Schools remain closed for community’s sake

  • SC1
The South African Board of Jewish Education (SABJE), which governs King David Schools, and Yeshiva College, announced last Friday that it was keeping its schools closed and moving online.
by TALI FEINBERG | Jul 23, 2020

Parents were notified in separate but similar letters that as of Monday, 20 July, the date most pupils were scheduled to return to school after the holidays, they would resume online learning. This followed a limited opening of the schools over the past six weeks.

“Based upon the advice of our medical team, including Barry Schoub, professor of virology and founder of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, and Dr Anton Meyberg, a physician at Linksfield Clinic, we have had to reconsider the model implemented over the past few weeks,” wrote SABJE director Rabbi Craig Kacev.

“In Gauteng, the spread of the virus is doubling every ten days, and more than 25% of tests are returning positive. This, together with the number of active cases and the increased pressure on hospitals, has brought to bear the need for us to change our approach.

“While schools remain a safe environment for students, a view which has been reinforced by many research papers, rising infection rates have significantly increased the risk to our academic and support staff and, in turn, to all our families. Schools cannot be isolated from the broader community and cannot, based on advice, offer enough protection when rates of transmission are at their current levels,” he wrote.

“We are aware that many of our pupils are struggling emotionally by remaining at home and a return to school will be of tremendous benefit to them. Despite the importance we place on their emotional well-being, we must take the decision at this stage to prioritise the health of our community.”

Said Schoub, “The decision to recommend that schools remained closed was a difficult one, and was made after careful consideration of the risks to teachers and children. The extent of infection in the Gauteng area has overtaken expectations. There are now many members of the community ill with the infection, a large number seriously ill, and there is a disturbing number of deaths.

“The teaching staff and school administrations took extraordinary precautions to minimise risk of infection when the schools were open. Nevertheless, in view of the rampant spread of the infection at the moment in the country and in the province, it was decided that the threat, particularly to teaching staff, would be too great at this point in time to consider reopening the schools. The situation will be monitored and assessed on a very regular basis, and as soon as it is deemed reasonably safe, schools will reopen.”

“The decision was made with a heavy heart,” said Meyberg. “I have three children who have been going to school. Their anxiety levels have dramatically reduced since going back. The reason we are closed for now is that due to the surge and large numbers in Gauteng, we have to protect our teachers, cleaning, and auxiliary staff who are at a far higher risk of transmission and infection. We know that children aren’t super-spreaders, as well as the fact that they don’t get severely ill if they get infected. But most staff are older or have comorbidities, and it’s our duty to protect them as they, too, are on the frontline.

“The situation in Gauteng is dire,” he said. “Numbers are still rising daily, and I’m concerned that people are not showing sufficient responsibility.” He emphasised that the decision was made as a result of the exponential spread of the virus in Gauteng. “This has been exacerbated by the government’s decision to allow taxis to operate at 100% of capacity. The pandemic has taught us that we have a responsibility not only to ourselves – but to each other. Now is the time to stand up for that responsibility, and work together as one.”

“Torah Academy has delayed the opening of our school campus due to input from medical experts,” said Rabbi Dovid Hazdan. “Lessons will continue online. We will re-evaluate regularly and consult experts and other schools.”

Kacev told the SA Jewish Report, “The schools are guided by scientific data as well as educational and emotional needs. At the time of returning on 1 June, the transmission level in Gauteng was low, and as such, medical data that children don’t transmit as much as adults was sufficient to rely on, knowing that the schools had good protocols in place.

“New research, as described in the New York Times on 18 July, indicates that 11 to 19 year olds may be able to transmit the virus in the same manner as adults. We will use a risk-adjusted approach, ever aware of emerging information.”

Natalie Altman, the director of kodesh and ethos at Yeshiva College, emphasised that the decision was made with the entire community’s safety in mind. “Infection in our community has skyrocketed. We are also thinking of our staff who would have to use public transport. This is in the best interests of the community.”

At both King David and Yeshiva, matriculants writing prelims will be able to return to campus. At King David Schools, Grade 11s will be required to return in a limited form. If a teacher finds that a concept or skill can’t be transferred online, then under very strict procedures, they can teach it on the school grounds. Both schools will re-evaluate the situation every two weeks.

Both Kacev and Altman believe that teaching and learning is on track for Grades 12s, and that the other pupils will be able to complete the year successfully. At the same time, the online model continues to present challenges. For example, “There are challenges with connectivity or the number of devices. We are recording lessons in case any are missed, and we have sourced deals for families to either purchase or rent IT hardware at preferential rates,” said Kacev. In addition, “Online learning hasn’t been as effective for pre-school children and as such, we have reduced fees at that level.”

A teacher speaking on condition of anonymity said she supported the school’s decision. “The surge in our Jewish community is so massive that there are many teachers who are COVID-19-positive and won’t be back for at least three to four weeks. Many of these teachers are able to teach online, but can’t go into school. There are also teachers with comorbidities who aren’t allowed to return to school, but can teach online.”

The SA Jewish Report asked approximately 40 parents how they felt about the decision. Most said they supported it, while 10 said they did not believe schools needed to close.

“It’s absolutely the right decision. We need to find ways to help our medical personnel and hospitals to bear the burden, and being back at school will just create more pressure,” said one mother. “I sincerely hope that parents don’t arrange for their children to have playdates, which would totally negate the situation.” Another parent said, “We are a fortunate community, equipped for online education.”

A third commented, “I’ve been blown away by our school and the extra lengths teachers have gone to ensure the best for our children. I do worry about my boys, and pray that they are making progress and improving academically. [Online learning] is tricky and I hate what it does to our relationship some days. It involves a lot of discipline.”

One parent, disagreeing with the decision, said, “I know we are at the peak, but I think they could have gone back to school. I felt totally safe and secure having my son back. I think that psychologically, we are harming our kids more by keeping them isolated. Yes, they can get sick, but I don’t believe keeping them home any longer is going to change the course of the virus. It’s here to stay for the time being, and keeping to the basic rules will keep us healthy. Our kids would be better off at school.”

“We have no intention of closing unless the president decrees it,” said Andries van Renssen, the executive director of United Herzlia Schools in Cape Town. “We are taking all reasonable precautions to ensure safety protocols are adhered to and to keep our staff and pupils as safe as humanly possible. We also have a safety officer continuously assessing our protocols and ensuring there is a high level of compliance. The school is probably ‘safer’ than any restaurant. We have been blessed to have had very few positive cases in our staff and pupil body and, while we expect it’s unlikely to remain that way, we are prepared to react should it happen.”

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