For the heads of area Jewish day schools, summer vacation is just the eye of the storm they were thrust into in March.
And like good sea captains, they are charting a strategic course to safely navigate staff and students back to their brick-and-mortar classrooms. If that isn’t possible, then the input from community surveys and emails from parents over the past four months will help shape the distance learning experience in the 2020-2021 school year.
Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville recently published a roadmap for “return to campus readiness” featuring an assortment of tiered flow charts. These charts lay out specific safety precautions and health monitoring procedures based on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They also present how learning will potentially unfold remotely, whether it is necessary from the start of the school year or
sporadically due to COVID spikes.
They even feature potential “hybrid models” for on-campus learning to facilitate social distancing. The hybrid models include alternating days or weeks when groups of students learn on campus versus remotely. Another model brings the youngest grades back to campus en masse while the older grades work remotely until they are phased in over time.
Even a roadmap does not allay all concerns, however, said Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, the head of school. While the school already has pre-COVID experience with children who need to learn remotely for health reasons, creating a policy for staff who are concerned about health risks is a new challenge.
“Wearing face masks is something that’s being recommended, but how do you get 5, 6, 7 year olds to wear their masks throughout the day?” Malkus said. “We are working with the faculty to see who will feel comfortable returning, and realistically some will and some won’t. We are considering how to address those individual decisions that people will make.”
At Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School of the Nation’s Capital, outgoing head of school Naomi Reem and incoming head of school Deborah Skolnick-Einhorn are working to prepare for the fall. Skolnick-Einhorn said that since the plan is to break classes down throughout the campus, even taking over administrative offices, there will likely be a need for
additional teachers and teacher’s assistants.
The approach at Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville has been to present the ideas for reopening and continued remote learning, prepared by the school’s COVID-19 task force, for community input.
In an email to Berman parents this month, Rabbi Yossi Kastan, the head of school, wrote that the task force is looking at a full student body return to campus, a combination of virtual and in-person learning and an enhanced virtual learning experience.
“As the situation evolves, we will continue to update our scenarios and models, and we will share those out to you,” he said. “Please help us map out our plans by answering our parent survey.”
In addition to academic needs, administrators are thinking about the emotional and social needs of students going into the fall in the event of continued distance learning. After all, said Malkus, school is set up to be an in-person experiment in community.
“While the distance learning is different than in person, it’s been at a really high level and I don’t have a concern that students are missing out on essential skills,” he said. “The hardest piece is how you keep people connected, and that’s what the teachers have spent the most time trying to figure out.”
For Kastan that meant a strong focus on “synchronous learning,” or students learning together at the same time in a virtual classroom setting.
“From the get go, we felt strongly that we needed to preserve as much normalcy for our students as possible,” and this was a way to do it, he said. “While we are incredibly proud of the work that was done, we know that starting the year virtually will look a lot different than ending the year virtually.”
Another way of preserving connections in the school community was keeping school traditions going, even if it meant adapting them to an online platform. This year’s Arts Chailights, the annual schoolwide celebration of the visual arts, drama, music, STEM and design at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, managed to still feature galleries as well as live performances, entirely online. For Berman students, the Zoom edition of the elementary school’s weekly Shabbat oneg program had children singing the Pledge of Allegiance, “Hatikvah” and “Acheinu” together in a coordinated cacophany across
the Washington area.
New programs are seeding new traditions as well. Milton’s weekday b’nai mitzvah celebrations via Zoom, complete with Torah readings and a candy-filled background screen, have morphed from a stop-gap measure into a new tradition Reem thinks will continue after the pandemic is over.
Even if schools go back to campus, the fate of community-building staples such as team sports and open house nights are still in flux. But the past four months have proven that administrators and staff are committed to using every means they can find to help their school communities weather any storm together.
“We were humbled by the strength of our community,” said Kastan. “Even thought we were physically distant, the closeness we felt during this time was unbelievable.”