At the end of August, when the doors of the Frisch School in Paramus reopened, five months after covid scattered the high school’s student body to remote learning, Principal Rabbi Eli Ciner just wanted to make it through the month before the Jewish holidays.
“In August, all of us thought if we could make it past the chagim it would be considered a successful year,” he said. “We just wanted the teachers and students to have a chance to meet each other. We wanted the opportunity to build a community for a month and would be grateful just for that.”
Four and a half months, the school remains open and the doors have been open every day, keinehora — we don’t want to tempt the evil eye.
But it wasn’t magic that made for a safe semester. Rabbi Ciner credited the school community and he’s grateful for them: “The parents for keeping the faith with us, the students for their resiliency, the faculty for their bravery in coming into the building every day.”
And then there’s a new group that made the school’s daily healthy verdict possible. A committee of health professionals was tasked with figuring out how to keep the school safe in the face of a virus that, if left to its own devices, would be a cautionary math tale of exponential growth.
All these groups will be the honorees at Frisch’s upcoming annual dinner (held online of course) but it is the health professionals who have taken on the most extra lifting this year, and it is they who will be honored by name. Some are figures long familiar in the school. Some had no particular affiliation with it other than belonging to the Bergen County Jewish community. But all have been in constant communication, overseeing the questions of quarantine, contagion, and contact tracing.
Leah Shteingart has been Frisch’s nurse for 25 years — half the school’s history. “I saw an ad many many years ago and have been loving it ever since,” she said.
“I love talking to the kids, I love making a difference in their lives. This is a very vulnerable age.”
Normally — that is, in her first 23 and a half years on the job — her tasks mostly involved taking temperatures, handing out Tylenol, and talking about whether a student’s stomach ache came from stress.
“I would try to see in what ways I could alleviate it,” she said.
That’s in a normal year. Last year stopped being normal on March 2.
A group of students went on a trip to Canada. Joining them on the bus were some students from Westchester — which, although no one knew it then, was an American epicenter of the covid-19 virus.
“Our kids went on February 28, came back on March 1, and on March 2 we saw so many kids with symptoms,” Ms. Shteingart said. That was a Monday. That Thursday, March 5, right before Purim, was the last day of school. When school reopened on August 31, “my job changed considerably. I work 14, 15 hours a day. Sundays, Saturday evenings.
“I do a lot of contact tracing. I’m talking to parents a lot — via email, phone, text,” she said.
At the center of the school’s safety protocol is an app where students report their temperature, whether they have any symptoms, whether they were with anyone who recently traveled or was diagnosed with covid.
“Every person that enters the building must show that app,” Ms. Shteingart said. “Whether they’re a custodian, a security guard, a teacher, staff, a student.”
If the answers are all negative — no temperature, no symptoms, no exposure — the app flashes green.
“The guards are taught that nobody can go through without the green light,” she said.
For the rest, it’s Ms. Shteingart’s job to follow up.
Follow-up includes investigation. How likely was the exposure? Was it indoors or outdoors? If it were on a bus, were the windows open or closed? Do they have to stay home?
If the exposure is judged serious, they stay out of school for 14 days. About two dozen students have tested positive since school opened; “if all goes well, they come in on the 11th day.”
The controls for entering school are coupled with masks and social distancing inside the building. Until last month, classes were held outside. Now, each grade spends one day in four at home to provide the needed in-building distance.
“In August I never thought we were going to be open today,” Ms. Shteingart said. “I am so ecstatic. It’s the diligent work of our medical professionals here that keeps the schools open.”
For Ms. Shteingart, the hours she puts in tracing contacts and figuring out the danger of exposure is a way to fight at the virus that killed her mother, Frida Niazow, last May.
“It gives me strength,” she said. Her mother “was a very powerful person. I know she gives me the strength to do this. She was my role model. I feel she’s watching me because I’m dealing with covid and she passed away from covid. I guess I want to show we can keep the school open to prove that we could beat the virus.”
She hates to quarantine students.
“My goal is every kid should be in school. Before covid, kids did not want to be in class. Now I see how important it is for kids to be in school. Not only because they’re learning, because the social part is huge. They desperately want to be in school. It’s so important for each kid to socialize.”
Dr. Eran Bellin is an expert in infectious diseases. A Teaneck resident, he’s a professor of epidemiology and population health at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx. He is the chair of the Frisch medical committee, which also includes Ms. Shteingart, Dr. Avigayil Elkin, Dr. Maureen Nemetski, and Dr. Larry Stiefel.
Early in his career, Dr. Bellin worked at the Rikers Island jail, where he built a respiration isolation facility for tuberculosis and directed the jail’s medical program. With about 100,000 inmates passing through on his watch, he gained a great deal of experience with infection control.
That first week in March, as the school confronted its outbreak of the then-new disease, its administrators were looking for an epidemiologist to help them make sense of the new situation. They found Dr. Bellin.
“They had seen what had happened in New Rochelle and were very concerned,” Dr. Bellin said. “There was a significant amount of amplification at that point.
“Rabbi Ciner told the students not to go to shul on Purim. Then the doctors of Bergen County worked with the rabbis and the RCBC” — the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County — “and they closed the shuls. Fortunately, our institutions responded very well.”
When the question of reopening was discussed over the summer, “doctors in all the different yeshivas volunteered to serve on medical committees,” he said. “We’re constantly in communication with each other. There’s a WhatsApp where we share clinical descriptions.
“Lots of students are really remarkable. They self-report. We can then work with them to protect the community. I consider that heroic.
“The school nurse is an unsung hero. How do you think we vaccinated 99.5 percent of all the Frisch kids with the flu vaccine before October 15? That happened because Leah Shteingart spent chol hamoed calling up every single family that had not yet been vaccinated and made sure they were vaccinated. Hospitals don’t get the vaccination rate we have. On evenings and weekends she’s calling up families and following up on cases. She’s in contact with all the other nurses at the other yeshivas. They’re sharing knowledge back and forth. If there’s symptoms in a family, it can affect another person’s school.”
As for general epidemic advice: “Wear a mask, stay distant from one another, don’t take a trip through the airport to any destination during winter break, don’t have large weddings or bar mitzvahs, don’t go to special programs during winter break,” Dr. Bellin said. “These are the things that will amplify the disease. You have to be adult about it. You can’t bargain with a virus.”
Frisch has had only one cluster of infection, and that was “due to an inappropriate get-together that happened outside of school,” he continued. “We don’t have evidence of in-school transmission. “Our goal has never been to stop covid completely from getting in, but to stop exponential growth, to stop the amplification. We’ve done that. We can be proud of that, but also humble. We’re fighting two powerful enemies: the virus and apathy. And with time, the apathy grows.”
Dr. Steifel, who lives in Teaneck, is a partner at Tenafly Pediatrics. He is a Frisch graduate; his youngest son, Josh is a freshman there. “More voices help in setting policy,” Dr. Steifel said. “Every case of exposure is different. It requires a great attention to each detail to protect the school.”
He had high praise for the school’s nurse.
“Leah Shteingart is totally amazing,” he said. “She’s a one-woman army. She knows the kids so well. She’s an amazing resource for the school. She keeps the school humming along medically.”
He’s amazed as well by everyone else on the team — both at Frisch and in the broader yeshiva community.
“It’s just amazing how many people in the medical Jewish community have dedicated themselves to make sure the schools can stay open. Every day people are working on it. So much work is being done to keep our kids safe. It makes my heart feel good to know that people can dedicate themselves this way.”
What: 49th annual Frisch Dinner
When: Saturday night, February 6, at 8 p.m.
Where: Virtually at Frischdinner.com