Preparing for a newer normal at B’nai Shalom of Olney

Children learn while social distancing at the Early Childhood School at B’nai Shalom of Olney. (Photo courtesy of Early Childhood School at B’nai Shalom of Olney)

Over the last few months, Eve Margol, director of the Early Childhood School at B’nai Shalom of Olney, and her staff have begun preparing for a newer normal, one brought about by the COVID vaccine.

So far, eight of the school’s 10 staff members are fully vaccinated. Not much has changed in the classrooms, but now Margol feels free to chat with staff in her office without the doors and windows having to be open or wearing masks and remaining six feet apart.

“It’s a little liberating, but also a little worrisome because I don’t want to get too comfortable quite yet,” Margol said. “This is not over.”

The pandemic is practically all she knows at B’nai Shalom of Olney, a Conservative synagogue. She became its school’s director in January 2020. In March, the school was forced to operate virtually.

“That was a real challenge,” Margol said, “to get everybody up and running, to understand how to do it.”

Last fall, the classes resumed in the building. There are 38 students, ages 2, 3 and 4, enrolled, down from 45 last year. Margol said the school has had zero reported outbreaks among students and staff, which she attributes to the school’s policies.

Each day, students are given a health assessment before entering class. They wear masks at all times. Sharing markers and crayons, encouraged in normal times, is prohibited. And on the playground, classes don’t mix with each other.

“We really feel that the kids have accepted this new normal, and have enjoyed their life in preschool,” Margol said.

But there are snags. Teacher Sara Ebener said the hardest thing to do is keep her 3-year-old students six feet apart.

“Three is a very huggy, touchy age,” she said. Overall, “it’s been an easier transition than I had anticipated it being.”

Margol said one byproduct of these changes is that the children have become more self-sufficient. Parents can’t enter the building, so they can’t help their children get settled. The children are now responsible for hanging up their backpacks and taking out their lunches.

“Usually a parent would walk and do these things for them,” Margol said. “So what I’m seeing is great pride in the children.”

Margol said 61 children are enrolled for fall. It will be another new normal by then and Margol is concerned about what the loosening of COVID restrictions will cause. By now, the children are used to the rules. She wonders whether changes to mask wearing and social distancing will confuse them.

“We really want to open that up carefully and thoughtfully for the children,” Margol said. “Because they’re going to have questions. What I’m worried about is as the restrictions lessen, the children have been so ingrained [to stay] six feet apart. Don’t share. Don’t do that. All the don’ts are now going to change. How do we work with the children to let them know, you’re safer now?”

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