Eyeing Rosh Hashanah as a virus tipping point, 26 Jewish schools unite to exhort families to play it safe


(JTA) – Weeks into the new term, Jewish day schools are exhorting families to take precautions amid rising coronavirus infections in some Orthodox communities that have already caused grades and even entire schools to close temporarily.

Don’t schedule sleepovers. Require masks even for outdoor play dates. Remind children to keep their distance from one another. And forget about traveling during the upcoming Jewish holidays.

Those are some of the requests outlined in an unusual joint letter sent Wednesday by the heads of 26 Orthodox high schools across the United States to families in their communities. The email urges students and parents to follow school guidelines at home and said specifically that the guidelines apply to everyone, including those who have coronavirus antibodies because of previous infection.

The letter makes clear that the consequences of not complying could be steep.

“By maintaining vigilant care for our health and safety, we aim to ensure that we keep our schools open,” the email said. “It is therefore critical that we do not become complacent and let our guard down as the yamim tovim [holidays] approach.”

Already this year, some schools have had to quarantine students who tested positive for COVID-19 or were exposed to someone who tested positive.

Yeshiva Darchei Torah, an Orthodox yeshiva in Queens, New York, was closed Tuesday after 13 students tested positive. At the Ramaz Upper School, a high school in New York City, the entire school was closed after four students tested positive for COVID. In Chicago, the Rochelle Zell Jewish High School closed just three days into the new term after two staff members tested positive. The school has since reopened.

While many schools have taken precautions in the classroom – keeping desks far apart, adding Plexiglas enclosures and requiring masks – school leaders have said they cannot control what happens outside the school building. In several Orthodox communities, weddings and social gatherings have been the source of numerous infections or exposures requiring local day school students to quarantine.

The joint letter is not the only example of collaboration to press families to uphold the schools’ expectations. In New Jersey’s Bergen County, where local Jewish leaders were early to cease all communal activity in March, seven school administrators sent a joint letter to parents on Tuesday evening reminding them that new cases had been detected in the community.

“If the trend continues in this direction, the inevitable result will be school closures,” the administrators wrote in an email Tuesday night. “With this in mind, we are writing this letter to communicate with you a number of important communal norms that must be adhered to in order to minimize the spread of COVID, thus preserving the health of our community and the viability of our schools.”

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