A Toronto city councillor has reported four Orthodox Jewish institutions in his ward to Toronto Public Health (TPH) for alleged violations of COVID restrictions, following complaints from constituents.
On April 12, Coun. Mike Colle (Ward 8, Eglinton-Lawrence) reported to TPH Bais Yaakov Elementary School, at 15 Saranac Blvd. and Bais Yaakov High School at 410 Lawrence Ave. W.
Complaints focused on the “large numbers of students coming in and out of the high school, as well as children walking to the elementary school in school uniforms,” a spokesperson for Colle told The CJN. “Residents keep repeating that this is a clear violation of TPH’s Section 22 order (requiring all elementary and secondary school students in the city to suspend in-person teaching and instruction effective until April 18, the end of spring break) and a danger to the neighbourhood, with many students not wearing masks and walking everywhere.”
In an email to The CJN, TPH said it is “aware of the complaints about both locations.” It did not elaborate.
Colle’s office also complained to TPH about Yeshiva Yesodei Hatorah on Glen Rush Boulevard and Kollel Avreichim – Institute for Advanced Judaic Studies (known as Kollel Toronto) on Coldstream Avenue
On April 13, Colle’s office asked TPH pay onsite visits to the sites.
The CJN’s calls and messages to Yeshiva Yesodei Hatorah, Bais Yaakov Elementary School, and the Kollel were not returned.
However, Rabbi Binyomin Septon, executive director of Yeshiva Yesodei Hatorah, told the Toronto Star on April 14 that TPH had visited the yeshiva previously, “and can inspect at any time. I am confident that they will find nothing of concern. In the unlikely event that some modification were to be required, I fully anticipate doing so.”
A TPH enforcement officer and a public health nurse inspected the yeshiva in January. At the time, TPH said the city had received complaints regarding “high volumes of school-aged children entering the school every day with full backpacks.”
TPH learned that despite the prohibition on in-person teaching, many students were going to the yeshiva for prayer services.
Guidelines stipulate that attendance at indoor religious services cannot exceed 15 percent capacity of the room.
Colle told The CJN that one school official told him students were coming to his building only for prayer services and child care.
At Bais Yaakov High School, an administrative assistant who answered the phone said the school was closed for classes but open for morning religious services.
She said the school’s doors are unlocked and students can come in to pick up supplies and books whenever they please, as opposed to the first lockdown, when appointments were needed.
The school had a meeting with TPH authorities on April 13, she said, “and they were very satisfied with us. We’re working with TPH. Whatever we’re doing is according to the law.”
A notice went out on April 13 to parents of students at Bais Yaakov Elementary School saying the school was closed “following the order from Toronto Public Health.”
Religious services, it said, continue in the morning, ending at 1 p.m. for primary and middle students and at 2:15 p.m. for junior high students.
“Should your daughter wish to attend, she is not required to wear a uniform or bring a knapsack. Food items may be sent in a disposable bag.
“General studies classes will take place remotely via teleconferencing. We will be in touch with you regarding the teleconferencing schedule,” the letter said. “The schedule for the preschool department will remain unchanged.”
Colle’s action came soon after UJA Federation of Greater Toronto announced it had suspended its partnership with a local Jewish day school for continuing to operate in-person classes in violation of COVID restrictions.
UJA declined to name the school, which is subject to a freeze in funding and support services.
At the same time, two prominent Orthodox rabbis, Rabbi Daniel Korobkin of Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto Congregation in Thornhill and Rabbi Chaim Strauchler of Shaarei Shomayim Congregation wrote a letter to their congregants and posted online imploring them to obey government and medical rules on COVID because they override almost all halachic concerns.
This month, Premier Doug Ford announced that after the April break, all elementary and secondary schools in the province will move to remote learning indefinitely.