Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School plans to reopen Aug. 31 for its 165 preschoolers through eighth graders and 36 teachers.
The goals are to keep the coronavirus out of the school, to minimize transmission if it is present and to communicate transparently with parents.
"We are working tirelessly to be ready for every eventuality," said Principal Miriam Kass. "The goal is, if the City of Chicago continues to look as it does now, to open and be in-person for five days of school with lots of important things in place."
Families and staff will be expected to abide by a "social contract" governing conduct in and outside of the school, 5235 S. Cornell Ave. — a privilege, Kass said, "Because we have a community that is dedicated to caring for one another."
The school has been having weekly town hall meetings with parents and staff; though the contract is not yet released, Kass said everyone will be expected to wear masks, maintain distance, quarantine for 14 days after returning to Chicago and keep within a yet-to-be-determined group size. Physicians are advising the school on the reopening
Students and staff are to be symptom-screened every day before leaving home. Parents will not be allowed in the building. Sanitation stations will be set up outside every classroom, and classes will be set up for smaller groups. Teachers will move from room to room, not students.
Kass expects that the health screening will "over-capture" some at-risk students and staff; because she does not want them to miss too much school or work, Akiba-Schechter will set up ways for them to participate virtually over the coming year. Decisions have not been made regarding a procedure when students and staff who come into contact with infected or potentially infected people.
"We're looking at whether that needs to happen after one student presents or two, because then we would be thinking that possibly the transmission could have been in our community," said Early Childhood Director Carla Goldberg. "Obviously someone can present with something that does not come from our community as well."
She said there will be guidelines for each situation, with physicians advising on particular cases and responses.
"We are always going to err on the side of caution for our families, and what that exactly looks like, we're going to have to take that one piece at a time," Goldberg said. "Because we are creating these plans for virtual learning right alongside in-person, we won't hesitate to be very nimble and say, 'We need to shut down for this period of time' — be it one classroom, two or the whole school — pause, go into online learning and then hopefully come back together when we can."
Looking back to the beginning of the pandemic, Kass said small group and one-on-one teaching transferred to Zoom within a few days of the shutdown's beginning this spring, rebranding the school to "Akiba Atmosphere." The students' last in-school day was March 13, during which they got training and were sent home with laptop or Chromebook computers.
"We were able to move our family programs onto the Atmosphere. We were able to have an all-school talent show, which was a lot of fun," Kass said. "It brought everyone together in a fun way before we all lost our minds. I think there were many, many successful things we were able to do.
"Of course it was not the same, and we missed being together, but we were able to move that sense of community that we really treasure about Akiba-Schechter onto the Atmosphere, whether it was with daily announcements where everyone logged on and we were able to remind one another of our culture and that the norms that we've established through our being together are still the same online.
"We really do care for one another, and the feedback we got from parents was tremendously positive, very appreciative and really, frankly, refueling for the rapidly depleting tank that it took to run the program."
Director of Admissions and Marketing Yelena Spector has three children enrolled at the school. "I think what stood out most was that the tremendous care the teachers give to the kids in person was really felt online," she said. "While they couldn't sit side-by-side in person, they were sitting side-by-side on Zoom and still providing the same level of attention and the same kind of emotional support, especially for the younger kids. Just to see the teacher was enough, for certain age groups."
For older students, teachers "modified and upped their game" to provide the same degree of intellectual rigor in online classes, Spector added: "They had an audience who really buried themselves and wanted to learn, or an audience that said, 'I don't want to do anything.' And I think the teachers did good job trying to merge those areas," through breaking classes into small groups and scheduling one-on-one meetings with students.
Akiba-Schechter held a five-week virtual summer program for preschool through third graders, themed "Explore Chicago while Safe at Home" for 90 minutes, three days a week, with virtual Shabbat on Friday.
"We're still keeping those options, in terms of how much you want to plug in, and we want to be sure that families in Hyde Park know that we are available to meet with them and walk with them about what would work well for them and their children," Kass said.