I work as a speech language pathologist in a private, religious school in Brooklyn, NY. Private schools were allowed to open for in person learning in September as long as proper protocol was followed. Staff and students wore masks on the bus and in school, school wide activities and assemblies were discontinued, classes generally did not mix with each other and lunch and recess times were staggered.
On October 6th, which fell on the Jewish holiday of Succos, Governor Cuomo announced the “Cluster Action Initiative,” which divided the city into red, yellow, and orange zones based on the positivity rate. This affected many of the religious schools in the city, particularly Jewish schools that are located in these zones, and they were forced to move to remote only. Many of these schools do not have a video option, due to religious reasons, and they relied on telephone conferencing services to teach their students. There were reports of inspectors visiting schools that were obviously closed.
The schools were allowed to reopen as of October 31 after all students and staff were tested. Health inspectors continued to make unannounced visits, which continued into December.
In the school where I work, many of the staff members had already had Covid during the initial wave in March-April 2020 and many of the students had antibodies. About 80% of the staff and students wore masks at all times, while the others carried the masks with them and put them on when the inspectors arrived. Only the first three classrooms that are closest to the main entrance had plexiglass dividers for the teachers’ and students’ desks. The school conducted random testing each week.
Cases started to pick up in the beginning of December, when several teachers and support staff tested positive at this time and those classes had to quarantine. In the kindergarten class, all the adults in the room caught Covid, aside from the main morning teacher who had already had it back in March 2020. I believe only one student tested positive then and he did not exhibit symptoms. The students in the sixth grade kept passing Covid to each other and were in and out of quarantine for most of the month. Some other classes were quarantined as well.
With all these positive cases in the school, no one was seriously ill. The children had, at most, slight symptoms for a day or two. This continued through the end of the year and things began to calm down at the start of 2021. Since then, not a single class has had to quarantine and one or two adults in the entire school have contracted the virus. The masks have come off, the plexiglass has come down, and some school wide activities have been scheduled.
New York State’s mask mandate has been in place since April 17, 2020. This states that “any individual who is over age two and able to medically tolerate a face-covering shall be required to cover their nose and mouth with a mask or cloth face-covering when in a public place and unable to maintain, or when not maintaining, social distance.” All businesses have posted signs requesting their customers wear face coverings. In reality, mask wearing fluctuated.
Many individuals began wearing masks even before the mandate was issued. One local supermarket handed out masks to all customers beginning end of March 2020. When things were really bad, majority of New Yorkers were wearing masks, both indoors and out. As things began to get better last spring, people began to take off their masks outdoors, but this has varied by neighborhood. In the park I frequent in the Marine Park section of Brooklyn, outdoor mask wearing has declined over the last year, and today only a handful of people can be seen wearing masks that fully cover their faces when visiting the park. This contrasts with other areas of the borough, such as Park Slope and Brooklyn Heights. On a trip to the Brooklyn Bridge Park last month, most adults and children were still masked outdoors. In my area of Brooklyn (Midwood/Sheepshead Bay), all stores still require masks today and over 90% of customers comply.
I can only speak to my experience with synagogues in my neighborhood. Synagogues closed their doors in Brooklyn last March. Many in the area began to organize small outdoor prayer gatherings for their neighbors. These were controversial, with many community members condemning them and declaring them unsafe.
The synagogues were allowed to reopen, with restrictions, in time for the Shavuos holiday on May 28th. All required masks and most required advance sign-up in order to limit the number of participants. They added many more prayer times to keep the groups small. As time went on, many synagogues relaxed their restrictions. Mask wearing began to drop off and groups increased in size. There were some congregations that were still strictly adhering to health protocols, so community members could decide which synagogues to attend based on their level of comfort.
Positive cases began to increase around the High Holidays. There was one instance where the man who blew the shofar on Rosh Hashana tested positive immediately after the holiday, and all the congregants who had not previously contracted Covid tested positive later that week. In October, when the colored zones were introduced in New York, synagogues were restricted to groups of 10. Inspectors began to monitor the local synagogues and there were reports of them waiting outside to count the congregants as they exited the building. Currently, there are very few synagogues who require masking and distancing, things are more or less back to normal in the Brooklyn neighborhoods.