The COVID pandemic brought the potential of irreparable divisiveness to our school communities. We were forced to grapple with core issues such as sakanat nefashot, danger to life, hillul Hashem (disgracing God’s name), and bitul Torah, squandering time allocated for Torah learning. These values, foundational to our religious personas and the ethos of our school, often seemed to conflict. There was a heightened level of intensity and passion marking any decision that touched on these topics. Additionally, since so little was known about COVID, it was difficult to fully assess the risk, impact, and need for protective practices. All of these elements created a perfect storm for long-lasting discord in our communities.
Schools could not debate these issues theoretically; they had to choose how to manage this contentious reality. And while other community institutions faced similar predicaments, schools evoked added emotion. Parents were passionate about protecting their children, and schools have legal requirements mandating attendance while absence from communal events or the daily minyan can be more easily excused.
In our school, we recognized the threat to community shalom as a primary concern when making COVID related decisions; we did not want COVID to permanently destroy community cohesion. Prioritizing respect for parents and staff with opposing views, some of the specific “shalom conscious” actions we took were:
- All community institutional leaders issued joint communications to families.
- School and shul leadership used public addresses to discuss shalom and the importance of respecting alternate views, while promoting opportunities to foster community.
- Parents received regular and direct COVID communications via brief weekly video updates.
- There was full transparency within the bounds of HIPAA about all COVID cases—sharing information, relevant policies, and our action plans as quickly as possible.
- A COVID Nurse, a new position, was hired and directly answered all parental COVID related questions. This shielded school administrators from the frustrating decisions that come with a COVID positive case in the family.
- We made efforts to be as flexible as possible within the framework of our core medical guidance.
- We tried to accommodate opposing views whenever possible and to avoid drawing lines in the sand that would not allow for appropriate individual flexibility whenever feasible.
- Our school did not accept derogatory reports about other people regarding policy violations.
The response of our parent body to this approach has been inspiring. I have had many respectful conversations with parents on all sides of the COVID debates, and those conversations have resulted in strengthened relationships. Despite some disagreements and a few parents who expressed disappointment, we have not allowed COVID to destroy our community culture because we consciously chose shalom as a primary value as we made decisions daily.
As we plan for the future, I ask if we can maintain our focus on shalom as future issues arise. If we were able to weather this most severe COVID storm with shalom as a guiding principle, it gives me hope that we can maintain that value moving forward.
Navigating these challenges mindfully has taught me how to lead while not allowing policy disagreements to morph into personal attacks. There will always be differing opinions in a school community. It is important to remember that the opposing view is not trying to hurt others, rather, it is based in a widely held belief about a complex topic—even if I personally question those conclusions.
Perhaps the path forward can include prioritizing shalom and a refusal to allow vilifications to find a place in community discourse. We can strive to communicate transparently and consistently, to be flexible when possible, and to attempt to validate all voices. In this way, our COVID response can serve as a model for school community cultures in the future.