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Throughout 2020 and the beginning of 2021, schools around the country have been instructed to implement strong social-distancing protocols in order to combat the COVID-19 virus. As vaccine numbers increase and case numbers decrease, schools are starting to look toward the future in order to figure out how to ease back into normalcy.

Jay Leberman, head of school at the Joseph & Florence Mandel Jewish Day School in Beachwood, and Garet Libbey, associate head of school at Hawken School in Lyndhurst, said they are trying to make the fall 2021 semesters as normal as possible while trying to provide a safe learning environment.

Leberman said Mandel JDS is implementing mishpachot, or pods, for students. Each grade from early childhood to eighth grade is split up into these pods in order to reduce the chances of possible transmission from one student or teacher to another.

With the rising number of vaccines distributed, including 95% of Mandel JDS’ staff, Leberman said next fall could possibly see students intermingling among each other as normal.

“If they’re going to start vaccinating 12-year-olds and above this summer, then in theory, we can get our entire middle school vaccinated,” Leberman said. “And we can create one large mishpacha, and they don’t necessarily have to wear masks, and they could interact as normal.”

Hawken School received medical guidance from different institutions last summer in order to make this current school year safe for students and staff. They are already using these connections with the medical community to figure out their plans for the fall.

Libbey said working with the pediatric connections at University Hospitals in Cleveland and Sender Pediatrics in South Euclid will be helpful in instituting protocols next year, especially with vaccinations and the implications of herd immunity.

“Especially since that’s the group in our population that’s going to be on the tail end of vaccinations,” Libbey said. “In terms of trying to figure out what that means – if we reach herd immunity, what does that mean for our littlest people who are still not vaccinated? And how do we proceed that way?”

She added they don’t anticipate needing to have the same level of isolated cohort models to the degree that they had this year, which will allow them to possibly get everybody back on the campuses as there used to being.

One way in which Hawken School is trying to reopen properly is by consulting with their lunch services.

“Restaurants and other food places are open, so they have a lot of information about what trends are happening and how that might impact what we might be able to do in terms of a return to normalcy around lunches,” Libbey said. “So, we’re doing a lot of those conversations actually now, with the hope that we can have a baseline understanding to be able to share with our families at the end of the school year, with an understanding that there may be some small tweaks around the edges.”

Mandel JDS is adding a second outdoor classroom for next year in order to provide a space with proper ventilation and social distancing. However, Leberman said there are more benefits to those outdoor spaces.

“We want to have kids outside as much as possible,” he said. “The research is overwhelming that if you put kids outside in nature, they have greater attentiveness, their self esteem improves, interaction between them improves, and so on. So, the goal next year is to expand our outdoor learning programs throughout the school.”

Libbey said although things may not be set in stone yet, she is hopeful next year brings more normalcy and positivity after seeing so many people struggle through the pandemic.

“I think that’s the case for everybody, whether it’s families or students,” Libbey said. “Everybody has made a lot of shifts and sacrifices. And so just thinking about making sure we have some flexible structures and spaces to be able to let people share where they are from a social and emotional lens as we move into what we’re thinking about as a bridge year next year, as in out of the pandemic and hopefully back to normal.”

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