Students at South Peninsula Hebrew Day School during recess, Sept. 10, 2020. (Photo/Patrick Hathaway)
Students at South Peninsula Hebrew Day School during recess, Sept. 10, 2020. (Photo/Patrick Hathaway)

Four Jewish schools get waivers for in-person learning; others waiting to hear

Updated on Sept. 16, 5:08 p.m.

The first day of in-person classes at South Peninsula Hebrew Day School looked different this year.

The elementary school students, placed into cohorts of up to 14, had their temperatures checked as they entered the school. Inside, touchless hand sanitizer stands were everywhere. At recess, the students played and dribbled basketballs within fenced-in areas.

It was all made possible by a waiver approved by Santa Clara County on Sept. 2, allowing the Sunnyvale private Jewish school to conduct in-person classes for elementary grades only starting on Sept. 8.

“It’s a week shy of six months [that] these students haven’t been at school,” said head of school Rabbi Perry Tirschwell.

SPHDS opened the school year for remote learning on Aug. 18, about two weeks before receiving the waiver.

It is among 39 Santa Clara County private/charter schools, and five public school districts, to be granted waivers for elementary grades as of Sept. 16.

SPHDS is one of the lucky few to be approved early in the process. Dozens of other private schools in the county are still waiting to get their waivers approved. Many public school districts still remain closed for in-person classes.

When asked about the first day of in-person classes, Tirschwell said he felt “joy” mixed with “trepidation.”

Three other Bay Area Jewish K-8 schools have been granted in-person waivers for their elementary grades: Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto (Santa Clara County), Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City (San Mateo County) and Yavneh Day School in Los Gatos (Santa Clara County).

Oakland Hebrew Day School, located in Alameda County, is working on its waiver application. Meanwhile, it will bring in kindergarteners for in-person learning starting Sept. 22 under a county exception that allows schools to conduct in-person classes for children they determine would be most challenged by remote learning.

And Contra Costa Jewish Day School in Lafayette submitted its waiver to Contra Costa County and is waiting on a response.

Brandeis School of San Francisco, which opened for remote learning on Aug. 25, is following a waiver application process created by San Francisco County; head of school Dan Glass said an application would be submitted by Sept. 25.

A tent that Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School set up for outside classes, July 2020. (Photo/Adam Eilath)
A tent that Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School set up for outside classes, July 2020. (Photo/Adam Eilath)

Brandeis Marin has not yet responded to J.

Middle schools and high schools are not eligible for waivers in California. However, as of Aug. 28, new state guidance allows them to reopen for in-person instruction once their county meets lowered targets for community transmission for 14 days. The state gives local health officials the authority to implement even stricter measures for reopenings.

Wornick got approval to start in-person classes on Sept. 14. Head of school Adam Eilath said they are implementing a “phased re-entry” starting with kindergarten, a strategy he said was recommended by San Mateo County. First grade will start later in September. Second through sixth grades will start in October.

Eilath said the phased approach allows the school to better respond to challenges with social distancing and mask-wearing among younger children.

“We want to start with just a few grades to make sure that we really create that positive experience,” said Eilath. “We want to get it right.”

Hausner, which received notice of its waiver on Sept. 8, also has a phased re-entry plan. On Sept. 15, in-person classes started for grades K-2. Grades 3-5 will join in on Sept. 21.

“We want to give our youngest kids the time to settle in and learn the new rules of school,” said Hillary Hazan-Glass, who oversees admission and outreach at Hausner.

For a school to be granted a waiver, the application must include its plan to mitigate the spread of coronavirus.

For example, in Santa Clara County, where SPHDS, Yavneh and Hausner are located, each school must spell out its strategies for cleaning and disinfecting, training staff on new protocols, and screening and testing students and staff, among myriad other requirements. A public health official from the county reviews the application and determines whether a school is in compliance before approving or denying the waiver.

The county also lists a set of protocols for what to do if students come into contact with a Covid-positive individual, or test positive themselves. Each school is required to have its own plan for switching back to remote learning if necessary.

All Jewish schools with approved waivers will still have a portion of their students attending remotely.

Eilath said that 20 to 30 percent of Wornick’s K-6 students will remain at home for class. He said they are staying home for a variety of reasons. They may be immunocompromised or have a family member who is at risk. Students can also attend remotely if they or a family member have any Covid symptoms, or if they have been in contact with a Covid-positive individual.

At SPHDS, a smaller number are staying at home. Tirschwell said only about 4 percent of K-5 students will attend class remotely.

Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler was a staff writer at J. from 2019 to 2021.