Ottawa’s Jewish day schools prepare to reopen

By Michael Regenstreif, Editor

Ottawa’s Jewish day schools – the Ottawa Jewish Community School (OJCS) and Torah Day School of Ottawa, as well as the Orthodox high school, Ottawa Torah Institute (boys)/Machon Sarah (girls) – are in the midst of preparations to welcome students back to their classrooms after Labour Day for the 2020-2021 academic year.

The schools are resuming in-person instruction after completing the last three months of the 2019-2020 year via online learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and have invested much time and resources into planning how to reopen safely in the COVID environment. It’s an understatement to say the coming school year will be unlike any that students, teachers and school administrations have experienced before.

According to Jon Mitzmacher, the OJCS head of school, the school’s reopening comes after “a thorough review of provincial guidelines, an examination of the physical facility, and feedback from teachers and parents.” To allow for necessary physical distancing, classes will be limited to cohorts of 15 students “who will spend the overwhelming majority of their school day in one designated space.”

OJCS will have two cohorts each in kindergarten and Grades 1, 2, 3 and 5 and one cohort each in Grades 4, 6, 7 and 8. Cohorts in kindergarten through Grade 5 will have “a primary classroom or learning space (Library) where all its learning activities are designed to take place.” Teachers for those grades will move between classrooms but the students will remain in their space.

Cohorts for Grades 6 through 8 will have “a primary classroom or learning space (Makerspace), but students will travel to limited additional spaces during their learning day.”

In each classroom, students’ desks will be appropriately spaced and students will not share school supplies, materials and books. As well, lockers will not be used, snacks and lunches will be eaten at their desks and outdoor recess periods will be scheduled by cohort.

Physical education (PE) classes for kindergarten through Grade 3 will not take place. In Grades 4 through 8, PE will take the form of “outdoor education” with activities that maintain full physical distancing.

Clubs and extracurricular sports will not take place and Mitzmacher notes, “Tefillah will take place in cohorts and will launch without singing. All assemblies, events, holidays, etc., will be reimagined with any necessary adjustments or virtual components to stay in compliance with guidelines.”

Art classes will be taught virtually with the art teacher broadcasting from the art studio to students in their classrooms who will be assisted by their primary teachers and “all library services will be rendered virtually and contactless.”

Mitzmacher also notes, “Teachers who teach multiple cohorts and/or grades will be required to wear masks during their day. Students will be required to wear masks while walking the halls, using the bathrooms or in any other spaces other than their primary cohort space (with the exception of outdoor spaces when socially distanced). Additionally, students in Grades 5 through 8 will be strongly encouraged to wear masks even in their primary learning spaces.”

As well, special instructions for dropping off and picking up students, and for keeping students at home at any sign of illness, have been supplied to parents.

“We are simply doing our best to stay on top of the health guidelines, to hold awareness of what the public board and other private schools are doing, and to be as transparent as we can about what we have already decided and what remains in play,” notes Mitzmacher.

“Everything will be different this year,” according to Rabbi Boruch Perton, head of school Torah Day School of Ottawa, which offers classes for Kindergarten through Grade 8. “In every aspect, we’ve looked at the best practices and protocols in terms of keeping everyone safe.”

Rabbi Perton says the protocols have been arrived at after extensive consultations with Ottawa Public Health, the Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) in Toronto, and Hillel Lodge, which “has been serving as a great resource in terms of helping us understand best practices.”

All of the classrooms, Rabbi Perton said, have been measured and assigned to classes so that a two-metre distance can be maintained between each student’s desk and the teacher “so that we can make sure our classed are secure.”

Students will remain in the same classroom throughout the school day with teachers moving from class to class as necessary.

“For recess, we’ve divided our yard into four different sectors so that we can maintain the same bubbling so that each grade is in a different location,” Rabbi Perton said.

For physical education, “we’ve created a gym environment that is based on noncontact sports in order to address the COVID criteria – it’s more individual and physical fitness-based versus team sports that might involve contact.”

As well, there will not be any school-wide assemblies or activities that involve bringing students from more than one class together.

“We are being very strict,” Rabbi Perton said. “We have screening protocols for parents, guests and visitors to our building. We’re going to do the best we can and hope they find a vaccine in the near future.

“Our parents are resilient, our children are resilient, and we’re looking forward to beginning the school year. Our teachers are excited about coming to school and about getting into the classroom, regardless of what restrictions we place on them,” he added.

Although the schools are not formally connected, Rabbi Perton is also head of school Ottawa Torah Institute/Machon Sarah, the Orthodox high school, and said all of the measures he discussed in regard to Torah Day School also apply to the high school.

Rabbi Perton also noted that both Torah Day School and Ottawa Torah Institute/Machon Sarah are open to all Jewish students regardless of affiliation or level of observance.

“We don’t believe in the long arm of the school reaching into parents’ homes. We don’t ask parents, ‘Do you keep Shabbat?’ or ‘Are You Orthodox?’ … It’s about education, it’s not about indoctrination. We don’t ask those questions. I’m very proud of that,” he said.

“Even with COVID, we’re in a very positive place,” Rabbi Perton added. “Our enrolment is growing – both in elementary and in high school. Our most important agenda is to have a safe school – safe parents, safe teachers, safe students.”