Alberta’s Jewish Day Schools prepare for classes amid COVID

Edmonton Talmud Torah Society. (File photo).

by Maxine Fischbein

(AJNews) – Following the Province’s July 21 announcement that Alberta schools would resume classes this fall under a “near normal” scenario with additional health measures, administrators and staff at the province’s four Jewish day schools are preparing for cautious reopening.

“It’s a mixed bag of emotions,” says Rabbi Chaim Greenwald, Head of School at Calgary’s Halpern Akiva Academy. His sentiment is shared by colleagues at Calgary Jewish Academy (CJA) and at Edmonton’s Menorah Academy and Talmud Torah School.

All say they and their teachers are excited to welcome students back to school. At the same time, our community’s educators are tasked with the enormous responsibility of protecting kids during a global pandemic while attending to their academic, emotional, mental and social needs.

They do so as parents make some difficult choices. Are they ready to send their children back to school?  And are they willing or able to afford the relatively high cost of Jewish education?

There is a decline in enrolment at Alberta’s largest Jewish day school, The Calgary Jewish Academy whose student body numbers approximately 300. CJA Head of School Brenda English says the school has lost an estimated 40 students in grades 1 through 9 adding that some families are feeling the economic fallout of COVID, a situation that makes already costly school tuitions a more difficult stretch.

“This is not going to be just a one year impact,” English said.

The Child Care program at CJA has also been negatively impacted. While the program previously had between 55 and 60 kids, there were only 28 registered when AJNews spoke to English at the beginning of August.

“Parents are waiting to see what things are going to be like and if they will need child care,” English said.

She expressed gratitude for Calgary Jewish Federation’s tuition support through the Integrated Bursary Program. The IBP offers some financial assistance for qualifying families at Calgary’s Jewish day schools.

Edmonton Menorah Academy Menahel Rabbi Dovid Sass

Menorah Academy will never turn a child away due to lack of funds,” said Head of School Rabbi Dovid Sass, adding that this is a top priority for the school’s Board of Directors.

That priority is shared by Halpern Akiva Academy where current enrolment shows a slight uptick.

Enrolment remains consistent at Talmud Torah which anticipates a total of 121 students in 2020-2021, said Principal Sandra Marianicz.

“The key focus areas will be mitigation of risk, family choice and continuity of learning,” said Marianicz, adding that safety of students, staff and family is critical to school leaders.

As AJNews began contacting the schools toward the end of July, COVID cases in both Edmonton and Calgary were rising. Adding to the concerns of some parents and educators is what some perceived as a lack of guidance from the province concerning specific details of COVID preparedness.

While Alberta’s other Jewish Day Schools are independent, Talmud Torah is part of the Edmonton Public School Board.  The EPSB has released a re-entry strategy that Marianicz said is aligned with, and fleshes out, the provincial plan. Talmud Torah will be sending its school reentry plan to parents toward the middle of August.

On August 4, Alberta’s Minister of Education, Adriana LaGrange, and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw responded to the concerns of parents by mandating that school staff and students in grades 4 – 12 must wear masks on school buses and in common areas though students will not be required by the province to wear them when they are seated at their desks.

Masks are encouraged, though optional, for younger students through grade three. It is generally agreed that masks are a more difficult – and potentially riskier – proposition for younger children.

The schools are still in the midst of determining protocols that align with provincial requirements, including increased cleaning and sanitizing, especially in high-touch areas. The province is providing two reusable masks for every student, teacher and staff member; one face shield for each staff member; and contactless thermometers for each school.

At the top of schools’ to-do lists is the procurement of additional PPE, hand sanitizers and cleaning products, the installment of Plexiglas barriers and the reorganization of classrooms and other spaces to ensure safe distancing.

That task is easiest for smaller schools. Halpern Akiva Academy, which anticipates welcoming between 75 and 80 students, has class sizes that typically range between 8 and 12 students per classroom, Rabbi Chaim Greenwald said.

With a student roster of approximately 90 elementary, junior high and high school students, Menorah Academy shares a similar advantage.

“Due to our small class sizes . . . it is significantly easier to make things work within the government regulations,” Rabbi Dovid Sass said.

Edmonton Talmud Torah Principal Sandra Marianicz

Class sizes at Talmud Torah are typically around 20 students. Principal Sandra Marianicz says that to ensure the required physical distancing, excess furniture is being removed from classes and desks will be organized in rows with all students facing the same direction.

At CJA, there is enough space to guarantee appropriate physical distancing of students even if the province were to mandate maximum class sizes of 15, Head of School Brenda English said.

Schools are re-evaluating the contents of each classroom to ensure they are appropriate given the need for frequent cleaning and adequate spacing.

Halpern Akiva Academy formed a COVID Committee that began meeting this past May bringing key stakeholders together in planning best practices once school resumes. The committee includes administrators, teachers, parents and caretakers.

In a further effort to control the spread of COVID, all four day schools will be changing the ways teachers and students navigate their schools.

At Calgary Jewish Academy, Menorah Academy and Talmud Torah, students will remain in their assigned classrooms with teachers moving from class to class.

This was the pre-COVID routine at Menorah Academy, with the exception of electives like Physical Education and art, said Rabbi Sass.

“We are trying to get kids back to the routine they were used to while being mindful of the new reality,” Rabbi Sass said.

At Halpern Akiva Academy, students may, in some cases, move between classrooms, though protocols will be in place to limit exposure between cohorts. Decisions will be made based on the advice of Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer and the public health nurse assigned to the school, Rabbi Greenwald said.

As per provincial guidelines, staff and students at each of the schools will have to answer COVID screening questions daily and the schools will be carefully monitoring for signs of illness. All are asking parents and staff members to stay at home if they are ill.

Procedures at Edmonton’s Menorah Academy will include temperature checks, Rabbi Dovid Sass said.

Other protocols will mean some big changes in the day-to-day operations at each school.

“The goal is to try and limit as much exposure to the outside as possible,” said Rabbi Sass.

Toward that end, at Calgary Jewish Academy, the difficult choice was made to temporarily suspend the participation of volunteers, cancel the lunch program and restrict the entry of parents into the school building – a necessary but unfortunate step given the school’s high degree of interaction with parents and its reliance on the efforts of parent volunteers.

“It will be a very different way of doing business,” CJA Head of School Brenda English said.

While the province has mandated a return to classes, increased COVID-19 cases could lead to two other potential scenarios – a hybrid of in person and online learning or a return to online learning only.

All four day schools say they are ready for either scenario.  They pivoted rapidly to online platforms when schools closed in March, successfully providing full dual-curriculum programs.

All four Jewish day school principals praised their teachers, parents and students for their efforts to make the new normal a success.

At Talmud Torah, Sandra Marianicz said that she was particularly proud of a teacher who started out unfamiliar with online platforms and apps like Google Classroom but jumped in with both feet to learn new skills.

Students are agile with tech, Marianicz said, adding, “They are fearless with it. They don’t hesitate.”

“Our students rose to the challenge with open minds, flexibility and resiliency,” Marianicz said adding that the support of the school community as a whole was “heartwarming and inspiring,” an observation shared by her colleagues at the other Jewish day schools.

“Menorah had a very successful online program with the use of Zoom as well as Google classroom,” said Rabbi Dovid Sass.

“Teachers designed collaborative projects using ‘breakout rooms’ and saw that there were many students who excelled using these tools. The students were very resilient and put forth Herculean efforts in their unexpected transition to online classes,” Rabbi Sass added.

At Halpern Akiva Academy, the school’s graduation ceremony was a blended event with some students and family members celebrating in person and others participating online. Taking the celebration online allowed family members, like out-of-town grandparents, to kvell in real time, an opportunity that hadn’t previously been available to them.

Similarly, the school’s Akiva Broadcasting Network (ABN) was able to continue functioning after the lockdown, with students dedicating one of their broadcasts to giving retiring Principal John Hadden a memorable farewell.

Other innovative online offerings included a live Shavuot program, and the participation of Grade 6 students in TED style talks which were accepted by TED and are now posted on YouTube.

Calgary Jewish Academy Head of School Brenda English

“Our teachers are absolutely amazing,” said CJA Head of School Brenda English.

Several teachers engaged students by dressing up in costumes related to class content and used tools from ‘teach like a pirate,’” noted English, adding that they also “utilized a range of apps on iPad and in google classroom to inspire students.”

CJA Faculty who weren’t working full time supported students individually in literacy and numeracy.   The school also provided online classes to students in grades 8 and 9 so they could earn high school credits in Career and Life Management (CALM).   A Foods Basics 10 Course was available online for students in Grades 6 and 7. Students also engaged in virtual presentations in pairs and groups.

“Students did an outstanding job hosting assemblies and CJA held community Shabbat on Zoom each Friday,” English said.

It is just this kind of Jewish tam – flavour – that prompts many parents to choose a Jewish day school education for their children.

That is why Talmud Torah Principal Sandra Marianicz says she was saddened that TT had to hit the pause button on traditional end-of-year ceremonies like the Grade 1 Siddur and Grade 2 Torah Ora celebrations. Plans are in the works to mark those milestones during the rapidly approaching new school year.

Students everywhere were disappointed when COVID cancelled milestones like graduations and school celebrations. At Talmud Torah, care was taken to ensure that Grade 6 students would take special memories with them as they transitioned to various Edmonton junior high schools. A virtual ceremony was created and shared with families in real time.

But, there remained a craving for the real thing, so a school parade was arranged with Grade 6 families parked in places of honour in front of the school while the rest of the school community was invited to drive by and wish the departing students mazel tov.

“It was the perfect way to provide closure for students, parents and staff,” said Marianicz praising the efforts to which everyone went to create a robust celebration with horns honking and colourful posters sending messages of encouragement to the class of 2020 as they move on to junior high.

Because some students and parents or other family members have underlying health conditions that elevate the risks associated with COVID, some children will remain at home when the school year begins. Regardless of parents’ reasons for keeping their kids at home, all four schools are looking at ways to continue supporting students who don’t walk through their classroom doors in September.

At CJA, dropping enrolment led to the layoffs of five teachers, a situation that will “take its toll” in terms of sustaining simultaneous in-class and online learning, Brenda English said.

Despite the challenge English says, “We want to provide supports for kids who can’t be in school.”

Calgary Akiva Academy Rabbi Chaim Greenwald

“We will work through this on an individual basis with as much flexibility as possible,” said Halpern Akiva Academy’s Rabbi Chaim Greenwald.

“We can accommodate everybody and I expect we will. We don’t want to deny any child a Jewish education,” Rabbi Greenwald added.

Menorah Academy is likewise dedicated to supporting kids’ education at home. The school will work with families on a case by case basis to address each child’s unique educational needs.

Talmud Torah families have the advantage of the Edmonton Public School Board’s system-wide support for education at school or online, says Sandra Marianicz, who agrees that the choice depends on the needs of each child and family. To add flexibility and allow for multiple points of entry, the school year has been divided into four semesters.

Children don’t learn in lockstep and instructional changes due to COVID-19 increased the potential for academic gaps. When Alberta’s Jewish day schools pivoted to online learning, for example, the experience was not one-size-fits-all.

“Some kids excel at online learning and are way ahead of grade level. Some are behind. We are prepared to find gaps and we are dedicated to meeting needs,” Halpern Akiva Academy’s Rabbi Chaim Greenwald said.

Teachers at all four schools will be working harder than ever to determine new baselines for individual students and for classes as students head or Zoom back to school.

A web survey conducted by Leger and the Association for Canadian Studies between July 24 and 26 asked Canadians whether or not they would send their children back to school this September. Of the 1,517 responses, 58% said yes, 29% said no and 13% were undecided.  More parents in Alberta than anywhere else in Canada responded that they would most likely keep their children at home.

Marina Segal is preparing to send her daughters back to school come Fall, to grade one and grade eight respectively. She says she is comfortable doing so given the school’s caring, family atmosphere.

A Halpern Akiva Academy parent, Segal says that some parents she knows “can’t wait” for their children to go back to school.

“I think the majority are nervous and waiting for more government clarity. People want more substance on what the reopening will actually look like. There is so much uncertainty right now,” Segal said, adding that she was more confident about the prospect of sending her kids to school when there were fewer active COVID cases in Calgary.

When AJNews spoke to Segal, the Premier had just announced the reopening of schools during a week that saw a dramatic spike in Alberta COVID cases.

“Often announcements are based on two-week old information. It creates a disconnect,” Segal said.

While she doesn’t see signs of anxiety in her children about going back to school, she is concerned about long-term effects on children growing up in the midst of what could be a protracted pandemic.

“Things that happen when we are little can have a huge impact [later in life]. I’m worried it will create a wave of anxiety. At some point there will be some sort of fallout from this.”

Adult tension was certainly palpable throughout Alberta following the Province’s July 21 back to school announcement when Premier Jason Kenney and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw acknowledged what educators and parents most dread.

“We will almost certainly identify cases of COVID-19 in students and staff in the fall,” Hinshaw said.

As kids, teachers and school staff head back to school, the number one priority will be managing that risk.

“Success in keeping the school community safe will depend on the participation of all parties, including the students. When everyone buys in and cares about one another, it is much more effective,” Rabbi Chaim Greenwald said.

Effective communication with parents about COVID preparedness and other aspects of their kids’ return to school is critical.

“As excited as parents are, they want to know what will be done [to protect their children],” Rabbi Sass said.

“Guidelines are likely to change. We will continue to communicate with parents,” said Rabbi Sass, who added that parents understand this “won’t happen overnight.”

While the sense of celebration in starting a new school year is muted by COVID fears, there are also some very positive vibes.

“As well as we did with online learning at the end of the last school year [including] many victories in the face of adversity, there was so much missing in not seeing [students] face to face,” said Rabbi Chaim Greenwald who added that teachers and students are coming back to school having learned new skills and new ways of doing things.

“The pandemic created a situation that demanded creativity. We are coming back better for it [having] collaborated in ways we couldn’t have imagined. That’s a good thing.”

While things look a little different at each of Alberta’s Jewish day schools, their heads of school are united in their efforts to keep our community’s children as safe as possible. And all agree that while COVID has brought contagion, the flexibility and ingenuity of teachers, parents and kids has led to some good things – increased partnerships with parents, new modalities in teachers’ tool kits and expanding ways to help kids achieve and thrive whether they are studying in school or at the kitchen table.

Maxine Fischbein is a Local Journalism Initiative writer for Alberta Jewish News.







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