Back to School This September Presents Challenges for Israel's Teachers in COVID-19 Era

Teachers are hopeful that in-person teacher-student interaction will remain possible for many students, despite restrictions

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Israeli pupils wearing protective masks enter the Sadot Elementary School as the country eases lockdown restrictions in the town of Pardes Hanna-Karkur, May 03, 2020.
Israeli pupils wearing protective masks enter the Sadot Elementary School as the country eases lockdown restrictions in the town of Pardes Hanna-Karkur, May 03, 2020.Credit: JACK GUEZ / AFP

The first graders starting school on September 1 will certainly feel festive and excited, as every year. But unlike every year, they will have to march into their unfamiliar classroom without a parent leading them by the hand. The coronavirus regulations forbid parents from entering the school grounds.

“I’ve thought about that,” says Keren Sabag, principal of the Shaked School in Ashdod. “During the week before school starts we will open a WhatsApp group for every class, and the homeroom teacher will video herself greeting the children.” At the end of August, when the getting-to-know-you meetings traditionally take place, the homeroom teachers will greet the children at the school gate and lead them to their classrooms.

LISTEN: Protests, pandemics and Netanyahu's day of reckoningCredit: Haaretz

The first day of school is just one of the many challenges elementary school teachers will face when schools reopen in five weeks. The Education Ministry has not yet issued an official outline of how classes will be conducted. (“I’m sure the final outline will come out August 31,” said one principal, who preferred to remain anonymous.) The ministry wouldn’t answer any questions about how it is preparing for another year of distance learning. Education Minister Yoav Galant’s office wouldn’t agree to an interview.

Still, some things seem pretty clear. First and second graders will be going to school the most, apparently five days a week. They will not be required to study in smaller “capsules” but will remain in their homerooms. Grades 3 and 4 will have to split into smaller classes of up to 18 pupils, and thus will be able to come to school as often as the number of classrooms in the building allow – maybe five days a week, or perhaps only four. Fifth and sixth graders will be coming to school only once, perhaps twice a week. One day will presumably be Friday, when the younger classes will not be in session. Elementary school principals are preparing for various scenarios at once. “I have a schedule for peacetime and a schedule for war,” said the acerbic principal. “Now we are waiting for our leaders’ pronouncements.”

Along with logistical preparations, educators are devoting the summer months to more fundamental questions, like what can be learned from the first period of distance learning. While high school principals must cope with concerns about the looming matriculation exams, the challenges for elementary schools are different. For example, fifth- and sixth-graders might be able to stay home while their parents are at work, but they are not totally independent, meaning that creative ideas, like holding an occasional class somewhere outdoors, are not necessarily possible.

Pupils are shown how to maintain social distancing, upon return to school after the COVID-19 lockdown, at Hashalom elementary in Mevaseret Zion, in the suburbs of Jerusalem, May 3, 2020.Credit: AFP

Nevertheless, principals are convinced that there must be face-to-face encounters with the pupils. “We still don’t fully understand the social price being paid, but it’s high,” says Dana Garson, principal of the Geulim School in Jerusalem. “Growing up is the engagement of the child with his environment, that’s how he learns.” She hopes that aside from Fridays, the older children will be able to come to school for a short afternoon shift or one morning in small groups. “The social encounter is no less important than the studies, and we’ll find a way to have it,” she says.

Sabag already knows that the only day the 5th- and 6th-graders will be in school will not be devoted to studying, at least not all of it. “You can teach from a distance,” she says. “On this day we’ll invest in social dynamics, experiential content; we’ll give them the opportunity to express themselves.” This day will be primarily spent with the homeroom teacher.

Tamar Rabiner, principal of the Herzl School in Haifa, also believes that the social experience is more important than studying. She realized this from the start of the coronavirus crisis, when the schools had to move to distance learning without any preparation. “We quickly realized that for children to learn, they needed emotional and social ‘maintenance.’ Otherwise they would simply get lost.” At first it seemed impossible, but within a few weeks the teachers figured out how to conduct such ‘maintenance’ classes online – pantomime games on Zoom, baking a cake with the pupils, “show and tell,” in which children spoke about their hobbies, and more. Rabiner hopes to preserve the intimacy that developed between teachers and students – and the cooperation of parents.

One day, one subject

Still, the kids have to learn. Garson has drawn up a schedule for grades 5 and 6 that is totally different from what they know from the past: Each day of home study will be devoted to a single subject – Sunday to math, Monday to English, Tuesday to science and so on. For some children, Garson said, flitting from subject to subject online was just too much.

The focus on one subject a day will allow pupils to know what’s in store, and will allow teachers to devote more attention to each class, rather that bouncing between five different Zoom lessons in the same day. Each day will begin with a brief Zoom session with the homeroom teacher, says Garson. After that, the day will be devoted to its subject -- a short Zoom lesson and then an interesting assignment. While the pupils are working independently, the teacher can have a phone call with a pupil who’s having difficulty, or can teach a class of younger pupils who are in the school.

“If a child regularly misses the Sunday classes, we will realize that he’s having difficulty with math and we can intervene to help him,” Garson says.

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