At Gesher Jewish Day School, distance learning is not a thing. Since the fall, students and teachers at the Jr. K-8 community school in Fairfax have met in person — in the building and outside on the 28-acre campus. It’s not school as normal, but by emphasizing social distancing, mask wearing and other precautions, Gesher is keeping the pandemic at bay.
“We forget that it’s not normal because it’s just become our routine,” said Aviva Walls, Gesher’s head of school.
Walls came on board in July, a new leader at the school in the middle of a once-a-century pandemic.
“Between a political transition and a pandemic, it’s not the easiest first year as a head of school,” she said. “But I’m excited for a nice calm year or two.”
That first year is only half over. The 142 students returned in the fall to find that walls had been removed, enlarging rooms and allowing for social distancing.
Gesher also upgraded its ventilation system and set up hand sanitizer dispensers throughout the building. Water fountains were locked and replaced with motion-activated bottle fillers.
Walls said the school is running a balanced budget, due to a 23 percent increase in enrollment from last year.
Most education activities have been unaffected by COVID, although everyone is to wear a mask and maintain social distance. Eighth graders recently completed a marble roller coaster for physics class. But the kindergarten’s challah bakes were discontinued, according to Walls.
Since the pandemic began, classes have shifted outside. The school bought four 30-by-30-foot tents for shelter, at about $40,000 in total. It was cheaper than renting them, Walls said.
While in their outdoor classes, students sit in camping chairs that the school added to the supply list last fall. Walls said the chairs have been so popular with students that the school might add them to the supply list permanently.
The cafeteria has been converted to classrooms and students receive their lunches at their desks or outside.
To monitor for symptoms, Gesher requires families to use ParentLocker, a health screening app, to log their student’s health daily.
“We’re asking a lot of our families, just like we’re asking of our faculty. But overall, they’ve been wonderful,” Walls said. “Yeah, it’s frustrating. You have a kid with a runny nose and have to get a COVID test for that child. Like that’s annoying, but every little bit helps us stay safe.”
Since classes began in the fall, three staff and one student have tested positive for COVID, but there have been no outbreaks traced back to the school, according to Walls. One of the staffers tested positive back in November and the other two over winter break. The one student tested positive in December. Walls said they all have since recovered.
A suspected COVID case in November led to one classroom instituting virtual learning for a few days. But the class returned to in-person instruction after Walls said the school learned the student did not have COVID.
As COVID vaccines become more accessible, Walls said the school is encouraging students and faculty to get shots when possible. However, she said the school, at the moment, is stopping short of requiring them. Walls has received the first dose of the vaccine, but understands others may be either unable to or choose not to get vaccinated.
“Right now we’re working on encouragement and education rather than mandating vaccines,” Walls said. “My hope is that everybody will [get vaccinated], but I know that might not be realistic right now.”
Walls grew up in Seattle. Before coming to Gesher, she was dean of students at the modern Orthodox Shalhevet School in Los Angeles. Walls said she strives to create a “team culture” within the school administration, where the group makes decisions together. She also works to cultivate a “culture of gratitude” as “it has been a hard year. Like, it’s been a good year, but it’s not an easy one.”
Her long-term goals for Gesher are to expand enrollment, a perennial challenge for Northern Virginia’s only Jewish day school, which was established in 1982. She wants to expand partnerships with other Jewish institutions and invest more in faculty professional development.
To help reach these goals, the school created a new faculty position: The community advancement associate manages the school’s social media accounts and the yearbook, and is involved in family programming. Walls said the job is vital “to help bridge families and our school.”
Additional capital improvements are also in the works. A new playground for Gesher’s pre-K through first grade is scheduled to be completed in June. And on the dream list, Walls said the school hopes someday to build a swimming pool on its property in a joint project with Pozez Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia.
Walls said the school is “COVID full” and can’t accommodate any more children. There’s a waiting list and Walls aims to increase enrollment to 160 next year. Without social distancing measures, Gesher has a capacity of about 200 students, she said.
Tuition for the current school year for K-8 is $22,575 and is set to rise next year by 5 percent to $23,700. Gesher, she said, is “underpriced in the market.”
The school has contingency plans if COVID restrictions force the school to relocate online. Gesher has invested in additional computer equipment and software applications for such a move, Walls said. But as things stand now, she doesn’t foresee that kind of shift.
“If you had asked me that question in August, I absolutely would have said that at some point during the year it’s likely that we’re going to close,” Walls said. “But we’ve been able to do well with how we’re doing and I’m really hopeful that we’ll be able to stay open.”