As far back as any of us can remember — no, much farther back then that, way past living memory and historic memory — being in school meant being together, in a class, with other people.
Sure, there were correspondence courses, and more recently online classes, but those were outliers, exceptions, not rules. Education started with little kids going off to school — think teary mothers putting brave, excited little kids on big yellow school buses, or for a specifically Jewish image, there’s the romanticized one of the tiny boy licking honey from the first letter he learns his first day of cheder.
That’s not virtual.
But now, schools do not have the luxury of nostalgia, or even the very real challenges of a 21st-century physical classroom. Covid-19 has ended that, at least for now. Formal education has to go online.
Each school is setting up its own protocols and curricula and rules and expectations differently — in other words, each one is scrambling around, trying to figure out how best to help its students, parents, teachers, and administrators — but there are many common themes that underlie all of their work.
We lack both the time and the space to talk to each of the many Jewish schools in this area, bursting as it is with them, but here we have talked to a few, all either elementary and middle schools or schools that span all the grades. Each one — every school that we’ve heard about — is working hard to be flexible; to master the different kinds of technology available to it, figure out which to use for what, and to teach how to use it; to be open to the balance of needs that confront it; to always know that structure, community, and love all matter.
Here’s how some of them are doing it.
Rabbi Steven Penn is the lower school principal and associate head of school at the Yavneh Academy in Paramus, and Alison Landa is the Orthodox school’s director of teaching and learning for its preschool and lower school divisions.
Yavneh is trying to provide structure for their students, the two educators said. “We’re trying to put into place a school program that is creating some normalcy for teachers and students and parents,” Ms. Landa said. “We think it’s important emotionally and socially and academically to provide them with some structure. We’re trying to provide them with the classes that they would have had, as best we can.”
The morning starts with davening, as it always does, at either 8:30 or 9, and the day ends at 3 or 3:30, earlier than usual.
“We are trying to provide them with face time with their teachers through Zoom and to give them similar types of assignments to what they would have had.” They see their morning teachers online during the morning and the afternoon teachers in the afternoon.
The students also get their gym, art, and music classes. Some of the physical education classes are live, Ms. Landa said, and others are recorded. “The PE teachers do a live recess break on Zoom. The students don’t have to do it, but it’s there for them. And we also have been putting in some recorded exercise breaks, where the PE teacher will walk you through an exercise activity.
“The art teacher has recorded some videos. The projects use simple supplies that you’d have at home. There’s also some conversation about having an art or music teacher do a synchronous lesson.” (There is much new vocabulary in this brave new world. Something synchronous is live, as on Zoom; something asynchronous is recorded. The students don’t see it at the same time that the teacher recorded it.)
One thing that is different, however, is that back in the building, there was more than one lunch period. That was a matter of logistics; the lunchroom isn’t big enough for all the school’s students. Now, though, “we decided to have a lunch break that would help support the whole family.” And the break’s an hour now, instead of the two half hours that it had been. That means that if there is more than one Yavneh student in a family, those children can have lunch together, and if the family includes a Yavneh teacher, that parent-teacher doesn’t have to decide which role to fill.
That change was in response to the staggered lunch hours that Yavneh online had at the very beginning. “We have the flexibility to adjust to what we are hearing,” Ms. Landa said.
“The reality is that this is new for all of us,” Rabbi Penn added. “No one has an exact handle on it. So we take it a few days at a time. We’re flexible, and we see what will work better going forward.”
One of the biggest challenges of the many challenges that teachers face is figuring out how to intuit what their students are seeing, thinking, and feeling. It’s one thing to react in person, another to react to children you see in little boxes online. “Teachers are generally used to being reflective,” Ms. Landa said. “Now they have to be hyper-reflective. This is so new, but they are constantly evaluating what is making the best sense for their kids. They’re constantly adjusting, re-evaluating, getting feedback. They’re all — we’re all — doing the best we can.
How do they do it? “They haven’t slept for 15 days,” Ms. Landa said. No, really, what they’re doing is working closely together.
“What is awesome about this moment for us as a school is that there is a lot of collaboration going on,” she said. “This is really pushing teachers,” who are used to working sealed off in their own classrooms, less uninterested in what others are doing than unable to see it. “This is really pushing teachers to have something different every day, so when teachers create something they share it with their colleagues, so everyone can focus on something different.
“We used to be more independent. Now we know that we all are in this together, and we will make it work.”
But how do they do it?
“It’s been a steep learning curve,” Rabbi Penn said. “Imagine taking an industry that is working in one direction — and in a day, you have to tip over onto an entirely new platform. There is a lot of collaboration, a lot of support from technical departments, from parents, who have been amazing in the outpouring of appreciation they have. Parents know that there will be bumps on the road. They know that this is a unique situation, a reality that has not been seen before.
“We’ve been looking at other schools, on the west coast, in other countries, so see what they’ve been doing. We’re connecting with them. Some of them are two weeks ahead of us in this process.”
There are many nuances to this process; some are too new to talk about, and some haven’t even made their presence felt yet. This is all very new. But Rabbi Penn and Ms. Landa know already that they have to intersperse special times within the structure; as important as structure is, so too is the special programming that can bring joy. “It’s what gives the neshama” — the soul — “of the school,” Rabbi Penn said. “The davening during the Shabbat assembly on Friday — I didn’t think it would work so well on screen, but parents and children enjoyed getting together and singing.” At school, in person, the parents wouldn’t have been there, but on Fridays during this odd time, parents and their children can look at a screen and sing together, in concert with all the other parents and children looking at the same screen, hours away from ushering in the same Shabbat.
The Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford is a Conservative school that offers pre-K, elementary, and middle grades. Dr. Ilana Kustanowitz of Englewood is its psychologist; she’s also the mother of a sixth-grader, a third-grader, and a kindergartener there.
“We just completed our first week, and it is amazing watching what we put together in such a short period of time,” she said. “The teachers, even the most experienced ones, all became first-year teachers, because they were using a medium they simply hadn’t used.”
There are problems unique to that medium — Zoom, YouTube, among others — that they could not have encountered before. Because teachers can’t rely on the body-language and behavior cues that they’re so used to interpreting, “How do you measure whether a kid is really understanding? How does a child know if they’re really understanding it?”
And then there are the more logistical but still pressing questions. “When a child has finished something, what do they do with it? Take a photo of it? Put it in a file online? Put it in the snail mail?”
Beyond that, “what do we value as an educational institution? We value interpersonal relationships and social and emotional learning. Is this a medium that can completely sustain that? Is there anything that can replace human contact?
“What have we been teaching our kids before this happened, as this technology boomed? How have we used technology? We have always said that when you are with your friends, be together with them. Do not text them. Talk to them. And now everything is the opposite.
“Now, we are restructuring the way that we approach these fundamental educational values, and we give new guidelines for something that we think at the core isn’t really best practice.”
So how good or bad or neutral is it? “We don’t know,” Dr. Kustanowitz said. “The jury is out. We never really tried this. We never thought that it was ideal. We are doing it now because we have to. And the technology has evolved so quickly, there are so many resources out there, that it is exciting to see how much there is.”
She does know that the children want to stay connected to each other. “In a kindergarten virtual classroom, after a teacher-directed lesson, the kids hang in there,” she said. “They don’t want to disconnect. They feel joy seeing each other.
“I know from my own third-grader, who asked me if I could log in a bit before the class started.” That was to be able to spend a little more time with her friends. “I still believe to my core that children are resilient,” she said. “We have this hope that we can keep them connected, and that when we all are allowed to come back, they can re-engage with them.”
It’s hard for teachers to adjust to this new platform, where you sit alone in a room and possibly feel like you’re talking to yourself. “I’m an extrovert,” Dr. Kustanowitz said. “I need to see my audience. Teachers are constantly energized by their kids. That’s why they’re teachers. They love kids. It’s not because they want to sit in front of their computers all day. They want to be with the children. They want to hear their jokes. They want to see the glimmers of learning, when you realize that you have gotten through to a child. When you see that you have made a connection. That is what it is all about.
“That’s what energizes and drives me, and it is so hard to do it without that human interaction.”
She’s a middle-school advisor, “and that’s my favorite time,” Dr. Kustanowitz said. “I love connecting with my kids, and we do a real check-up.
“I push my seventh-graders to go outside. You need your vitamin D, I tell them. It’s not good enough just to get on your elliptical.”
Schechter does special activities. “We had a virtual scavenger hunt that the middle school principal set up. It was with things that everyone would have had in their houses. Like doughnuts.” Doughnuts? “Well, I happened to have one, and I shamed everyone else for not,” she said. It’s a mistake to give up on having fun, and taking it where you can find it.
There’s been a school Kabbalat Shabbat online service, and a school Havdalah. There’s been a virtual matzah-baking project with kindergarteners. “There are beautiful ways to connect,” she said.
“Notwithstanding the tragic elements, there has to be a silver lining to this,” Dr. Kustanowitz said. “I’m thinking about the beauty of being able to have dinner, parents and kids together, not running around after school to this activity and that activity every day. There is something simple about it that I try to focus on, and I keep pointing it out to some of my kids.”
It’s important to tell students what’s going on, Dr. Kustanowitz said; if you don’t, they’ll find out anyway. “I really believe that kids listen to everything that grownups are talking about. Be as truthful as you can. They’ll find information anyway, and you’d rather have it come from you.” They’ll understand it based on their developmental stage and respond to it based on their temperament; luckily, parents can be there to help if their kids need it.
Dr. Kustanowitz gets back to the teachers. “They are the heroes, jumping right into something that is not in their comfort zone,” she said. “It’s truly hard to understand how hard what they do is, unless you are in a classroom. I don’t think that I truly understand, and I am in the trenches, but I am not a classroom teacher. They really are the heroes.”
Dalya Berger of Teaneck teaches first grade Hebrew and Judaic studies at Schechter. She’s grateful to the school administration for staying open for two days after it was closed to the children; those two days were used to train the staff on Google Meet.
“And then the next day, we taught the kids how to do Google Meet; how to mute, how to raise their hands.” The children picked it up immediately. “They’re really amazing,” she said.
“I try to do live lessons,” she said. “The children really need to see me. Each time that I have a live lesson, I try to do it as I would do it in the classroom.” She taught the children about Pesach’s four names, for example, “and I had my props with me, and I basically put on a show in front of my computer, with them watching me.”
The grade has 37 children, divided into two classes. “When I teach live, it’s for both classes at the same time,” she said. “That’s a little challenging. I want to call on them all, so I have been altering some of the ways that I ask questions.” It’s much harder than it is in a physical classroom, when the barriers to speaking — for example, remembering that you have to unmute — are much lower, and the teacher is more able to see who really wants to say something and who desperately does not. “It’s more organic in a live class,” she said. “In a live class, I might ask them how many people were in Moshe’s family, and then let them turn and talk to their partners next to them about that. I can’t do that with a first grade class online.”
Ms. Berger teaches one live and one recorded lesson each day. “The live class is from 15 minutes to half an hour every day,” she said. “I would never sit and talk to my kids in the classroom for more than 15 minutes. We’d do a lesson, then an activity, and here it is condensed, with the activities in the recorded session. I try not to teach new materials then, and instead to explain more about what they really know.”
The children can watch the recorded sessions whenever they want to; the live ones also are recorded and posted.
Ms. Berger has two children, a fourth-grader and a kindergartener, and they also go to Schechter. “The most challenging thing I find about the live lessons is having my own kids here,” she said. “I went live at 9:30, and so did my son, so I wasn’t there to help, but my husband was. My daughter went live at 11:30.”
Like many families, the Bergers have more people than screens; “We have two computers at home, so when I went to school for those two days, I borrowed an iPad.”
She’s awed by the pride that her students take in their work — “I had an activity where they were to make or draw a model of the mishkan” — the tabernacle — “and I got a video from one of my kids. He made it, and he was dressed up in a white bathrobe and said he was a Kohen. He had a big piece of cardboard that he crawled through to get into the mishkan, and then he had a table for the bread inside it.
“And the support and encouragement that my co-teacher and I get from the first-grade parents has been amazing. They sent a video on Friday afternoon, spliced together with all the kids saying hello, that literally made me cry.”
Sophia Konstantine teaches middle-school science at Schechter. Once school was closed, she went back home to her parents’ house in Oneonta, and worked on figuring out how best to reach her students. “A lot of science is labs and demos, and it requires that you be in the room, so we tried to figure out how to bring it online and make it engaging.”
She decided to make her own YouTube videos. Had she ever done it before? “No,” she said cheerfully. “But I figured that if I could use my own face and voice, it could work.”
So she created a video that started with her spinning around in her chair at Schechter, and then she moved upstate, “and it’s me spinning around in my house. I think that the kids appreciated that it was me and my antics.
“It’s not a new me. It’s the way that I do things. I try to keep it fun, keep it light. I want to keep that going, but I can’t do it as easily online, so I tried this, and the kids want me to do it again. They are supersweet about it; they’re excited. It’s definitely weird for them, but they want to keep the connection, and they want to learn. This is just another way for them to do it.”
The video is about genetics; once she stops spinning in her chair, Ms. Konstantine uses graphics and drawings and silly effects to teach a real lesson about how alleles work. “It’s what I would have taught in school, and it’s pretty simple,” she said. “It pretty much covers the vocabulary.” It just so happened that it’s the start of a new unit, so she had the luxury of starting at the beginning. She’ll make another video about genetics, and some others showing experiments.
How long did it take her to record the video? “A long time,” she said; but she’s sure that the next one will take far less time. She’s also teaching live and recorded classes.
“It’s been a weird time,” she understated.
Ateres Bais Yaakov is an Orthodox girls’ school in New Hempstead; it has about 300 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Its dean, Rabbi Aaron Fink, who lives in Monsey, said that his goal is to try to maintain a full schedule online, and to have the girls learn more or less what they would have learned in person.
“We are employing the Zoom platform for high school, and it covers the full curriculum, including Regents courses as well as pre-Passover preparation courses,” he said. “We maintain almost a full schedule every day. We start the day with prayers, not in the same room but on the same screen.
“The elementary school is doing that class by class, with the second graders and up, and with the preschool and first grade. They are doing the haggadah, the chumash, and in secular studies the three Rs.
“We are also having virtual assemblies, with the principals speaking to groups of students. We have STEM courses, where we blend in Torah. The Torah portion we just read was about the mishkan; we had the students make their own mishkan at home, using Torah studies, design, and arts and crafts, and share them with videos and pictures that they upload to our site.”
It’s not like being in an actual classroom, Rabbi Fink acknowledged. “We have the same goals, but it’s not the same dynamic as in a regular classroom. And it’s also harder to judge, from what we see on the screen; the students seem relatively attentive, but it’s not the same as having a teacher focus on an individual’s needs. They can’t focus on them as directly.
“But since the kids are reviewing it at home with their parents, you can do a little more with a little less.”
It can be a challenge for some of his students’ families to have the equipment they need. “A family typically has more than one child, and a limited amount of devices in a house,” Rabbi Fink said. Teachers also need access to technology to teach, but often “the teachers themselves have children who also have their classes to attend online on their devices.”
Also, although “almost all of our students are part of the digital world, a few are not. Some parents want to keep safer,” so they don’t have computers or even smart phones, “but they do have phones, so they can just phone in.
“That’s parental discretion.
“What’s unique for us is that we made a commitment to harness the promise and potential of digital technology for the strengthening of Torah learning,” Rabbi Fink said. “We made that commitment before this happened. And we commit to the pursuit of chochma” — wisdom — “with warmth and sensitivity.”
As to the coronavirus, Rabbi Fink said, “We are not in control. If God is your copilot, you are in the wrong seat.”
The Sinai Schools has an extra challenge. It provides an individualized education to each of its approximately 170 students, each one of whom has special needs; those needs range over a wide area of developmental and sometimes physical issues. Their students, from first-graders to 21-year-olds, go to programs nestled inside seven different schools; five in Bergen County, one in Essex County, and one in the Bronx. (Well, okay, Riverdale.)
Because the students’ needs are so varied, because the education is so tailored, and because sometimes their disabilities make it harder for Sinai’s students to settle down in front of a screen than it is for other students — and it’s occasionally hard for everyone — Sinai’s educators have to consider even more variables than other schools’ do.
“I think that everyone is kind of struggling now with how to meet the needs of their kids and their staff in this new reality,” Rabbi Dr. Yisrael Rothwachs, Sinai’s dean, said. “Now it’s fully settling in that this might be a long run. Everybody is struggling with it. There is a lot of balancing of the needs of the students and the staff and the parents, who are expected to be home schooling and working at the same time.
“Those are all issues that all the schools are dealing with, and I see some of the great ideas that some of my colleagues have. It is beautiful.”
One of the first schools that had to be closed was SAR — that’s the one in Riverdale — which houses a Sinai program. “We learned from watching them,” Rabbi Rothwachs said.
But it’s not exactly the same. “At Sinai, the complications are exponentially more complicated, because of the kids that we have.”
It’s also often hard on families; this is a remarkably stressful time. There is a great deal to worry about — health and finances are looming sources of unease for many people — and it’s hard to be cooped up at home with schoolchildren, who miss their friends and their normal life. The stress of children whose needs are more intensive and can be disruptive at times just ratchets that stress up.
“Our kids have very complicated profiles,” Rabbi Rothwachs said. “Even when they are in school, even in a small group, of two or three or four, or even one on one, sometimes it is hard to get them to focus. So to be able to engage them in a distance learning model comes with significant challenges. We have tried our best to transpose the individualization that we use to this model.
“What that looks like in our kids’ day — we are trying to keep things as typical as possible. We are trying to maintain the same groups, the same structure and schedule, so that it should be predictable. So that our kids can have some degree of comfort.
“Many of them thrive on structure, and their lives have been turned inside out, just like the rest of us. Our kids need even more structure than most kids.”
Sinai is providing most of its teaching on Zoom. “Everybody has some access,” Rabbi Rothwachs said. “It’s a challenge, because not all families have enough screens. So some of the work that we are doing with kids is asynchronous” — not on Zoom. “It can be an assignment that they can do on their own.”
The process of downloading and uploading can be difficult for some students, but their parents are around, and they can help. That’s a good thing, Rabbi Rothwachs said. “We don’t want our kids to be at the screen the whole day. If parents can help their kids, that’s a feature, not a bug.”
Sinai provides a range of therapies — physical, occupational, speech, art, and music. “We are offering them virtually,” Rabbi Rothwachs said. “It’s not the same thing, but it’s the best we can do. The thought of losing all this time is scary. We are responsible for these children.” The school also gives them gym classes. “It is really important for our kids to get up. We encourage parents to go out with their kids.”
There are some rules, he said. “We have learned over time to give our parents and students strict guidelines about what we expect.” That’s particularly true when school is at home. Zoom’s camera shows the room behind the person, and that room can be distracting even to people who generally are not easily distracted. It’s always interesting to see what other people’s houses look like, and it can be particularly interesting to Sinai students. “We are trying to get parents to set their kids up on Zoom with a blank wall as a background.
“We also try to make sure that the expectations we have of kids in school are enforced at home. They should come to the table. They should be dressed in school clothes. They should have shoes on. They should sit on a chair. They should have all the tools they’ll need.” That’s all part of providing structure and discipline.
It is hard to provide some of the lessons that Sinai students need online. Often, they have to learn eye contact, a form of communication that comes easily to many other people. But Zoom allows them to try.
Like other schools’ offerings, some of Sinai’s classes are live and some are recorded. Also, “we have mental health professionals who work in a lot of different ways,” Rabbi Rothwachs said. “They are pushing into some of the groups, observing like they do in real life, and then supporting the teachers and administrators.
He is awed by “the amount of brainstorming and creativity and experimenting that is being done, and supported and spearheaded by our mental health professionals.”
As always, the school works closely with its students’ parents, “who have pretty heavy bags on their backs. Sometimes they have multiple children with special needs, and they have financial pressures because of those special needs.
“The professionals always support the parents to help make their homes more structured, helping them with strategies, helping them to understand where their children are coming from and developing a partnership through which we really can help their children.
“That always happens, but it’s happening on steroids right now.
“I’m most concerned about our parents. We have done a number of things to continue to support them. The most meaningful thing right now is that our mental health professionals and administrators are reaching out to them, not just by email but also by phone, multiple times a day. I check in with them too, to identify what the issues are in the home.
“There is nothing about Sinai that is pro forma,” he said.
Sinai has just begun a new program that will pair NCSY students from around the country with Sinai students; the members of the Orthodox Union youth group can sign up for an hour any weekday, from 4 to 8 p.m., to act as big siblings to the Sinai kids. (That’s an advantage to being online; distance doesn’t matter. Electrons move fast.) One of its many advantages is that it gives parents the chance to make dinner, and maybe even to unwind just a bit.
The brainchild of Rabbi Rothwachs’ 17-year-old daughter Dina, the idea has taken off quickly, he said.
Rabbi Rothwachs also is putting together some evening lectures, to be given by experts. Some, open to a general audience, will offer advice on raising special needs children; others will do more specific Sinai community building and offer some words of spiritual inspiration as well, he said.
His staff is working extraordinarily hard, he said; something he expects of them but is awed by; he’s trying to balance the school’s always high expectations with reality. This is new to everyone. He knows that the staff needs support too.
“This week, we had the first of a number of sessions on mindfulness for the staff with a professional, Nancy Siegel, and she did a half-hour workshop through Zoom,” he said. She teaches “breathing techniques, and it’s about understanding ourselves, to stop being so hard on ourselves, on the way we are reacting to stress. And it’s also a way to let people see each other.
He knew it was a good idea but it didn’t have much appeal for him personally. “I have to tell you that it is not my cup of tea,” he said. But leaders lead, among other ways, by example, so “I joined it. And after about 15 minutes, I felt much much more centered and relaxed. So I assume that anyone who came into it with a more open mind than I did got even more out of it than I did.
“I am looking forward to the next one,” Rabbi Rothwachs said.
The school’s art therapist will give therapy paint nights for small groups, he added. “We had people sign up in advance, and we sent them an art kit through Amazon. So everyone will have the same supplies — if maybe not the same skills.”
Something good has come out of the situation already, he added. “This is probably the first time in probably ever that our parents have had a real window into what their kids do every day. Now they can see how it happens, so there is a silver lining. Now the parents have a deeper perspective.”
Where does Sinai’s professionals’ strength come from? “A lot of help from God,” Rabbi Rothwachs said.
So far, there are no models for what the school is doing, but now “there are groups of special educators, specifically in the Jewish world, who are getting together — virtually, of course — and sharing ideas on how to reach children with special needs. I am sure that as time goes by there will be more models.”
There are many people to thank for Sinai’s success, Rabbi Rothwachs said. “Our staff is really amazing.
“And I am immensely proud to be part of our local Bergen County Jewish community. It is at times like these, hard times, that sometimes brings out the best in people. There are lots of different perspectives —from rabbis, school leaders, shul presidents — and they all came to an understanding and consensus. When I have the opportunity to participate in the forums, I can see firsthand how really amazing and special it is.
“It is something that I don’t know exists in the same way in other communities. It gives me strength to know that we have such a strong, unified Jewish community.”
Sam Fishman, Sinai’s executive director, agreed. “We are so blessed by this community, and beyond it,” he said. “People care so deeply. It is important that they know that we are taking care of their kids, because we exist because of this community. We are created by the community.”