WASHINGTON – The first warning sign appeared in early February. A family that sends its kids to Gesher Jewish Day School in northern Virginia had recently returned from a trip to Asia, and the parents informed the school that, out of caution, they would be self-isolating at home for the next two weeks.
They asked the school, which runs classes from early education to eighth grade, to provide learning materials and potentially use technology in order to keep their kids up to date with their classmates.
“I remember thinking to myself, This seems serious. But we had no idea back then how serious it would be,” recalls Jodi Rein, the school’s principal. “We started having conversations among the staff about what would happen when this thing we were just starting to hear about, the coronavirus, will make it to America – how would our school be impacted?”
Several weeks later, an email from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee convinced her it was time to stop talking and begin actually preparing for the possibility that the school would have to shutter.
“After the AIPAC conference in early March, they started sending out several emails, informing people who attended the conference that there were people [there] who turned out to be carriers of the virus,” Rein says. “That’s when we said, ‘OK, we need to be ready, maybe we’ll have to shut down the building for two weeks.’
“We were ahead of the curve,” she continues. “We were already preparing to shut down the school and move to remote learning by the time the State of Virginia announced that all schools were shutting down. We were able to tell parents before that happened, ‘Please send grocery bags with your kids to school, so we can send them back home with all the books and equipment they will need in case of an extended lockdown.’ But honestly, even back then, I’m not sure we fully realized this was now going to become our new reality until the end of the school year.”
Across the United States, Jewish day schools are experiencing a series of huge challenges as a result of the pandemic, which has led to school cancellations everywhere. To deal with this extraordinary and unprecedented situation, schools have shifted to online learning. Most are planning to do so at least until the end of the school year; some are already anticipating, with dread, a continuation of this reality into the next school year.
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Haaretz spoke with principals at five Jewish day schools in different parts of the country about the challenges, opportunities and lessons of this unusual time. These challenges include pedagogical difficulties, social hardships and also, for Jewish schools specifically, economic concerns amid a historic surge in unemployment and a growing threat to the viability of Jewish institutions in general.
For now, however, the principals all agreed that their number one concern has to do with the well-being of their students and staff members.
“This is something we had never considered, never prepared for, never imagined we’d need to do,” says Mitchel Malkus, head of school at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland. “Every day we learn something new about this situation and what it requires from us as educators.
“In regular times,” Malkus adds, “we do have snow days sometimes that occur during the school year, and then we actually post assignments online for kids to do at home. But this is different. It’s not as if these are just 30 snow days in a row; our entire school has become an online operation. That’s something we’ve never done before.”
Malkus explains that one of the challenges in this new reality, “where you basically run day after day of remote learning and the kids are all home, is you learn very fast that different families have different needs and abilities. You have some kids who are not just learning from home, but are also responsible right now to take care of younger siblings, in a situation where parents are still going to work,” he says.
“We have students and parents who are complaining about too many hours in front of the computer screen – students develop headaches, they feel exhausted,” Malkus notes. “And then you have families who come with the opposite problem, saying, ‘Why aren’t you doing more hours?’”
Bracha Rutner is the assistant principal at Yeshiva University School for Girls – Central, a modern Orthodox institute in New York City. She says that her school “decided to close two weeks before Passover, in order to train our teachers for the possibility of a long-term closure. We were following the news about the virus and were getting nervous that we’ll have to close. And the decision we made – we’d rather prepare for this ahead of time than be suddenly forced to close without notice,” she says.
Rutner recounts how the school did a day of training for its teachers on how to teach remotely. “We all learned how to work with a specific technological platform and we did a dry run – and it looked like everything was working,” she says. “Then, on March 16, which was the first day of actual remote learning, with all the students and teachers now at home, we had our ‘first day of school’ with remote learning – and it was an utter failure.”
The platform failed to support the bandwidth necessary for all of the schools nationwide that had chosen to use it. Students could not log in, videos of teachers became blurry and the website crashed several times.
“We had to change course very quickly and we switched to Zoom on the same day. Everyone created links for their classes, and it worked very well,” Rutner reveals. “By the next day we were up and running, and since then it’s been pretty smooth. We had one incident of ‘Zoom bombing,’ and our director of educational technology reached out to Zoom and they helped us solve it.”
Rutner explains that the students have six periods of 35 minutes each of remote study, with a 10-minute break in-between and a one-hour break for lunch. Then there are advanced classes and activities in “after school” hours. Other principals described somewhat similar schedules.
Allan Houben, principal of Judaic studies at Atlanta Jewish Academy, says that “the schedule is not just about classes: it also includes social activities that are crucial for everyone right now – students, teachers, families.”
Physical, not social, distancing
Houben is not just a faculty member at the school, which was created several years ago after a merger between two existing Jewish day schools in the Atlanta area; he is also a parent of students in each of the school’s three age-group levels.
“I see what’s happening also from the perspective of a parent,” he says. “Remote learning is one aspect of this new reality, but you also need, as a school, to provide other things. Teachers are available for students on certain hours to ask questions, share challenges and consult. Then there are ‘morning meetings,’ which in our pre-coronavirus reality were done in a circle in the classroom and are now conducted online: it’s just an opportunity to talk, and share, and listen to one another. Those things are very important right now.”
A school, Houben says, “is a community, not just a place where kids learn. The need for social contact is very high and important right now. I actually think we are using the wrong term to describe what is required of people at this time. We need physical distancing, definitely, but we actually need social contact between people. You can keep physical distance and still remain social – and the technology helps us achieve that, to some degree. It’s important for everyone but especially for children.”
On the academic side, teaching methods are just one of many things that need to be adjusted.
“One of the toughest questions in this situation is: How do you grade students?” Rein notes. “I’m hearing from teachers that some students who were doing very well in the regular classroom are having a hard time with remote learning. And then there are kids who struggled more in the regular classroom and are suddenly doing great right now.
“But we also have to remember other things that are happening around us. Some kids are anxious because their parents have lost their jobs; other kids are exhausted because their parents are still working and they have more responsibilities in the family. How do we take such things into consideration?” Rein asks.
All the principals agreed on one key point: While remote learning was working fine for them so far, it cannot become a permanent solution and is never going to truly replace the benefits of “real” school, with kids sitting in classrooms and walking the hallways.
“I’m hearing from kids that almost everyone misses school right now,” Houben says. “They miss things that some perhaps took for granted before this lockdown period.” Malkus adds that “specifically with younger students, distance learning can work for some amount of time. But it’s not a substitute for regular school, and it’s never going to fully replace what we do.”
Rein, meanwhile, says her school is aware that some skills can’t be fully taught in the current situation. “Preschool, for example, is all about social skills. We know kids are going to lose some of that because of this extended period of isolation,” she says. “And you can do all kinds of things using technology to try to make up for what’s lost, but you can’t fully achieve that goal.”
As the crisis continues, the principals are already thinking about what the next school year will look like.
“We’ve pretty much accepted the fact that this school year is lost and we’re not coming back any time soon,” says the principal of one Jewish day school in the New York area, who asked not to be identified. “What we’re really worried about is next year – and there are two concerns. One: Will we be able to actually go back to regular classroom teaching by the fall? And two, will we have the money to keep operating?”
Jewish day schools, like most private schools in the United States, usually rely on a combination of tuition, donations and sometimes also rental income in order to pay the bills and staff salaries. The ongoing economic crisis could threaten those sources of income – an issue that is of concern not just to schools but to Jewish organizations and institutions at large.
“From both an academic and economic perspective, it would be very helpful for us if things got better over the summer and we could go back to some sort of normal situation by the fall,” the New York area principal explains. “But are we also preparing for the possibility that we have to continue teaching remotely by September? Yes, we have to.”