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Local religious schools, Tucson Hebrew Academy make multiple plans for fall

This year, essential school supplies will include face masks and hand sanitizer to help guard against COVID-19. (Photo: Tatevik Bagdasaryan/Shutterstock.com)

Contingency plans are the order of the day as Tucson’s synagogue religious schools and Tucson Hebrew Academy look ahead to the first day of school next month. On June 29, Gov. Doug Ducey announced that the target date for Arizona schools to open with in-person instruction had been pushed back to at least Aug. 17 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are all keeping an eye on the numbers in Arizona, because they are not going down,” Rina Liebeskind, director of the joint religious school of Congregation Or Chadash and Temple Emanu-El, told the AJP. “We’re developing the criteria for what it would take for us to feel comfortable to even entertain the in-person possibility.”

When the time comes, Liebeskind says, a strong possibility is a hybrid program that would combine virtual sessions with a limited number of students and a teacher in the classroom, with appropriate physical distancing. But there are caveats.

“There are some teachers who are not going to be comfortable coming in person. So I have to also plan for the possibility of having an adult in the classroom for those students who want to come in person, and having the teacher come in remotely as well,” she says. The combined school will be based at Temple Emanu-El.

Liebeskind notes that Temple Emanu-El’s [email protected] program already has the infrastructure in place for distance learning.

The joint religious school committee has sent out a survey to parents, but phone calls already indicate approximately half are concerned about their kids learning only virtually, because some children don’t do as well with Zoom and other computer applications. On the other side are families where parents or children have compromised health or other reasons they cannot send their kids in person.

“Because we have such diverse family dynamics, we are trying to accommodate as many people as we can. The utmost priority for us is to make sure everybody’s safe,” Liebeskind emphasizes.

The faculty for the combined school is still being formed but most staff from both congregations will be retained, says Liebeskind, explaining that in the coming school year, the number of students should allow each grade to meet separately, rather than combining grades as both Temple Emanu-El and Or Chadash have done in the past few years.

At Congregation Anshei Israel, the B’Yahad (Together) religious school program is planning three different possibilities for fall instruction, says Nichole Chorny, who is now education and youth director in addition to her role as cantorial soloist. “We are surveying our families, watching the number of cases in Pima County, watching what decisions are made in our public school systems, and in discussions with our board, and will make a final decision by the end of July,” she says.

One of the three possibilities is all-online classes, with occasional in-person special family events surrounding holidays, following CDC guidelines for social distancing. Online options may include Zoom group sessions, Zoom private sessions, Zoom small-group breakout sessions, and packets of materials sent home for students to use at home.

A second possibility for Anshei Israel is a hybrid model, with Sunday morning in-person classes, following CDC guidelines for social distancing, and Tuesday afternoon online classes.

A third option would be all in-person classes, following the CDC guidelines for social distancing.

At Congregation Chaverim, “Hebrew and religious school will re-open mid-August in person if it is safe to do so. If not we are set to hold all of our classes through Zoom,” says Rabbi Stephanie Aaron, who also serves as education director.

Congregation Beit Simcha, which conducted its religious school on Zoom from March to the end of the spring semester, expects to do the same when school begins in August, says Rabbi Sam Cohon. “We are fully prepared to go live if we think that it’s prudent and healthy to do so,” he adds.

With the exception of a siyyum (end-of-year celebration), Beit Simcha was able to accomplish everything it wanted, including b’nai mitzvah tutoring, on Zoom, he says.  The education director for the coming year is Sophia Korb, Ph.D.

“We’re trying to figure out ways to have kids be present, using social distancing, for both some religious school experiences and some services. My own sense based on how things are going right now is that it’s very premature to open schools in August. I hope that that changes, of course,” Cohon said June 29.

Zoom has allowed for more individualized instruction, because kids’ schedules have been more flexible, Cohon notes.

“Once we open we’ll still have to be hybrid, because some people are not going to be comfortable being [at school],” he says. Cohon adds that if there’s anything positive to come out of the pandemic, it is the discovery of how easy it is to broadcast services on Facebook Live — something he plans to continue even after the pandemic is over — and to hold hybrid classes using Zoom, expanding the synagogue’s potential reach for both children and adults.

Tucson Hebrew Academy Head of School Laurence Kutler emphasizes that the Aug. 17 opening date is “aspirational.” THA used distance learning from March 16 until the end of the spring semester and can implement it again if it is deemed unsafe to begin in-person learning. A COVID-19 team at THA, comprising members of administration, staff, and a group of medical advisors, has been working to create an opening plan based on current guidance from the CDC and state and local governments, aware that such guidance is likely to change over the course of the year.

THA has outlined its protocols in a nine-page reopening document, which Kutler expected to provide to families last week. These include temperature checks of all staff and students before they enter the school each day; requiring staff and students to wear masks or other face coverings in all public areas, including classrooms; and classrooms arranged for 6-foot distancing and where that is not feasible, student desks divided by plexiglass screens. THA will  not hold group sports or group prayer (pre-recorded tefillah videos will be played in homerooms in grades 2-8). Lunch will take place in the classrooms, or outside for lower school classes on rotating days. Recess times will be staggered. Individual students requiring an accommodation to allow them to learn at home will be supported by the support services department, and staff will be similarly supported.

For more information, contact the relevant organizations.