During the past twenty years, non-Orthodox day schools in the U.S., have declined in number and enrollment, while their Orthodox equivalents have faced a burgeoning “tuition crisis” that has become an increasing cause of communal concern. Yet, during the pandemic, these institutions have shown surprising resilience. Alex Pomson and Jack Wertheimer write:
[N]ew evidence is emerging during the COVID-19 crisis of a modest though perceptible reversal in the fortunes of non-Orthodox day schools. Enrollments have risen in many of them; some, in fact, now have waiting lists. The influx of new students is largely due to transfers arriving from public schools, and in smaller numbers from nonsectarian private schools. It has taken the terrible COVID-19 crisis to draw attention to the many ways day schools have transformed themselves over the past two decades.
Looking at both Modern Orthodox and non-Orthodox day schools (but excluding the numerous ḥaredi schools), Wertheimer and Pomson document some of these transformations. Take, for instance, the way schools have addressed the new trend of including “social and emotional learning” (SEL) in school curricula:
Class time, [as part of any SEL program], is devoted to aiding students to develop empathy for one another, learn how to listen to what really is being said by their classmates, encourage self-awareness and emotional self-regulation, develop a moral compass, and incorporate ethical responsibilities into their lives. Day schools filter these discussions through a Jewish lens. At a [Conservative] Solomon Schechter school, for example, younger children explore Jewish teachings about honoring one’s parents and avoiding embarrassing a peer. In the higher grades, students are paired to study texts with an SEL focus, ḥevruta-style—that is, in the manner of study at traditional yeshivas, even as the subject matter couldn’t be more au courant. Discussions about developing resilience in the face of frustrations are partially based on Jewish texts. Here, as in many other classes, day schools integrate Jewish and general-studies perspectives.
To explain day schools’ coronavirus-era success, Wertheimer and Pomson cite one factor above all others:
When schools are mission-driven, as Jewish day schools are, their leaders will do what is necessary to provide the type of education and social connection they take so much pride in delivering. Schools did this during the spring lockdowns online, and they are determined to do the same in the present school year, preferably by opening for in-class learning and retreating to remote learning only if necessary. [The teachers’] dedication did not go unnoticed by their students. A survey of day-school students conducted during the summer found that fewer than 5 percent felt their schools had let them down last spring. It’s no wonder that parents, too, have rallied around their day schools.