Hilarie Kay, the Glen Rock Jewish Center’s director of early childhood education, has been with the school for 20 years. In other words, she’s been there “since the beginning.” She has watched it grow and change and weather the normal vicissitudes faced by any community institution.
But — like educators throughout the country — she was blindsided by the pandemic.
With some 55 students, from 2 to 5 years old, from towns including Glen Rock, Fair Lawn, Ridgewood, Waldwick, Midland Park, and Paramus, last March Ms. Kay realized that she had a decision to make. Should the school stay open? And, if so, how should it operate?
“No one thought [the pandemic] would last that long,” she said, recalling when the Purim carnival of 2020 was canceled. “We thought things would go back to normal.”
But they didn’t. The school remained open, “and we switched to virtual.”
With a staff of 12 teachers, “some were more comfortable than others” with this new format. “We worked together, had staff Zoom meetings, and we shared,” Ms. Kay said. “Our teachers have really adapted to all of the changes; from starting virtually in the fall to implementing our curriculum while maintaining all of our health and safety protocols. It has really been a cooperative effort with the synagogue, our families, and staff all going above and beyond to make it happen.”
Describing the experience as “unknown, uncharted territory,” Ms. Kay — who lives in Glen Rock and is the mother of four children — said that her job was especially challenging because for young children, learning is play-based and experiential. While she believes her teachers “did a great job of keeping them engaged, we weren’t expecting the children to be in front of the screen for a prolonged period of time.”
Nevertheless, she said, “When we went to Zoom last March, almost all of our children, including the 2-year-olds, continued participating in our online activities throughout the months until summer break.”
When Ms. Kay realized that the upcoming school year would be virtual, “I prepared age-appropriate ‘to-go’ bags for each child, so they would all have the materials to participate fully.” She also told parents what supplies they would need at home.
In addition, “After we transitioned to Zoom, since I could no longer personally interact with everyone on a regular basis, I sent daily emails to all of our families listing several Zoom activities across the country and throughout the day that they could participate in, if they chose. Along with those I always included a fun activity that they could do with their child (whenever they were able), including science, art, literacy, music, math, movement, neighborhood exploration, etc. in an effort to keep them involved with me, our school community, and their child’s continuing education, while at home.”
No in-person classes were held between March and September. Then, in September, students were welcomed back — though without the option for extended care — and, Ms. Kay said, “I was pleasantly surprised.” While she and her staff had trained to re-engage students, helping them to transition back to the school environment, “the adjustment was very easy for the majority.”
Students came back to find that tents had been placed outdoors for each class, joining the familiar playground and bike-riding areas. “They can use them all day,” Ms. Kay said, noting that she had discovered something she hadn’t anticipated. “We had never thought to eat lunch or snack outside or to do our artwork there.” But it works, she said, and they will continue doing it, even after the pandemic. “We always go outside, except in the rain. We let kids play in the snow. The parents really appreciate it.”
Ms. Kay said she “started feeling relieved after the second week. But once doing it, it became routine.” Under the new protocol, classes are “pods,” and the teachers and children who are in a pod can interact. But they cannot be near other people or pods. Everyone is masked, and since teachers can’t be in the hallway at the same time, they use walkie-talkies to communicate with one another. Activities have changed as well. “We can’t have music and yoga, but the teachers incorporate movement and rhythm” into their sessions. “We make do,” she said.
While the school’s enrollment has dropped somewhat, mostly due to parents who are not yet quite ready to send their kids back, “next year we hope to be back. We understand that some parents are not yet comfortable. And with our age group, it’s easier to keep them home.” Still, she said, since they successfully reopened their doors, more families are coming back.
The director said that while they’re not likely to continue Zooming with their young students, it has shed a new light on activities with parents. If parent volunteers can no longer come in to help, they can still do things like reading books to the children on Zoom, thus remaining involved with their child’s class.
“I’m really delighted that the parent body and the community have been so amenable to rules and regulations,” she said. “They quarantine if they travel and keep their children home if they don’t feel well. There’s been no pushback. It’s been a joint effort of the school, shul, kids and parents.”
Dr. Mark Silk of Teaneck, the GRJC’s Hebrew school director of education, brings not only years of experience to his position but also the perspective of someone who sees education in a wider context. Since 2013, he has taught doctoral level classes in educational administration at Saint Peter’s University, and he joined the faculty of the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies in 2017. The father of three married daughters, he has drawn some important lessons from teaching through the pandemic.
Like Ms. Kay, Dr. Silk cites Purim 2020 as the watershed moment when educators realized “that we had to make changes or cancel programming.” He was no stranger to virtual education, having used Zoom at St. Peter’s University, and he and his five-member staff have “taken on educational technology in a big way.
“The name of the game is being flexible and nimble,” he said. While it was clear that classes would be virtual through the spring, “we learned everything we could and decided we could make this work in September by using classrooms, larger rooms, and other spaces.” Then, in the middle of the summer, it occurred to them that not all these rooms had windows.
“We don’t have a huge building, but we have a healthy-sized parking lot,” he said. A decision was made to hold Sunday classes outdoors.
Dr. Silk explained that some classes (Gan through Bet) meet only on Sunday. By early November, all those classes were being held outside; the few families who opted to keep their children at home connected to the outdoor classes on Zoom. “It’s different teaching outdoors,” he said. “From the auditory perspective, it’s challenging.”
Classes that meet Tuesday afternoons were held online — but soon that will change. “We’ve ordered canopy tents, 10 by 10, that can be used in whatever configuration we need,” Dr. Silk said. “It depends on the number of students.” The plan is to be back in regular classes this September, observing the CDC’s new recommendation of three feet of separation between students.
While the nursery school, with its own building, has the option of creating pods, Hebrew school cannot since students come from different schools in different communities. Most are from Glen Rock, Fair Lawn, and Ridgewood.
“The vast majority of parents are very supportive, happy, and pleased,” said Dr. Silk. “Only a few families never went virtual, and we lost only two families.” Originally, there was some concern about keeping the younger students engaged. “Before the year began, a number of parents were wary, but they gave it a try. Now they’re thrilled.”
He said that teachers have been able to incorporate artwork into their online activities, and they are using “Hebrew through Movement, a national program out of Cleveland, which involves learning Hebrew by hearing and physically responding. You can run, jump, and turn around not only in the parking lot but in front of a screen as well.”
In addition, he said that online programming has included arts and crafts that are content driven “and a lot of content-related gaming. Teachers are getting creative. Those who were doubtful use it happily now.”
Thanks to Zoom, cooking also has been incorporated into the program. “You can’t do it in the parking lot, but you can do it on Zoom,” Dr. Silk said. “Everyone has a kitchen.” In addition, he said, “Journaling has become more a part of the program.”
The use of virtual learning has had a major impact on the seventh-grade unit on the Holocaust. “This year included interviews with a survivor, children of survivors, and two others who tell survivors’ stories.” Speakers were from out of state. “It’s easier to do in this environment, and the students can post a journal response to the events,” Dr. Silk said.
He hopes that as covid case numbers come down, the guideline of three-foot social distancing will enable the use of regular classrooms. In that case, “We can be virtual when we choose to be, and/or use tech in the classroom,” he said. “We’re anxious to get back.” The school’s teachers are preparing two different lesson plans for the same class, knowing that they will use only one. “We’ve had to plan both ways,” he said.
Like Ms. Kay, Dr. Silk is thankful to the parents who not only have provided positive feedback but have helped with the set-up and breakdown of tents. “I was concerned that there might be some pushback,” he said, “but there’s virtually none of that.”
The Glen Rock Jewish Center’s rabbi, Jennifer Schlosberg, is proud of her shul’s schools.
“The word that comes to mind when I think about what we did last March — and how quickly the teachers and staff did it — is ‘pivot,’” she said. “They moved to online spaces, adjusted their curriculum to meet the needs of the virtual classrooms and still found ways of teaching children in engaging ways, eventually adding creativity when we began meeting in-person again.
Further, as much as the teachers, madrichim” — aides — “and staff may have been struggling with how to cope in their own lives with the unfolding pandemic, when they were in the classroom, whether it was virtual or in-person, they did not let it show.
“Their number-one priority was to continue engaging the students through interactive learning, all the while being role models for what it means to be resilient and build a community that cared.”