Pandemic-tested Jewish schools in Montreal start the year with a little more confidence

JPPS/Bialik has a higher rate of vaccination than some other Montreal day schools.

Jewish day schools in Montreal are beginning the year with less trepidation than in 2020-21 despite a fourth wave of COVID driven by the more contagious Delta variant that experts believe will worsen.

That confidence is based on rising COVID vaccinations, experience gained in implementing sanitary measures, and no more remote learning—for now.

The Quebec government’s rules are masking at all times for students in grades 1 and up and for teachers. There are no classroom bubbles and extracurricular activities can largely resume. High school students must prove vaccination to take part in sports.

Montreal students were in school for the most part over the past year, but the three senior high school grades switched to alternating in-person/at-home learning in the early spring as the third wave raged.

Almost all the Jewish schools had COVID cases last year, frequently having to close classes and sometimes whole schools. In March, several Jewish schools in Côte St. Luc and Côte des Neiges were COVID hot spots that the public health department contained by offering vaccinations to parents and teachers regardless of age in an experimental strategy.

“I think the schools have done well adapting to the situation,” said Sidney Benudiz, executive director of the Association of Jewish Day Schools (AJDS). “They put in place distance learning very early and have been quite proficient doing that. If the situation deteriorates, they are ready to immediately go online.

“Each school has an emergency protocol (in the event of an outbreak) and most have a medical committee making recommendations to the administration. Some took measures beyond the government rules.”

He is encouraged by the progress of vaccination among students age 12 and up, who have been eligible for Pfizer shots since May.

He applauds the local health authority, the CIUSSS West-Central Montreal, for holding vaccination clinics in Jewish schools in its territory since they opened around Aug. 25.

The most recent published government data show vaccination rates among students at Jewish schools, including the nine affiliated with AJDS, varied widely. As of July 30, 93 per cent of students in Bialik High School’s English section had received at least one dose and 64 per cent were fully vaccinated, while at Académie Yéchiva Yavné the comparable figures were 31 and 10 per cent, respectively.

The statistics among haredi schools, not AJDS-affiliated, were also low:  for example, Yeshiva Gedola Merkaz Hatorah (24/8 per cent) and Beth Rivkah Academy (27/12 per cent).

The government is aiming for at least 90 per cent vaccination of teens.

AJDS is an independent organization that advocates for its affiliated schools on issues such as government funding.

Benudiz welcomes the government’s commitment to install carbon dioxide monitors in classrooms, which indicate the level of ventilation. Last year, some schools installed air purifiers at their own expense.

He is also encouraged that Quebec will soon begin distributing rapid test kits, initially to about 100 schools in the province.

As for the vaccination of teachers and other staff, Benudiz said he only hopes they realize how important it is to protect themselves.

Mordechai Antal, president of the Federation of Teachers of Jewish Schools, is aware of only two educators not yet vaccinated at the schools the union represents: JPPS/Bialik, Hebrew Foundation School, Solomon Schechter Academy, and Hebrew Academy, plus a couple of daycares.

Antal indicated the stress on teachers, who were trying to teach while worrying about the safety of the air they were breathing, cannot be overstated.

“Sometimes they were teaching two classes at the same time—the one in front of you and the one at home. That was especially difficult with younger kids whose focus is harder to keep,” he said. “All ages need face-to-face interaction; with Zoom they missed out on all the emotions in that.”

Adding to the strain were the constantly changing government directives which sometimes seemed to contradict those the week before, he said

Antal credits school administrations with doing their best to mitigate the health risks, often going beyond what was mandated.

“There’s still some apprehension but that’s tempered a bit by last year’s experience, and vaccination. Things are calmer, a little more normal,” he said.

Veteran Jewish educator Shimshon Hamerman praised the way the mainstream schools have dealt with the pandemic’s challenges.

“They did magnificently,” said Hamerman, who worked at Solomon Schechter for more than three decades, ending as head of school, and is now a consultant.

Teachers learned the technology of online instruction literally over one weekend at pandemic’s start in March 2020 and were able “to pivot on a dime,” he said.

But in practice, teaching in front of a webcam was problematic and the detriment to many students’ academic and social well-being was very evident, Hamerman noted.