“You can’t take anything for granted,” is a wise old adage that has resonated during this pandemic, when our individual lives and communities changed drastically. Pillars of our daily routines, which once had seemed constant, immutable, and unconditional, suddenly disappeared.
Our community landscapes were rendered unrecognizable.
In March, the community at the Yavneh Academy in Paramus also pivoted quickly when school closures were mandated, taking a sharp turn to begin online education. Teachers immediately learned sophisticated technology skills under the guidance of our highly innovative technology department, and we were grateful to retain this important link to our classes and school community.
Lessons were tailored creatively for Zoom teaching, using a host of new apps, connecting with our students in a whole different way. Many of us even learned what our students ate for breakfast at their kitchen tables in real time, we met adorable younger siblings and a variety of house pets, and we observed the at-home metamorphosis of caterpillars growing into butterflies, which then were released into the air in our students’ backyards.
With careful and detailed planning throughout the summer, the Yavneh Academy administration, along with the dedicated medical staff, worked tirelessly to enforce all the CDC protocols and parameters to enable the school to be up and running safely for the fall semester. Additionally, in preparation for the students’ return, teachers were trained extensively in responsive classroom seminars that reinforce social-emotional community learning in the classrooms.
Then, when Yavneh’s doors opened once again to our school community in the late summer, it was a thrilling and victorious event. We had missed the positive dynamics of being together, and the musical buzz of learning.
All through the hallways, placed among all the artwork and welcome-back-to school signs, are the red and white Yavneh Redhawks Team posters. They now read: “How to be a Hallway Hawk – wear your mask, wash your hands, keep a distance, and keep to the right.” Classrooms are filled with Plexiglas dividers, desks are spaced within the parameters of proper social distance, and our cafeteria has been transformed into classrooms to allow for additional pods of learning. Temperatures are taken upon entry for all who walk through Yavneh’s doors.
Yet even with all the protocols and physical separations, there is a palpable feeling of excitement and gratitude felt by students and staff alike, just to be back in these familiar walls. Although facial expressions are camouflaged by face coverings of all colors, shapes, and materials, there is plenty of hand waving replacing our masked smiles.
We also are keenly aware that if there is ever a mandate to pivot once again, we can do so successfully.
Ask any Yavneh student what he or she missed most about their school community, and the answer is usually the same — “I missed being with my friends.” And it certainly isn’t hard to imagine big smiles under all those multicolored masks while the students chat with their friends — children are wonderfully resilient.
During the last several weeks, Yavneh Academy’s second grade also has been learning about another kind of community, the one in which they live. The students read texts about different communities. Then they wrote about what they love about their own communities, and what they would do to make some positive changes if they could.
Recently, Yavneh graduate Elie Katz — who also is Teaneck’s deputy mayor — joined our second-grade classes virtually to discuss community involvement. He gave an overview of the basics of local government, including anecdotes, and with great humor.
He began by speaking about the importance of voting in elections. “If people don’t vote in elections, they don’t have a voice,” Mr. Katz said. “Maybe we should have a second-grade election and vote for the student who has the best mask? What do you think?” There were thumbs up in response to that suggestion.
“So please don’t forget to remind your parents to vote!”
Mr. Katz also explained how he works closely with the town’s police, fire, and health departments, its board of education, and the library, among other organizations. “Did you know that Teaneck has 92 police officers who work in shifts to protect the community?” he asked. “We also work together with other communities in Bergen County. It’s important to work together.”
He then opened the floor to questions from our students. The first question was “What are your favorite memories of Yavneh Academy?”
“I have a lot of good memories, but I particularly loved the hot lunches,” Mr. Katz told them. “Do you still get those chocolate milk boxes?”
Another student came up to the front of the room with a prepared question written on an index card. “Is it a hard job being mayor?”
“It can be very challenging,” Mr. Katz responded. “Teaneck is a great town, with wonderful people, and I’ve lived here all my life. I was even the youngest mayor ever to be elected.” (That was from 2006 to 2008.) “But there are times when people want different things in the community.
“Let me explain,” he continued. “Everyone here likes ice cream, right?” The students all nodded enthusiastically. “Some of you might like vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry, and there may be some pistachio flavor lovers too. You see, people all want something different.”
Finally, the question that we all think about in our own lives: “Do you like your job?”
“Yes, I love my job, even though it’s not always easy,” Mr. Katz said. “Whatever you do in life when you grow up, find something that you love to do. That’s really important.”
Clearly Elie Katz is proud of his community work, and he enjoys sharing his experiences. He asked the students whether they’ve ever been to the new playground in Votee Park. “This playground was added for people who have some disabilities, which means they have a hard time walking or have other movement problems,” he said.
It’s all about our communities, where we live, learn, and work.
Esther Kook of Teaneck is a reading specialist at Yavneh Academy.