Evening of Tribute to celebrate JDS's success in navigating pandemic

By Amy Golding
JDS Head of School

The pandemic has helped shine a light on the best of our Jewish Day School – the trust between school and families, the passion and dedication of teachers, and the determination of leadership to respond to the needs of students, faculty and families. Over the last 20 months of the pandemic, the JDS has showcased our ability to serve the community’s growing needs, to provide stability for our students, to recruit new families, to retain existing families and to grow even as hundreds of parochial schools in Pennsylvania closed.

In August 2020, the JDS was among 20% of schools across the world that opened our doors to in-person learning. We were one of only a handful of schools to offer five days-a-week in-person learning, five days-a-week remote learning, and a hybrid program during the 2020-2021 school year. We were prepared to pivot to remote learning five days a week with a full academic learning schedule at any point, and did so only three weeks of the entire year. 
Our slogan was: Our size is our superpower and our teachers are our superheroes. On Saturday, Dec. 4, at our Evening of Tribute we will pause to celebrate our school’s incredible accomplishments and honor our Dynamic Champions:

Educators of the year: all of our phenomenal teachers
Special recognition of our Medical Task Force Team: Dr. Pam Abrams, Dr. Eric Fels, Amy Golding and Dr. Moshe Markowitz 
Star of the Evening: Jewish Day School of the Lehigh Valley
Honorable Mention: Arthur Hochhauser, VP of Finance

For us, the preparation began on March 11, 2020. It was Purim, the megillah was being chanted, and the carnival decorations were going up. COVID-19 was creeping in, and we knew it was a matter of days until our world would shift. We had already sent home packets labeled “Just in case of Corona,” but we knew, if we were going to succeed, we needed to forge ahead so that we could continue with a stellar educational program and a strong community no matter where we learn and what the circumstances would bring.

And so, during the Purim carnival, I approached our librarian STEAM Lab teacher, who had served in the Navy for 24 years -- and who at the moment was watching children’s faces get painted as part of the Purim revelry -- to ask if he would meet me in my office. I asked our social studies teacher who was not afraid of technology (she used a SMART board and Chromebooks in class) to join us as well. I said we are preparing to close our school. We have two and a half days to come up with a plan, train our staff and figure out the technology. We can’t focus on what we don’t have or what we don’t know, we just need to make it work. The next day, we prepared. And by the following day, as our teachers left the building on Friday, March 13, at their regularly scheduled time, the governor of Pennsylvania announced that all Pennsylvania schools must close immediately. Had we not had those two and half days to prepare, we would not have been ready to pull off the first of many new stages. 

The JDS lobby was typically bustling with a stellar team of community volunteers, rivalling the local supermarket as the place to be seen. All that changed when we closed our doors. Yet, we knew that strong partnerships would carry us through this pandemic.

We knew our families lost their five days-a-week hot meal cafeteria plan when our school campus closed, so we partnered with Teach PA and launched a free kosher lunch program for all children under the age of 18. We handed out 125 boxes a week containing five meals and ten snacks. We continued this program throughout the entire 2020-21 school year.

We knew we needed to equip students with individual learning kits when our doors reopened in the fall as children would no longer be able to share school supplies, plus they may need to pivot to online learning at any point and would need supplies at home. As such, we reached out to Crayola for supplies and partnered with them to fill these kits.

We expanded our faculty to include new partnerships. We started an artist-in-residence with the prestigious Allentown Art Museum and a scientist-in-residence with the Da Vinci Science Center - allowing their institutions to provide ways to keep their faculty on staff during cutbacks and giving us the opportunity to learn from world class educators in their respective fields.  

We reached out to new communities, as far as an hour away, who did not have a local Jewish day school, working closely with their Federation and Jewish leaders to offer a chance for their families to learn in our school. We were able to help our Jewish communities grow by working together. 

The challenges, or hurdles, were endless. 

Financially, our school was forced to spend more and spend quickly to keep our doors open. The technology needs alone had drastically affected our budgets. We needed to hire additional staff to cover lunch duty in the classroom, teachers teaching in-school and on-line simultaneously, new COVID-19 guidelines to follow including teachers staying home when they had any symptoms that could be COVID-19 related, no volunteers in the building since our school was closed to outside adults and so much more. Supplies were limited. Can you imagine the stress we were under when we decided to open our buildings but couldn’t find Purell, Lysol wipes or Chromebooks?

A strong leadership team, a dedicated Medical Task Force, an incredible VP of Finance, Art Hochhauser, peers who are partners, parents who believe in us, all came together.

Prior to COVID-19, our sukkah did not survive a rainstorm. The tarp ripped and the schach was destroyed--but we kept the frame. Over the summer of 2020, this frame was transformed inside the art room into our triage center with two medical cots spaced six-feet apart, lined with shower curtains. Our former sukkah was now surrounded by original pieces of colorful student artwork next to a beautiful kiln and pottery wheel. The art room turned into a triage room. 

Our halls were filled with signs of welcome, kindness and affirmations but also closed water fountains. Smushed between air-dry clay, markers and crayons, were stuffed animals wearing masks and hygiene stations in and out of the classrooms. Our cafeteria was lined with individual storage containers used to carry meals to classrooms instead of tables ready to seat 30 students at a time. And our classrooms also accommodated new needs. The large modern science lab became a second grade classroom to allow for increased enrollment and proper physical distancing. Our Beit Midrash that we so proudly outfitted the year prior, served as an overflow staff lounge so that teachers could safely prepare lessons while maintaining distance from one another. 

Yet what remained constant was the love of learning, the dedication to teaching, the sense of pride and the feeling of community. When you think of our school, you think about walking in our lobby with our Tree of Life mosaic, you think of our classrooms with their bright orange walls, you think of the books, the library, or of our playgrounds. When you go through something like this you realize a school is more than those things - it's the people.

Despite the pandemic, we are lucky to be surrounded by such dedicated professionals whose desire to bring normalcy and routine to our current situation, and do so with a smile, with humor, with love is truly a blessing. To our teachers - our role models, our friends - we thank you for all that you do. To our Medical Task Force that researched and studied trends and shifted our school reopening plans when needed, thank you for guiding the light in keeping our community safe. And to each of you, thank you for showing up, for investing in us, and for offering support when we needed it most. We look forward to celebrating together at our 68th Evening of Tribute on Zoom on Saturday, December 4, at 7:30pm. For more information, please visit www.jdslv.org/tribute or email me at agolding@jdslv.org.