By Paul Bernstein

Across North America, Jewish day schools and yeshivas have begun reopening for the fall, following an intense summer of planning. Administrators, teachers, and lay leaders have painstakingly laid out different scenarios, driven by their own institutional missions and values that serve as the foundation for providing families with the education and community they have come to expect and appreciate all along.

Their goal is to provide the best learning, within the most nurturing social and communal environment for the year ahead, and to continue to find ways to live out the missions they are passionate about pursuing. Understanding the varied needs of the faculty, students, and families, schools have been determined to open in-person, albeit with significant restrictions and policies in place, as long as it can be done safely and within local health guidelines. Needless to say, this effort came at a great expense to our most valued institutions – our schools.

Prizmah strives to equip school and community leaders, as well as their supporters, with the resources, connections, and knowledge they need for their schools to thrive. During the COVID-19 crisis, these endeavors have been underpinned by regular data collection and analysis of trends in the field. The results of Prizmah’s recent pulse survey demonstrate that a majority of schools plan to have some kind of in-person teaching and learning, deploying models that vary according to age of students and local guidance.

  • In early childhood, nearly two-thirds (64%) of schools hope to be fully in-person.
  • Starting in kindergarten, there is a greater mix between in-person and online learning, with 72% of K-5 schools expecting to have either fully in-person teaching, or a mix of in-person with an online option for students who cannot be physically present.
  • In middle and high schools, 84% will be in-person, with a mix of options that include fully in-person, in-person combined with online options to accommodate students who can’t attend, and hybrid models (often rotating days in-person and online).
  • Among K–12 schools, only 9–11% expect to be fully online.
  • A small minority of schools had, at the time of the survey in early August, not yet decided or were waiting for local guidance.

All of these protocols will remain under review through the early weeks and months of the year to ensure that the health and safety of both students and faculty are protected. Thus, even as many schools start in-person, nearly half the schools expect and are enabling some faculty to teach remotely, although two-thirds expect most (90%+) or all teachers to be able to attend in-person.

The value of Jewish day schools and yeshivas has been emphasized through the COVID-19 crisis as they continued their pursuit of strong educational, social and community offerings, coupled with innovative approaches to preparing for the most successful new school year to come. In light of these and other, often local, reasons, 65% of schools report an increase in enrollment inquiries, and 55% of schools anticipate stable or increasing enrollment in the upcoming year. Yet, a troubling 42% expect some decline, reflecting concerns with fully-online learning, health concerns, Aliyah to Israel, family financial issues, and local demographics.

The financial stresses on families and schools are significant. Schools have invested substantially in order to create safer environments – the average increased cost from COVID-19 related expenses is $669 per student (an average of $173,031 per school), which covers everything from manipulating classroom space, to building or improving outdoor facilities, upgrading HVAC systems, PPE, educational technology, renting additional space to allow for better social distancing, and significant investments in new personnel to meet school needs.

A staggering 80% of schools are reporting an increase in tuition assistance needs this year, averaging a 16% increase over last year (an additional $145,000 on average), and as much as 143% higher. Nearly half of inquiries from new families may require assistance. Meanwhile, more than half of our schools expect a dip in fundraising this year. For nearly two-thirds of schools, the combination of increasing expenses and reductions in income are contributing to a need for significant budget cuts.

Even in the face of all of these challenges, as the school year begins there is cause for great hope. The determination of so many schools to open in-person, if they can do so safely, means that Jewish day school students will begin this year with the richest possible education, social environment, and powerful community around them. In addition to the tireless work on practical matters of re-opening, schools have invested huge amounts of time and energy this summer in training and preparing for an adaptable in-person and on-line curriculum for the year, as well as strengthening their mental health supports for faculty and students.

At Prizmah, we are uplifted by the meaningful and complex learning and thinking field leaders have done collaboratively, sharing information and ideas and having questions answered by both experts and peers. Our Reshet (Network) Groups, weekly check-ins based on school role, and webinars have been a source of comfort, support, and inspiration to so many. One participant recently wrote: “The generosity of spirit that we experience is tremendous – I picked up countless tips that I’ve shared with my colleagues to solve a wide variety of challenges. One of the very inspiring things that has emerged in the midst of this really terrible global crisis has been an out-pouring of collaboration.”

It is this very generosity of spirit within the Jewish day school field and its supporters that we know will continue to feed the needs of our schools. The challenges, particularly financial, for Jewish day schools and their families are substantial, yet we tackle them – as we do all the issues we face through COVID-19 – with determination, empathy, and a undying passion for a brilliant Jewish education and the social-emotional growth of our younger generation – the Jewish future.

Paul Bernstein is CEO, Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools.

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