The Coronavirus Diaries: When Spring Brings Another Lockdown

Looking outside my office window brings a smile to my face.  The sun is shining brightly, the birds are singing and the weather is warming.  Spring is (finally) here and the feeling it most conjures up is one of things opening up.  We associate this time of year with unbundling ourselves of our winter-wear and starting to be out there, more active, returning to life, stirring the soul and (re)activating the body.

Looking outside my office door, however, tells a different story.  Because we have just begun a four-week, province-wide stay-at-home order.  Schools remain open and, although, a meaningful number of parents are opting to have their children learn from home during this surge in cases, our teachers and our staff are here – bravely navigating their anxiety and safely caring for our children.

Pivoting my view from outside my window to outside my door presents a kind of emotional whiplash.  Our every instinct is to run out into the sun and put the past year behind us.  There are so many good reasons to believe that better times are coming and, in fact, are tantalizingly close.  And yet here we are, locked down again, doing our best to keep ourselves and everyone else safe as we try to get through this next (last?) wave.

Because we know that emotions and opinions are running high, this seems like a good chance to check in.  At this moment in time, with so many questions and concerns (in all directions) about school closures, I think it is helpful to break the year into three parts – what is true during this month-long lockdown, the rest of the school year, and how we are planning to open the 2021-2022 school year.  Let’s deal in this post with the here and now.

If there is one thing I have learned over the last year it is that I am not a doctor, a public health expert, nor a politician.  If there are two things that I have learned over the last year, the other is that when the views and recommendations of doctors, public health experts and politicians are aligned it is pretty straightforward to make decisions, when they are not…things can get dicey and uncomfortable.

Please know that we view the situation right now as extremely “day-to-day”.  We look to our teachers, our parents, Ottawa Public Health, our Health Advisory Committee and to the government to provide us with the feedback and information we need to make sound decisions.  I have had opportunity this week to meet with our school’s Health Advisory Committee and to participate in a meeting of Ottawa private school heads and Ottawa Public Health.  Another critical data point comes from Dr. Vera Etches who shared the following in a letter to the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board earlier this week:

I am writing to clarify that I am not asking for schools in Ottawa to close now. The situation with COVID-19 and schools in Ottawa is currently manageable, as
–          73% of schools have no people with an active COVID-19 infection where there was an exposure in school, and
–          98% of schools are free from an outbreak.
The vast majority of COVID-19 in schools originates with community exposures. Situations identified in schools where there was a possible exposure do not usually lead to transmission in schools. Child-to-staff and child-to-child transmissions remain rare in the school setting. At this time, schools are not a major driver of transmission of COVID19 and so closing them alone will not turn this current COVID-19 resurgence around. Though variants of concern mean we need to be more careful to avoid transmission, the local situation with variants in schools hasn’t been significantly more difficult to control. When Ottawa Public Health ensured everyone in a dismissed school cohort was tested for COVID-19 after a potential exposure to a variant of concern, no higher rates of transmission were seen in the exposed cohorts. There have been outbreaks associated with variants of concern and there have been situations where the variants of concern have not spread in schools.What is most needed is to decrease the nonessential places where people are coming into close contact with others. Until fewer businesses are deemed essential and people get the message to stay at home, closing schools may inadvertently lead to additional gatherings in environments with fewer control measures in place.I ask that teachers, administrators, school staff, parents and students all continue to do their part to strictly follow the COVID-19 precautions in schools and to limit close contacts before and after school to members of their household. This is not the time to let up on our diligence to keep each other safe. Please reinforce the daily screening and ask people to consider if any symptom of COVID19 is present before they enter their school. Adults, especially, should be supported to take care to maintain distance between each other in staff rooms and during break times with their colleagues.

Needless to say, each private school is struggling with the same calculus and have the same kinds of questions that we do.  Of course, we aren’t obligated to do or not to do what other private schools choose to do, but I do believe there is value in understanding what and why and how other schools are thinking and planning.  At this moment in time, the overwhelming majority of private schools are open and plan to remain open so long as circumstances don’t deteriorate and/or we are not mandated to close.

For now, if you are an OJCS parent you should choose to do whatever you feel safest and most comfortable doing.  With the change in weather, please know that we are able to go back to enhanced ventilation practices (wide open windows) and we are using our outdoor space more liberally.  Please know that as teachers patiently wait for vaccinations to roll out, for those for whom the variants present an added risk and/or stress that we will have staff who begin to wear additional PPE, we may see use of N95 masks and extra plexiglass around teacher desks.  We are all doing our very best.

In the meanwhile, we have already reworked all our distance learning schedules based on parent, student and teacher feedback from January and have briefed our faculty.  We are completely ready for the next pivot if and when it comes.  And we will be perfectly okay if we never have to use them…

Stay tuned for a post that lays out our vision and our plans for how we will safely open the 2021-2022 school year, which we know is on people’s minds.

Speaking of the 2021-2022 school year…

…thanks to our amazing parents, for the first time in recent memory we are completely finished with re-enrollment by the first week in April and we have our highest retention rate in years!  Woo-hoo!  We are also welcoming many new families to our OJCS community next year and we know that only happens because so many of you do such a great job spreading the word.  So thank you to everyone who turned in their paperwork on time.  Thank you to everyone for being such great ambassadors for the school.  Thank you to our teachers whose work inspires your ongoing confidence.  Thank you to Jennifer Greenberg, our Admissions Director, and the whole team for crushing it during a second challenging admissions season.

Annual Parent Survey coming soon!

Author: Jon Mitzmacher

Dr. Jon Mitzmacher is the Head of the Ottawa Jewish Community School. Jon has recently begun his rabbinical school journey at the Academy for Jewish Religion and is thrilled to have joined the faculty of the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) as a mentor for Cohort 12. He was most recently the VP of Innovation for Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools.  He is the former Executive Director of the Schechter Day School Network.  He is also the former head of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School, a K-8 Solomon Schechter, located in Jacksonville, FL, and part of the Jacksonville Jewish Center.  He was the founding head of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Las Vegas.  Jon has worked in all aspects of Jewish Education from camping to congregations and everything in between.

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