Hillel Day School
Hillel's ECC in summer 2019. (Hillel Day School)

ECC directors have been meeting to discuss how to safely open preschools during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As Jewish preschools in Metro Detroit prepare to open for in-person learning, early childhood center directors are asking themselves a lot of questions: 

How will they communicate new safety protocol to parents? What happens if a student or teacher gets sick? What kind of personal protective equipment is needed? Where will students put their coats and backpacks? Do they need school nurses? 

These are some challenges facing ECC directors this fall, said Lisa Seigmann, senior director of development, innovation, collaboration and education at the JCC. She’s been assisting a group of 12 ECC directors from community Jewish preschools as they work to figure out how to open safely this fall. 

Ganeinu’s preschool
Ganeinu’s preschool Courtesy Chaya Bergstein

All 12 schools in the group have decided to begin the school year with in-person classes, Seigmann told the Jewish News. But there will be some key differences in how the schools look this year. 

For example, at the JCC’s own preschool, “we’re going to err on the side of safety, so there’ll be wearing of masks and cleaning of rooms, we’ll have smaller class sizes, social distancing — all to create as safe an environment for children as we can,” said JCC COO Jeff Lasday. 

JCC’s preschool won’t have early drop-off or late pick-up options because students will be staying in their classroom “pods” for the entire day to limit the number of people who are interacting with each other. 

Temple Israel’s Susan and Rabbi Harold Loss Early Childhood Center will also use the pod model. Parents will be required to complete a health screening of their children each morning and drop them off outside building, where temperatures will be taken, according to Julie Levy, the ECC director. 

At Ganeinu, the Jewish Montessori school affiliated with Chabad of Farmington Hills, COVID-19 will bring new learning experiences for students, too. Director Chaya Bergstein said teachers will sanitize the classroom at the end of each day, but students will also learn to wipe down their toys before putting them back on the shelf. 

“It will be an educational process for them — that they understand that when they put away some of the materials, they have to clean it for the next person,” Bergstein told the JN. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order earlier this month requiring children over the age of 2 to wear masks on school buses and children over the age of 4 to be masked in all indoor common spaces and hallways. Forest Wolfe, who has just begun a new role as Temple Beth El’s ECC director, said the kids at Temple Beth El’s week-long camp from Aug. 10-14 didn’t have a problem keeping their masks on. 

“One of the things people are always scared about with this age group is that the mask wearing is going to be so difficult,” Wolfe said. “But they’ve been great with it.”

While many public school districts in the Metro Detroit area will begin the school year fully online, ECC directors say the needs of younger students are different. 

“The things that we could do over remote were the ABCs and the 123s — the academics,” said Robin Pappas, director of Hillel Day School’s ECC. Hillel switched to virtual learning in March. “But what we can’t do when we’re not in person is the ‘I love you’ and the caring and the socializing.” 

In-person Jewish preschool is important for building a child’s Jewish identity, too, Bergstein said. 

“In the school,they are connecting with Jewish rituals and Jewish knowledge and Jewish learning, ,” she said. “They take it to heart, and build their Jewish future on it.” 

Directors know that a lot can change between now and the first day of school. Pappas said most of Hillel ECC’s teachers plan to come back in the fall, but “I can say something today and tomorrow can be totally different.” 

Not all parents are comfortable sending their children back to preschool, either, but Erin Budisak is excited for her 4-year-old daughter Ali to return to Temple Beth El’s preschool this fall. The virtual programming Temple Beth El put on for students in the spring was hard for Ali, Budisak said.

“When temple said they were going to try to offer this opportunity, I talked it over with our pediatrician and as a family. We’re like, you know what? We feel like everything in COVID is a calculated risk, and this is one that’s worth taking for her developmentally.” 

Directors just want to provide a safe environment for their young students like Ali. 

“I want these children back and I can’t wait. I feel like we plan and we plan and we plan until the children are here,” Pappas said. “Then we can take a breath of relief and feel like ‘oh my gosh, this is what we are meant to do. This is who we are, and this is where we need to be.’”  

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