Toronto-area day schools start the year with COVID precautions

Students are learning in-person at TanenbaumCHAT. (Credit: TanenbaumCHAT Facebook)

Jewish day schools in Toronto and Hamilton have opened their classrooms again after a year of struggling to educate students online. It’s not a return to any kind of normal, however as the struggle against a new wave of the COVID virus continues.

“We are thrilled to be welcoming our students back, but we are doing so while following all Ministry (of Health) and Toronto Public Health guidelines,” said Jonathan Levy, head of school at Toronto’s TanenbaumCHAT high school.

Under the rules imposed by the Ontario government and their own policies, the schools are taking steps including requiring everyone to wear masks throughout the building, installing hand sanitizing stations in every classroom, requiring the use of self-screening cellphone apps, banning school assemblies and separating students by cohorts.

Also, any child with so much as a runny nose will be sent home to isolate for 10 days, or until the parents can provide test results or a doctor’s note stating the issue is not COVID. If symptoms show up during the school day, students will be escorted to an isolation room and monitored by staff in full PPE.

All staff and teachers must always be masked, unless separated from their students by a plexiglass barrier.

The full package of provincial regulations issued earlier this month is available at this link.

Despite the extra fuss-and-bother, school leaders say they welcome the chance to bring children back together after a year of remote learning. The online option, however, is still there for families who need it.

“We are not implementing the same hybrid model that we had last year but we are providing numerous ways for the students to continue their learning when they are at home,” said Lydia Levin, director of marketing and communications at Toronto’s Bialik Hebrew Day School. “We aim to ensure that students are supported in their learning if they are home due to COVID.”

The school’s options for learning vary according to circumstances and grade levels, she said. As one example, if an entire class is in quarantine, full online learning will be provided.

While mask-wearing has been a source of conflict in some places, the Jewish school leaders say it’s not a problem for them.

“Mask wearing is one layer in our approach to keeping our community safe,” Levin said. “There is a high level of respect amongst all members of our community that it is extremely important to adhere to mask wearing.”

On the thorny question of vaccination, Ontario’s rules remain unclear. As the Toronto Star reported in August, teachers and other will face vaccination mandates, but not mandatory vaccination. Those who have not been inoculated still have the option of regular testing. The province is also working on a policy to require vaccination status reporting in public and private schools

The province has made COVID vaccine available to children who turn 12 by the end of this year. Since Aug. 18 they can receive the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine by booking an appointment through the provincial booking system, through their public health unit, or pharmacies, or can walk-in to vaccination clinics.

The province is also working with public health units and school boards to run voluntary vaccination clinics in or close to schools.

At Bialik, staff will be required to be vaccinated within the next few weeks. There is currently no vaccine requirement for students.

TanenbaumCHAT requires vaccines for staff and students.

At Associated Hebrew Schools in Toronto, all staff are required to be vaccinated, said Ora Shulman, head of school. Staff who are not vaccinated for medical reasons will be required to take a COVID test twice a week.

Even a few weeks before school started, “a very high percentage” of staff were already vaccinated, Shulman said.

The school has also installed HEPA-filters in every classroom. Students will remain in cohorts and there will be strict rules about masks. “Our goal is to have kids physically in the building,” Shulman said. “We’re putting all our resources to support our goal of having kids back together on our campuses in physical classrooms.”  

At Hamilton’s Kehila Heschel Community Day School, principal Anita Bernstein said all staff and teachers have been double vaccinated and, as an extra layer of protection, parents and the usual corps of volunteers are not being allowed in the school.

“We have gone above and beyond some of the requirements, because we want to keep our community safe,” she said.

One area that continues to be affected by the pandemic are extracurricular activities.

At TanenbaumCHAT, for example, programs have been shelved for September.

“September was a bit choppy anyway because of the High Holy Days, but we hope to be able to ramp up again in October,” Levy said.

Bialik is taking the same approach, Levin said, “at least for the start of the year.”

The costs of COVID-related testing, extra cleaning and increased demand for other supplies is weighing on school budgets, a problem aggravated by the pandemic’s hobbling of fundraising efforts. Bernstein said she hopes some of that gap can be filled by a special appeal.

“As much as we can we’re trying to keep everyone safe within a restricted budget,” she said.

Three private schools, including the Toronto Cheder, have sued the provincial government, arguing they are entitled to a share of federal funds distributed under the Safe Return to Class Fund. In Ontario, the money was distributed to public and Catholic school boards. The case was heard in Ontario’s Divisional Court last month.

(With files from Lila Sarick)