t work for the really little ones.”
She said they elected to run Afternoon School online to reduce exposure because the students come from many different schools. Before the pandemic, the program featured online options for high school in order to accommodate busy schedules, so the infrastructure already existed when lockdowns began.
“We can confidently say that school will begin as scheduled on Sunday, September 13th,” Lipton said.“We will continue the full operation of all of our second to eighth-grade classes and programs regardless of the mode of instruction we utilize throughout the year.”
Like many other programs, Talmud Torah surveyed parents and teachers about their wishes for the fall. Lipton said a wide range of perspectives were represented, but both parents and teachers expressed a desire to maintain the students’ connection to the Jewish community.
“[Teachers] are totally committed to providing our students with continuity and content, adapting to whatever needs to be done in support of their students’ success,” Lipton said. “Parents want their children to be safe and to have authentic Jewish experiences, both in what they learn and through the community they create with their friends at Talmud Torah.”