Lost on Zoom: Israeli Students and Teachers Alike Suffer the Shortcomings of Distance Learning

'The disillusionment is rapid – at best it doesn’t work, at worst it’s almost a pedagogical and social disaster,' education official says ■ Pupils, teachers, parents and principals tell Haaretz all about it

Or Kashti
Or Kashti
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File photo: students attend online classes at their home in Tel Aviv during Israel's first coronavirus lockdown, April 2020.
File photo: students attend online classes at their home in Tel Aviv during Israel's first coronavirus lockdown, April 2020.Credit: Eyal Toueg
Or Kashti
Or Kashti

The schools returned to remote learning this week for the second time in a year. In the coming weeks the educational, social and emotional toll this is taking on students, teachers and parents will become clear.

LISTEN: How COVID killed Bibi’s legacy and resurrected his archrivalCredit: Haaretz

The schools are now facing major tests; in addition to outdated teaching methods, at least 20 percent of students don’t have computers or internet access, while others get lost in front of the screen.

Haaretz has spoken to students, teachers and principals on the difficulties and opportunities in remote learning.

Ronni Greenfeld, a 12th-grader at the Dror Educational Campus near Netanya

Ronni Greenfeld.Credit: Moti Milrod

“The connection with the teacher is very important to me. I was lucky to meet really good teachers and suddenly it’s gone. There are Zoom lessons that take more than an hour, but most students’ attention wanders after five minutes. The teachers talk for a lot of the time.

“The experience is very one-sided. It’s like watching a long ad on YouTube without being able to fast-forward. I think it’s simply a way to cram in more material. At the end of the lesson the teacher asks if anybody has a question. Usually nobody responds. Who even remembers what was at the beginning?

“In a regular lesson, a good teacher notices if a student’s attention wavers. It’s impossible on Zoom. I also don’t get up for lessons early in the morning, because we don’t learn anything anyway. I have friends who haven’t joined a single Zoom lesson. Some have disappeared completely.

“Many students don’t open the camera, even though they’re instructed to. I feel nobody can reach us and detect when we need help. The learning is on mute. Everyone’s on the computer but is really looking at their television screen or phone. It’s a very isolating experience.

“Soon it will be time for the matriculation exams. I don’t see myself taking them. Maybe they should divide us into small groups like the grammar teacher did before the matriculation exam last year. That way we can take part and respond in the lessons. They need to see us.”

Elad Lan Cohen, a 12th-grader at the Yaakov Hazan democratic school in Kfar Sava

Elad Lan Cohen.Credit: Moti Milrod

“I can’t speak for the other kids, but for me distance learning is an upgrade. You don’t have to deal with all the turmoil of going to school, and because nobody’s around to get in the way, it’s easier for me to concentrate.

“It’s probably connected to my autism. The usual lessons with all the noise were more complicated. But Zoom also has a downside. It’s hard to ask the teacher for private help, and you can’t talk to friends at break. A phone call isn’t like a meeting.

“At school there was someone whose job was to help me understand the questions about long passages, or when there were several answers. Now I have to ask one of my parents. I miss meeting with a teacher and just chatting to him. I also think it will take me time to get used to other people around me.”

Orit, a high school history teacher in the center of the country

“People like to tell teachers they have to reinvent themselves, while the matriculation exams remain much the same. At least for this year, the Education Ministry had to abandon the usual format, taking out a few sections, but how am I supposed to teach the rise of the Nazis without addressing Nazi ideology?

“Class discussion is a central part of the humanities. Distance learning wiped out that possibility. It’s even more difficult to generate a new learning experience. Even if I were a sucker and looked for new study materials at my own expense, I wouldn’t have the technical means to invest in advanced study plans.

“My home computer serves five people and the ministry won’t classify it as a vital work tool, but it expects me to buy a new one for 3,500 shekels [$1,010]. If they don’t provide the necessary work conditions and don’t change the evaluation indexes, how do they expect teachers to succeed?

“There’s a price for remote learning, beyond the deterioration of learning. Last year I taught junior high, and the number of sexually oriented events requiring some intervention soared. Kids are wandering the streets. At school they can go to a counselor or a homeroom teacher. I think this commitment diminishes when the child in front of you is only a face on the screen.

“In the last lockdown I asked myself where the education system was going. Now I’m more realistic and more depressed by the ministry’s announcements and plans trying to show that everything is under control. We’re being strangled every time anew.”

Roni Samuel, a homeroom teacher at the Hashmonaim elementary school in Jaffa

Roni Samuel.Credit: Moti Milrod

“The students live in a complicated reality. We’re bending over backwards to enable distance learning, but there aren’t enough computers and there’s no infrastructure.

“Last school year during the coronavirus, kids dropped off our radar. It was very exciting to see them on September 1, and now I fear again that the connection with them will break off. I don’t know where the Education Ministry is. I heard maybe there will be computers in the middle of the year. I’m not counting on it.

“During the summer vacation we prepared ourselves for the lockdown. We realized that we couldn’t move a typical lesson to Zoom and that the work had to be in small groups. There’s potential for independent studying and creative thought. It’s harder work for the teachers and we’re still adjusting.

“Until a few months ago this looked like a distant dream – reducing the number of students, reducing the number of subjects, the autonomy of teachers and students. Remote learning has shown how much the kids need their friends and teachers. They get lost without them. Only after school was taken from them did they realize how much they needed it.”

Huda Khlaileh, a math and Arabic teacher at the Hadekel elementary school in Carmiel

Huda Khlaileh.Credit: Rami Shllush

“The problem with distance learning is mainly with the children – not every child has a computer or an internet connection, and it’s hard to know what’s happening with them when they turn the camera off.

“We use every means we can to reach them, but in every class there’s a child or two out of touch since the coronavirus started. Some teachers, especially the older ones, hardly know how to start a computer or share a screen.

“Remote learning can’t be based on Zoom. I open the day with a short conversation to make sure all the children have woken up, and I finish with a closing conversation. Every Zoom session lasts a quarter of an hour. In the middle there’s a lot of independent learning. We took into account that in many homes there are several siblings and sometimes only one computer.”

Ashraf Sharkawi, a principal at a junior high school near Haifa

Ashraf Sharkawi.Credit: Rami Shllush

“Since we’re in a 'red' zone, our studies at school haven’t resumed. We’ve had to deal with an emergency situation that has become routine. It requires flexibility and lots of adapting.

“The Zoom lessons last 30 minutes, with students talking about a third of the time. Most students do their assignments, and attendance in the first two weeks was about 80 percent. I don’t know how long we can keep it up. We’re treading on very thin ice.

“The first thing demanded of teachers is to take care of the students’ health and mental health. In these situations, mental fortitude is more important than learning.

“The school must also give more space to the parents. Many of them have suffered financially and there’s pressure in the family. We built an intervention plan to help them and give them a safety net, at least regarding the children’s education.

“Distance learning minimizes the personal connections with the students and the community. There are already signs of an increasing dropout rate.”

Aviv Gross-Alon, whose daughter Naomi is in sixth grade

“At Naomi’s school there has been an improvement since the first lockdown. They realized that a full class on Zoom was ineffective and are trying to form smaller groups.

“I’m less concerned about how much she’ll study. I know that if there’s a problem in that regard we can deal with it, and I’m aware that not all parents have these options.

“The main concern is for the emotional aspect. Naomi needs the class, which provides a social-learning environment. It’s deeper than meeting with close friends. The physical meeting, the presence, are very important.

“My Ruth, in second grade, goes to the bilingual school in Beit Berl, which is still in the stages of being fully set up. Maybe that affected the technical details – the ways the children receive messages, assignments and the like. The abundance of messages and changes have created a communication disorder that gives the parents a sense of chaos.

“We live in difficult and stressful times, and this noise leads to a loss of control and confidence. I hope the closeness between the staff and the parents will let us find a solution.”

Emanuel Zylberman, head of the state and state-religious education division at the Jerusalem municipality

Emanuel Zylberman.Credit: Emil Salman

“Many teachers and principals believed until recently that distance learning would take a few weeks but end sometime. Now they’re realizing, gradually, that they have to get used to the children not going back to school regularly and that learning out of school is the fixed reality.

“For education people, the disillusionment with Zoom is rapid – at best it doesn’t work, at worst it’s almost a pedagogical and social disaster that cuts off teachers and students. In most cases the student is even more passive than in a traditional lesson.

“Another conclusion pertains to the importance of mental fortitude. There’s a rise in the number of calls to the psychological therapy center we opened for students. In the first wave children who suffered from anxiety and depression came mainly from lower-class families. Now they come from every segment and class.

“We took a group of creative principals to build new learning models; for example, a daily meeting in small groups focusing on conversation, or tours in open spaces in the city. At a time like this, of all times, we have to find alternatives to remote learning. It matters less what and how many students learn; it’s much more important that they meet and talk.”

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