These days when Emily Shkedi looks around Little Hearts preschool — which is almost full and bustling with well-adjusted children — she thanks God that the school is open at all.
“We’re here,” Little Hearts General Manager told Kehila News Israel (KNI). “We’ve been able to start the school year. And we made it this far thanks to all the donation we received over the summer.”
Jerusalem’s only Messianic preschool, which was already struggling to make ends meet, reopened several weeks ago after a second devastating shutdown this year imposed by the Israeli government due to COVID-19.
This lockdown presented another wave of financial – as well as emotional – setbacks to the preschool.
“I can already tell you that this whole thing, from March till now, has really turned our preschool upside down,” Shkedi said.
In June, after the first shutdown, Shkedi told KNI that the Montessori-inspired establishment was in danger of not reopening in September, but thanks to generous donors and a successful fund-raising campaign over the summer, Little Hearts received enough money to continue.
What Shkedi was not expecting – nor was the school prepared for – was another COVID shutdown that would last for nearly two months in the fall.
“The second wave was super discouraging,” Shkedi said. “We had already struggled standing on our own two feet … so to have corona hit on top of that was a pretty big blow.”
The second lockdown shuttered Israeli schools in addition to houses of worship, restaurants, gyms, malls and shops across the country from Sept. 18 until late October after the fall holidays. Preschools like Little Hearts were one of the first sectors to reopen, while students from grade 5 and up, restaurant owners, malls and gyms among other businesses, are still waiting for a green light.
But this doesn’t mean it is business as usual for Little Hearts. Many students have yet to return for a host of reasons.
“Tons of families have pulled out their kids if the parents are not working or they’re working from home or they’re just nervous about COVID,” Shkedi said. “They just prefer to keep their kids home or they have older kids who are not in school and are still home, or international families who didn’t make it back into the country or had to leave the country.”
The lower enrollment and the loss of nearly two months of tuition this fall has left the school – which depends on tuition for 70 percent of its budget – in another precarious situation. Little Hearts is still recovering costs from the first shutdown and that, combined with lower enrollment since the recent shutdown, leaves the school needing $36,000 by the end of the year.
Even harder to quantify is the emotional toll which has been costly for children and teachers alike, Shkedi said.
“It’s the stopping and starting. It’s the lack of routine. It’s the lack of the social interaction,” she explained.
Like most schools across Israel, Little Hearts has had to readjust its academic expectations.
“We’re a Montessori preschool, so it’s a progressive year: As the children’s skills develop, we bring out new activities,” but this year they are lagging behind about two months, Shkedi told us. “So let’s just take a deep breath and say, ‘This year things look different.’”
The current challenges include parents who are skittish about runny noses; lack of clarity from the Ministry of Health; new logistics and daily health forms required from parents; plus questions of who is to quarantine and when.
“I can’t explain to you how stressful it was trying to arrange what to do when you have a teacher who’s tested positive for corona, especially when no one from the Ministry of Health is contacting you, and trying to navigate that,” she shared.
It is a miracle they have come this far, but that is precisely what gives the staff hope to keep going.
Shkedi believes that, with God’s help, Little Hearts will overcome these challenges yet again. They are recruiting — and praying for — more students to fill out the classrooms and encouraging people to not grow weary of giving.
“We do have a lot of hope and we are so grateful to have the school open now,” she said. “The kids who are here right now are doing so well. Everybody’s adjusted and things are really positive here on an operational level.”