Katz began planning the school’s fall reopening in April.
When Dr. Darin S. Katz was announced as the new incoming Head of School for Hillel Day School last December, nothing could have prepared him or the school for what was to come. But soon after the pandemic shut down in-person learning at schools across the country last spring, Katz, who hadn’t officially started in his new role yet, began leading the effort in planning a return to in-person school.
His plans have been successful: Hillel has continued to offer in-person learning for its nearly 400 students this school year with options for at-home instruction. 90% of students are learning in person and 10% have chosen to learn remotely.
“We began working on our reopening plan back in April,” Katz said. “Even though I was not officially the head of school, I knew that I wanted to lead the effort because I was going to be leading the school through the pandemic.”
Hillel had several task forces, including one devoted to the reopening of campus and another one planning for the educational program. The groups met weekly and planned for every aspect of the reopening.
Hillel’s health and safety protocols for this school year were centered around how the school could get students and teachers safely back in the building, while minimizing disruption to the school year and planning for when there would be a positive case within the school community.
All individuals at the school ages three and up wear masks all day. Hillel also made a plan to be divided up by different “communities”, or groups split up by grade throughout the school. The communities enter and exit the school from different doors and stay separate in the school building in an effort to minimize any possible contact.
“If there is — God forbid — a positive case in second grade, the other communities wouldn’t be affected because students from other grades don’t really come in contact with the second grade,” Katz said.
Plexiglass was installed in the main office and around other common areas, and hand sanitizer stations are at every entrance for students and teachers to use. Hillel also turned rooms in the school that weren’t classrooms in years prior into classrooms, so the students could spread out more.
According to Katz, it was “extremely important” that students not only felt safe and comfortable being in school but that they understood how important it is that they follow all of the health and safety protocols.
“Our students have been amazingly compliant with everything that we asked them to do,” Katz said. “Because they’re happy to be here. They don’t want to be home. They want to be in school with their friends and with their teachers and they understand that in order for that to remain, they have to do their part.”
Katz’s mission coming into the role as Head of School has transformed because of COVID, and it plans to transform again once COVID is over.
“Prior to COVID, I said that my number one goal this year was to ‘meet, ask, listen and learn’”, Katz said. “Meet as many people as possible, ask questions, listen to answers and learn about the history and culture of Hillel Day School.”
Now in the pandemic, Katz said meeting people is still an important goal, but certainly much harder. “So right now my number one goal is to lead our community through this pandemic, and we are successfully navigating this as best as possible,” Katz said.
Post-COVID, Katz’s vision will be to help the community heal and help everyone feel comfortable returning to what ‘normal school’ feels like, including taking down all the plexiglass, moving the classrooms back to where they were, and returning conversation to how students can be best educated in the year 2020 or 2021.
The week following Hillel’s winter break, January 4-8, Hillel will be having a full week of remote instruction school-wide to allow for students to quarantine in case their family is traveling over winter break.
“I’m asking them to be back in the Metro Detroit area by December 31st, and then to quarantine from that point forward and closely monitor the health of everyone in their house,” Katz said. School will re-open for in-person learning on January 11th.
On December 8, Hillel dedicated a day of learning to honor the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z”l. It was an example of Hillel’s use of interactive lessons this year, with this one being put together by Amira Soleimani, Hillel’s Director of Judaic Studies Curriculum and Instruction. The lessons were prepared for Hillel students as a deeper exploration into the life and teachings of Rabbi Sacks.
Katz also wrote a blog post honoring the legacy and memory of Rabbi Sacks and his influence on Jewish education, with Katz referring to Sachs as “the preeminent scholar and greatest Rabbi of our modern times”.
Regardless of an anything-but-ordinary first year in his new role, Katz said he feels blessed to be the Head of School at Hillel during this time.
“This has been a rollercoaster of preparing for this school year, getting to know parents and students and learning about the community while trying to lead a school through probably the biggest challenge it’s ever faced,” Katz said. “I have felt a tremendous amount of support and gratitude from our community, and that has really helped me to lead during a difficult time.”