Less than a week after pockets of Hasidic Brooklyn erupted in response to new COVID-19 restrictions shuttering schools and other institutions in highly infected areas, the Bet Yaakov Ateret Torah yeshiva has its doors open and parents’ cars lining up on Coney Island Avenue to drop off and collect students on the same old 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. schedule.
Starting around 2:30 p.m., kids’ voices fill the fenced yard of trailers parked alongside the religious school’s main brick compound, and vehicles pull into a back lot or collect their children at the front gates. Multiple neighbors told The Daily Beast new signs advertising “CHILD CARE SERVICES” went up on Monday—when yeshivas in the state’s “red zones” would have reopened following the Jewish holidays, if not for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s orders.
The wording is clear, even if what’s actually happening at Bet Yaakov and other yeshivas where publications have observed ongoing attendance is harder to pin down.
None of the parents The Daily Beast approached on Wednesday would answer questions. But an individual who presented himself as a representative for the school, and would not provide his name or title, insisted Bet Yaakov was in compliance with Cuomo’s mandate.
“Part of his executive order is that the schools have to close but childcare centers could remain open,” he asserted.
That much may be correct: A spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio told The Daily Beast it was “familiar” with the activities at Bet Yaakov and at numerous other Jewish schools in the most virus-addled areas, and described it as an oversight in the governor’s decree.
“We’ve received reports of yeshivas operating as child-care centers,” de Blasio press secretary Bill Neidhardt told The Daily Beast. “The spirit of the law should be followed here, and we’re working with the state to address this loophole. We saw outbreaks in yeshivas weeks ago and we can’t go through that again.”
Caitlin Girouard, a spokesperson for Gov. Cuomo, said: “The law is clear—licensed day care centers can operate as essential, but school-based unlicensed child care in the red or orange zones must remain closed. In case that wasn’t clear enough, we will be doing additional outreach to impacted facilities to notify them they should not be open.”
Public records show Bet Yaakov has a license to operate a small, half-day pre-kindergarten program for two- to five-year-olds, which would fall under the legal definition of child-care center. However, three of the school’s neighbors—who asked to remain anonymous in order to keep peace on their diverse block—reported seeing elementary-age children continuing to stream in and out of the building, even as high-schoolers have remained absent. On visiting the location, The Daily Beast spotted a number of youngsters who appeared to be aged six and above.
Glimpses through the school’s gate appeared to reveal a general lack of mask-wearing among both children and staff within.
Further, the yeshiva appears to be running for the entirety of the school day. When The Daily Beast asked the city Department of Health—which licenses and inspects child-care centers—whether Bet Yaakov’s license would permit it to resume operations beyond the pre-kindergarten program, they referred to remarks the mayor made at a press conference Thursday.
"There is a gray area that we’re waiting for more guidance from the state on in the area of child care and what the rules are related to child care,” de Blasio said. “I think everybody needs clearer standards. We don’t have enough clarity on child care.”
Cuomo, for his part, doesn’t seem to think the area is gray at all.
“There is a difference, just so you know, between providing child care and operating a school. You cannot operate a school and then say, ‘Well, tomorrow I’ve turned it into a child-care center. So, now I’m operating the school, but it’s not a school, it’s a child-care center,’” the governor said, unprompted, at an event on Wednesday. “A school is not a child-care facility, and you fool no one by saying, ‘Oh no, they’re not walking into a school, they’re walking into a child-care facility.’ Maybe you can fool some people, but you can’t fool the State of New York.”
But the apparent failure of Cuomo’s order to explicitly address the child-care issue is particularly strange given reports of yeshivas in the New York City suburbs taking advantage of a similar loophole during the earliest months of the pandemic.
Calls to Bet Yaakov and its leadership seeking comment for this story were not returned. But the school’s continued activities have rankled some of those who reside nearby.
“It’s a pandemic,” said one man who lives across the street, noting his own gradeschool son has been taking classes via Zoom as the city battles a coronavirus surge. “They should close.”