Local day schools gear up for the fall

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(This article was updated on Aug. 13 to clarify CESJDS’s fall plans for pre-K and kindergarten classes and to correct information on Berman’s class schedule.)

Empty Classroom
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It’s a rite of growing up to be impatient for school to let out in the spring and be sad about the passing of summer as school opens in the fall. Not this year.


“I’ve had more students than ever before tell me that they can’t wait to return to school,” said Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, head of school at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School. “But it reinforces for us why in-person learning is really the standard to reach for.”

And that’s the problem. As Jewish day schools across the Washington region finalize plans for fall classes, the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic have led to some drafting multiple scenarios.

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While most administrators interviewed for this story want, like Malkus, to be able to convene classes in person, they have opted to go entirely virtual this fall. There’s no question that, with experience they gathered in the spring after they shut their doors suddenly, area days schools are now applying creativity to the pandemic problem.

Gesher Jewish Day School

Gesher Jewish Day School in Fairfax has pushed back its fall start by two weeks to Sept. 8 to allow for additional facility training and building renovations. Head of School Aviva Walls said the school is knocking down walls to enlarge classrooms. That will leave fewer rooms, but more space for social distancing.


Gesher is also upgrading its ventilation system, and buying PPE, hand sanitizer dispensers and soap. All students and teachers will be required to wear face masks during the day and remain six feet apart. Walls said the school building is large enough to accommodate the 135 students.

“We’re a small enough school with a large enough space to be able to fit everybody into the school with more with six feet in between all the students and the staff,” Walls said. “We took the advice of local health officials and doctors and that’s why we decided that we can do it safely.”

Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School of the Nation’s Capital

Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School of the Nation’s Capital plans to hold classes inside as well as virtually, according to Head of School Deborah Skolnick-Einhorn. The school has 475 students enrolled and will start classes on Sept. 1.

Skolnick-Einhorn said the school wants to have pre-K and kindergarten classes meet inside its building, but as of Aug. 7 it hadn’t determined if it can do so safely. Older students will be outside, and will be organized into groups containing no more than 11 students.

Outside lessons will include hikes, nature-inspired scientific exploration and team-building challenges. To increase outdoor space, the school plans to rent camps and parks that would otherwise not be in use, Skolnick-Einhorn said.

What if it rains? Or snows?

“We’re looking at properties that have coverage for that,” she said. “A big part of our plan is to have some kind of cover.”

The school will require health screenings for students and staff before any outdoor program. Temperatures will be checked upon arrival and frequent handwashing and hand sanitizer use will be part of the day. It goes without saying that mask wearing is required.

“We really like the model of having them learn outdoors. It’s just a really good risk mitigation for them and for the teachers,” Skolnick-Einhorn said. “We have gotten really beautiful support from our community. What I keep hearing is we understand how complex this decision is. We understand there’s no good answer. There’s no answer that will make everyone happy. But people seem to really appreciate that we’re going an unusual route.”

Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School

CESJDS in Rockville will teach in person for pre-K and kindergarten classes while the rest of their 916 students will go entirely virtually. Classes will begin Sept. 1 and Malkus said students will be taught via livesteam and from recorded video lessons. The videos will give students and parents more flexibility in when to study.

He added that the school is going this route because some families and faculty raised health concerns.

“I have a lot of families who want the school to be cautious,” Malkus said. “And we want to make sure that they’re comfortable returning.”

Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy

Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville also will be all virtual when classes begin on Aug. 31. The school will implement an expanded version of the program it launched in the spring for its 650 students, said Sarah Sicherman, director of marketing and communications.

“Basically we try to create an experience that was as similar to a school day as possible,” Sicherman said. Students taught under the “Berman at Home 2.0” model will be instructed through a five-day schedule via Zoom. Berman’s preschool and kindergarten will open for in-person instruction. Sicherman said the school is also exploring small group outdoor activities.

Virtual learning does have its upside, Sicherman said. Nobody has to worry about how far they are from anyone else, or wear a mask. But it is harder for teachers to connect with their students.

“It’s not the same as seeing your child’s face in person and being in the classroom with them and forming that connection,” she said. “It’s hard to accept that this is where we are, but I think people are trying to make the most of it.”

Winter is coming

At the same time, the schools are working on plans for how they’re going to transition classes back into their buildings. Earlier this summer, Berman was planning on having in-person classes in the fall. Those plans fell through on Aug. 5, when Montgomery County Health Officer Travis Gayles prohibited private and religious schools from opening until Oct. 1. Even though the order was rescinded, Berman decided to stick with distance learning, at least for the fall.

Berman plans indoor instruction in the winter if allowed by state and county guidelines. Students and teachers will wear masks while inside the building, according to a document Berman released in July. Classrooms will be set up to accommodate six feet between each student. Dismissal times will be staggered to keep everyone from crowding hallways at the same time.

Milton has plans to bring students back indoors incrementally, according to Skolnick-Einhorn. CESJDS plans to review conditions in November and, if possible, begin the transition back into its building starting with the youngest students, according to Malkus. The school is looking into a model similar to Berman’s, where students would have indoor instruction depending on their grade level by the day or week while the rest are taught virtually.

Like schools everywhere, Jewish day schools in the Washington area have spent the last half year improvising, adapting. In preparing for a new school year, they’ve made plans they may never use as they balance their mandate to teach with their need to keep the school community safe.

All of it will be put to the test at the end of this month.

Other area day schools did not respond to requests for interviews for this article. They include: Leo Bernstein Jewish Academy of Fine Arts, Yeshiva of Greater Washington and Torah School of Greater Washington.

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@EricSchucht

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