Pandemic Pressures Mount on Jewish Day Schools


An administrator at the Sinai Academy in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, is picking up food from food pantries and delivering it to the homes of more than 20 students whose families — one as large as eight people —are struggling economically because their parents lost their jobs due to the coronavirus closings.

“We look at these boys as our children,” said Rabbi Moshe Silber, principal of the 50-student boys yeshiva. “How do we expect them to learn if they are worried about food?”

The Schechter School of Long Island has already been told by some of its donors that the sharp decline in the stock market will make it harder for them to help the school financially this year.

The Yeshivah of Flatbush had to cancel its multimillion-dollar fundraising campaign last month because of the pandemic, and is now bracing for a 20 to 30 percent increase in requests for tuition assistance in the fall because so many of its parents’ businesses were forced to close.

Interviews with nearly a dozen Jewish day school administrators, teachers, parents and educators have found that as they complete the school year remotely, they are left with a dizzying array of questions —  whether they will be allowed to reopen in September, how they might open and, if they don’t, whether parents will re-enroll their children.

And perhaps most pressing of all: Can distance learning really work and will families feel the sky-high tuitions are worth it?

“This is the time when schools are sending their tuition invoices to families for the fall and schools are understandably nervous,” said David Bryfman, CEO of the Jewish Education Project. “The biggest unknown is whether parents are going to start questioning whether my child is getting the same value of education because of distance learning that he would get if he went back to school. And if they do go back, parents are apprehensive that there might be a second wave [of the virus] that would again shut down schools.”

Students have had varying success in making the transition from the classroom to the computer. Most of the more than 200 Jewish day schools and yeshivas in the New York City, Westchester and Long Island — more than half of all Jewish day schools in the country — made the switch for their 12,500 students with just one day of teacher training.

And the shift came at a time when businesses throughout the state were ordered to close in order to stop the spread of the coronavirus, which to date has killed more than 80,000 Americans and pushed the jobless rate to 14.7 percent last month, the highest since the Great Depression. Among those who had to close their businesses were many Syrian Jews in Brooklyn whose children attend Yeshivah of Flatbush, a Modern Orthodox day school for nearly 2,100 students from ages 2 to 18.

“They have been hit very hard,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Rothman, the yeshiva’s executive director, who noted that requests from parents “not to pay [tuition] or defer payment is something like we have never seen.”

To help parents in need of tuition assistance in the coming school year, UJA-Federation of New York recently allocated $2 million, according to Chavie Kahn, the philanthropy’s director of school strategy and policy. The money, part of the $45 million UJA-Federation has allocated to help Jewish institutions during the pandemic, will be added to the $1 million Biller Scholarship Fund that has been made available to parents in need in 70 day schools during the last 12 years.

Kahn said the money would go to families that sustained “income reduction due to business loss, a diminution of wages, loss of employment, furlough, or families who suffered the loss of a parent or primary care giver — families that were really impacted.”

At the Stein Yeshiva in Yonkers, an 80-student Orthodox school for infants through the eighth grade, Rabbi Yosef Cherns said, “A few parents have already said they don’t have the income to keep their children in school, and we have invited them to stay.”

Ilana Ruskay-Kidd, founder and head of The Shefa School in Manhattan, a first-through-eighth grade school for 147 students with language-based learning disabilities, said she has heard that some parents are “trying to see if there are savings or refunds to which they are entitled. We were able to refund lunch money and transportation money, which parents paid separately.”

Summer and Fall

Bryfman worries that some students might switch from day school to public school because their families don’t want to pay for distance learning. Bryfman said he “can’t imagine” those who switch to public school next year would return when the Covid-19 crisis is over. “Day schools have to prove their worth and their value to the community,” he said.

One way to do that is to offer courses for college credit this summer that would attract both day school and public school students, Kahn suggested.

“It would be a recruitment tool to show the academic excellence of their teaching staff,” she said. “It would be an innovative opportunity to showcase their school to those who are not working or going to camp.”

The expectation that most camps will be canceled will mean “mounting pressure on parents who need to re-enter the workforce” and need to keep their children occupied, Bryfman predicted.

Ruskay-Kidd said her school is considering running a summer program, but first wants to see whether camps will open.

“If kids can be in camp, that is where we would like them to be,” she said. “If not, we would definitely consider a summer program. It would be mostly reinforcement, and the kids would benefit from the structure.”

The Schechter School of Long Island, a 275-student K-12 school in Williston Park, L.I., is seriously considering offering summer classes “because we have seen how effective we have been online,” said Scott Sokol, the head of school. “We have an algebra teacher who may offer summer sessions. It potentially would be open to anybody. We would be looking to our own community first. … We are also looking into [offering classes in] different subjects.”

But the North Shore Hebrew Academy, an Orthodox day school in Great Neck, L.I., has already ruled out summer classes, according to Rabbi Jeffrey Kobrin, head of school for its 702 elementary and middle school students.

“I couldn’t see doing it to the teachers, who are completely over-extended,” he explained. “The kids would benefit, but they also need a break.”

Day schools are now also planning how they will handle things in the fall, according to Paul Bernstein, CEO of Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools, the North American network of Jewish day schools and yeshivas.

“One school is planning to start a week earlier in August and to add weeks in the year just in case there are times when it would have to close,” he said. “They want to offer the maximum [in-person] teaching they can offer in a year.”

Among other ideas schools are considering are splitting up classes and having each come in for half a day in order to facilitate social distancing, Bernstein said.

Ruskay-Kidd of Manhattan’s Shefa School said that half-day programs are not feasible in her school because so many students live in other boroughs, Long Island, Bergen County and Westchester, so she is considering having students come on different weeks. And because classrooms and the lunch room are not that large, she said students might have to eat lunch at their desks with dividers between them; more dividers in the hallways would to compel students to walk in two lanes.   

The SAR Academy in Riverdale, a K-12 coed Modern Orthodox yeshiva of 1,500 students, might be in a better position to handle socially distanced teaching. It is just completing construction of an early childhood building into which 250 of its children will be moved in the fall. And its school building uses an open school platform so that an approximately 3,000-square-foot room is divided for use by four classes, according to its principal, Rabbi Binyamin Krauss.

But should this arrangement not meet yet-to-be-issued state guidelines, he recalled that after Hurricane Sandy the school reopened with classes being held “in local synagogues and homes. … All options are on the table.”

Michael Kay, head of school at The Leffell School, a co-ed Conservative day school for 745 students in grades k-12 in White Plains and Hartsdale (formerly the Solomon Schechter School of Westchester), said his school is also considering the need to hold classes both remotely and in the school.

“Once we have a clearer sense of the regulations,” he said, “we will know if we will be bringing in certain grades and needing to find additional space for the others.”