a white man with a black mask over her nose and mouth stands at the front of a classroom
Henry Wagner teaches fourth and fifth grades at South Peninsula Hebrew Day School in Sunnyvale in 2020. (Photo/Courtesy SPHDS)

How Jewish schools are making pandemic safety part of the curriculum

Peek your head into the pre-kindergarten class at Oakland Hebrew Day School, and you will hear children singing a Hebrew song that sounds just like “The Wheels on the Bus.” But the song’s familiar lyrics have been altered for a new reality, like every other facet of life during the pandemic.

Instead of “The wheels on the bus go round and round,” it’s “We’re putting on masks, putting on masks” and “We’re keeping distance, keeping distance.”

Adi Schacker and Melissa Rogoway, the two OHDS pre-K teachers leading the class, said the song is a playful and “organic” way to convey health protocols that now dictate almost every aspect of the school day.

“It’s part of the curriculum,” said Schacker, who has taught at OHDS for nine years. “It’s all part of the vocabulary they’re learning.”

A handful of Jewish K-8 schools have been holding in-person classes since September, thanks to a waiver process set up by the state. While the reopening has injected a sense of normalcy for all involved, teachers said, they are returning to classrooms that appear vastly different than in years past. High schools, meanwhile, remain closed.

Schacker’s pre-K class of 11 masked students sit between spaced out, 2-foot tall bookcases. Instead of a group of children working on a puzzle, it’s an individual activity. And Covid-related vocabulary is now part of Hebrew class. Even a set of markers has to be duplicated so one class of children won’t spread the virus to the next one.

A child’s mask slips a little too far down his or her face?

Masecha al ha’af
” or “Mask on the nose,” Schacker will remind her students. The pre-K teachers said they’ve tried to make the health guidelines a community-oriented exercise.

“We deliberately framed Covid guidelines as ‘We’re taking care of our friends,’” Rogoway said. “I have to say, that frame has made the kids really internalize the norms.” Surprisingly, both teachers said, enforcing rules has not been as difficult as they imagined.

Pull up your mask! Do you want to go back to Zoom?

Things have proven to be a bit trickier with older students.

Henry Wagner, who teaches fourth and fifth grades at South Peninsula Hebrew Day School, said it’s been a “big challenge” for his students to keep their masks on and maintain social distancing.

“As far as the precautions, I think that they’re pretty annoyed by it,” he said. But Wagner, in his third year at the Sunnyvale school, said the fear of a potential outbreak of the coronavirus, which would mean a return to the dreaded remote classes, is also keeping students in check.

He said he hears students say to one another, “Pull up your mask! Do you want to go back to Zoom?”

In the classroom, Wagner has placed taped lines on the ground that separate students’ desks, now placed at an appropriate distance from each other.

“I joke with people, it kind of looks like a basketball court,” he said. Before leaving, the children sanitize the entire room for the next class. The new group of students uses an entirely different set of books, notebooks and pencils so no cross-contamination occurs between classes.

At the start of the year, Wagner said he used the trivia game platform “Kahoot!” to make learning about the health guidelines more palatable. “It turned all these annoying technicalities into something they could have fun with,” he said.

Socially distanced cubbies in a transitional kindergarten classroom at Oakland Hebrew Day School. (Photo/Courtesy OHDS)
Socially distanced cubbies in a transitional kindergarten classroom at Oakland Hebrew Day School. (Photo/Courtesy OHDS)

Even with all of the protocols in place, Wagner still must weigh the potential risk to his own health in returning to the classroom. The push to open elementary and middle schools has been motivated in part by evidence suggesting the virus’ low transmission rates among children — evidence being challenged by more recent studies —  as well as considerations about the challenges of online education.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t afraid,” Wagner, 27, said about coming into the classroom. “What happens if someone gets the virus? What happens if an adult gets the virus?”

The worries go both ways. Some who are teaching from home are itching to get back into the classroom after a semester of virtual education.

In a testament to just how difficult it is to teach remotely, one chemistry and biology teacher at Jewish Community High School of the Bay who is still using Zoom for classes said she is eager to return to school, despite health risks that she acknowledged are real and concerning.

“I miss teaching in person,” said Cecily Burrill. “I didn’t sign up to teach online school.” Unlike English or history classes, which are more conducive to remote learning, Burrill’s science classes require students to be more hands-on, using equipment and collecting data.

The San Francisco high school, which remains closed per state guidelines, mailed lab kits to students’ homes in mid-August that included safety goggles, yeast, balloons and sugar for a cellular respiration experiment. For those in the more advanced AP science classes, which require more expensive equipment, students are instead using a program from Pivot Interactives that simulates experiments.

“It’s a really hard needle to thread in balancing the academic well-being, social well-being and everyone’s physical health,” Burrill said. “There are a lot of competing priorities. It’s a really tough decision.”

Gabriel Greschler

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