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Jewish schools take bold, proactive steps to minimise infection




United Herzlia Schools (UHS) was the first to take this step after it “became aware of a parent in our community who had had direct contact with a confirmed COVID-19 carrier, and was experiencing symptoms while awaiting test results. His children attended the school for four days. We decided to close the school immediately [on Thursday 12 March] as a precautionary measure, pending the outcome of the test. When the test came back positive, we extended the closure to the end of the term,” says UHS chairperson Matthew Gruzd.

“The response from parents has been overwhelmingly supportive and grateful for the decisive leadership,” says Gruzd.

Meanwhile, practical steps have been taken to keep the virus at bay. “Biometric access systems are no longer in use, and hand sanitiser has been placed in strategic places. All our campuses are undergoing deep cleans, and the staff still on campus is applying social distancing. We are providing safe transport to work for our support staff.”

A Grade 9 Herzlia pupil tested positive for coronavirus after travelling overseas. According to Gruzd, “This learner did have direct contact with others prior to testing. All the people she had close contact with have been notified, and are now undergoing self-isolation.

“The school is supporting all learners in our system. Lessons continue remotely using technology where necessary, and our teachers have been outstanding in their dedication, preparing work for younger learners to complete at home.”

The remote learning system varies by grade. “In the high and middle schools in particular, technology is already effectively used in teaching using Google Classroom. In the younger grades, there is a greater reliance on hard copy workbooks. We are confident that with our professionals’ dedication, this is sustainable over the long term. Matrics are receiving special attention.”

Rabbi Craig Kacev, the general director of the South African Board of Jewish Education (SABJE), says a number of factors influenced the decision of the Jewish education cluster (all Jewish schools in South Africa) to close their schools before the president made it an official directive.

These variables include a “known case of a parent who was positive [with coronavirus] and had been in the environment with children in various schools”. Another factor was “the risk associated with children who are often asymptomatic yet do carry and transmit the virus”. In addition, a lot of families had family coming to South Africa for Pesach.

“Now that the schools are closed, deep cleaning will take place.”

In terms of remote teaching, “Each school is using its own strategy to reinforce learning. Some of this includes educational packs per week, and online or remote learning. Exams and tests have been suspended. King David Linksfield will complete matric prelims – some written in school and others online.”

“We did attempt to maintain schooling for as long as possible, yet in the end, considering all the risks, we felt we needed to take a decision that would assist the community and South Africa. There has been much hype and hysteria and initial aggression by many. The virus will spread and subside over time, yet what will remain is the way in which we treat others, speak to them, and assist them.”

Rob Long, the academic director of Yeshiva College and principal of Boys High School, says that the school closed after consultation with the leadership of Jewish schools. “The response has been overwhelmingly positive and supportive, and the staff have been very positive in their approach to providing ongoing online learning. The school is being disinfected including all buildings, furniture, and grounds.”

He says the school’s counsellors, grade controllers, and teachers will support pupils emotionally and educationally through this tumultuous time.

“Our teachers are engaging with remote learning, which is a blend between face-to-face lessons using Zoom and various Google suites including Google Classroom. We believe that this could be maintained long-term if necessary, but studies in pure e-learning show that teacher contact is important. Thus, our teachers will endeavour to keep contact with our pupils via Skype and telephone calls.” At the moment, any tests and assessments will be completed remotely.

Rabbi Dovid Hazdan of Torah Academy says that the decision to close the schools temporarily prior to the president’s announcement was a unified decision. “There was particular concern that the virus would spread through children. Many families and parents were shocked by the extreme policies that were put in place. It takes a while to grasp the severity of the threat and the urgency of the response that’s required. In general, gratitude was expressed for the united Jewish communal response.

Torah Academy has engaged professional cleaners to do a deep clean throughout the campus.

“The virus is creating huge anxiety in the community, particularly among students. The principals have been in touch with families that have gone into self-quarantine to lend support,” Hazdan says. “There is also much work that needs to be done to further empower parents to share pertinent information with their children. Knowledge alleviates fear. We’ve taken technical steps that need to be supported with emotional and psychological support. This would be particularly urgent should a child or parent be tested positive for the virus.

In terms of remote learning, “School was closed on Monday, and Torah Academy teachers immediately began workshopping ideas. At this stage, live online learning is really complicated. Every single child needs to have a computer throughout the day which we don’t necessarily have,” the rabbi says.

“So we are developing study programmes that will include videos, worksheets, packs of crafts for nursery school, and also a reading programme. We are still at the very early stage of ensuring remote learning in both Torah and secular studies. If it’s going to be a long-term requirement, we are going to need additional strategies. We haven’t yet set up a system to test students. We are hoping to continue with certain classes for matric.”

He concludes, “This dark and difficult pandemic has resulted in many hurtful and painful responses to others in the community. But over and above that, what it has brought into focus is the exceptional strength of our South African Jewish community.”

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