Pulling Off the Near-Impossible

by Rebecca Hindin, Director of the Greater MetroWest New Jersey Day School Initiative

Like so many concerned parents and citizens, I have watched the conversations about school reopening unfold throughout the summer. Parents who are overwhelmed and overburdened, concerned teachers, school principals and superintendents, and lawmakers have all been weighing in. So many factors play into the ability for schools to reopen this fall and the financial, political, and communal pressures abound.

Our Federation has supported our four Day Schools throughout the pandemic crisis, and I’m so proud to share that Federation’s Emergency Relief Committee has just allocated $200,000 to help in their quest to safely reopen this coming fall, further highlighting and differentiating Greater MetroWest’s commitment to supporting Jewish education.

The reopening of our schools is critical to stabilizing the hundreds of families who rely on school not only for academic and social benefits, but for the very ability of parents to return to work full time with full childcare in place. With Covid-19 cases now more controlled in the state, we are hopeful that the 2,200 children and nearly 500 faculty members can safely return to the classrooms in a few weeks.

Each of our four area Day Schools – Golda Och Academy, Gottesman RTW Academy, Jewish Educational Center, and Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy/Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School – intends to open full time, five days per week, and in person. And the preventative measures that we help them put in place are potentially life-saving investments that can have a tremendous and deep ripple effect within our community.

This funding from Federation will provide much-needed assistance in defraying costs of the many pricey precautions needed to meet safety requirements.

Prizmah Center for Jewish Day School’s recent Pulse Study estimated Day School reopening costs at an average of $669 per student. Incremental costs associated with reopening add up to over $1 million across our Greater MetroWest community.

Expenses can be separated into four buckets, each with their own unique costs: Health and Safety, Technology, Space Enhancement, and Personnel. Health and Safety includes items such as HEPA filters in classrooms, face shields for teachers and other PPE, 55-gallon drums of hand sanitizer. Upgraded Technology will allow the schools to have access points in their new outdoor spaces, zoom licenses for students learning from home, and better webcams. Space Enhancement includes plexiglass dividers; touchless faucets, doors, and paper towel dispensers; and massive pop-up tents. Personnel includes additional maintenance and nursing staff, extra IT support, and additional transportation.

Through my work as Director of the Day School Initiative of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, I have been incredibly impressed with the efforts on the part of the schools, from the onset of remote emergency learning to the hundreds of hours they have labored to plan for the reopening. The schools immediately pivoted to remote learning and, while not perfect or ideal at all, successfully matriculated each grade to the following school year. The investment our Day School Initiative has made in creating a culture of faculty professional development for more than a decade has, I’m sure, been an important factor in the schools’ ability to adapt and thrive in the face of adversity.

Now nearly six months have passed, and though there is no guarantee that the protections put in place can entirely eliminate Covid-19 from entering the school halls, the schools have followed and exceeded each guideline for reopening to the smallest detail.

Lately I have invested a lot of time and energy thinking about the coming school year. I have read every news item and blog post I can find on school reopening data, government plans, local state attempts to open, and learning pods. I have had conversations with friends and family and colleagues about their personal thoughts on school reopening, comfort levels, and science. I have thought about privilege and systemic racism, and how these are factors impacting the school experience for so many children. I have thought about how grateful I am for my own children’s education at our local Day School.

Regardless of whether public or non-public schools in New Jersey ultimately open and stay open, our four community schools deserve accolades for doing everything they can to keep staff and students safe in their buildings this fall. I urge you to read through their detailed reopening guides here for more information on how they intend to do so: Golda Och Academy, Gottesman RTW Academy, Jewish Educational Center, and Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy/Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School.

Ours is considered a premier community for Day School support and innovation. (Earlier in the pandemic we offered $275,000 in need-based grants to individual families to help pay their tuition bills.) If we can help our Greater MetroWest Day Schools pull off the near-impossible, then we are playing a role in something extraordinary and are making a powerful statement about the value of these institutions and the essential role they play in a vibrant Jewish community.