Day schools ready to welcome back students

Lindsey Tilles, center, a junior kindergarten teacher at Gesher Jewish Day School, leads a circle of students last school year.

At Gesher Jewish Day School in Fairfax, pre-kindergarten teacher Lindsey Tilles said she is hoping that when students return Aug. 30 things will be a little closer to the pre-pandemic normal.

Gesher had in-person classes throughout the 2020-21 school year, but this year classes will be able to mix more and go out on the playground together.
“For pre-K, the thing we’re most excited about is we’re getting to have all of the kids eating in one room for snacks and for lunch,” Tilles said.

Millions of students will be returning to classrooms across the country this fall, some for the first time since March 2020. But the classrooms they’re coming back to will be different from the ones they left, and so will the teachers.

Masks, social distancing and increased safety protocols are among the changes from pre-pandemic school that will greet students. The way teachers teach, and the technology they use to teach, have also changed in the past year and a half.

The three Jewish day schools interviewed for this story are all planning to return to five-day-a-week classes at the end of the month, but will bring with them their experiences from last year, with an increased focus on health and safety and greater use of technology in the classroom.

“At the beginning of the last school year there were a lot of unknowns, a lot of trial and error. Our school has torn down walls, so each classroom used to be two classrooms,” Tilles said.

Because of uncertainties about the touch transmission of COVID-19 at the start of the school year, books were treated as one-time use, Tilles said.

“The kids would go get a book, and they knew we had a ‘yuck bin,’ so when they were finished they would put the book in the ‘yuck bin’, and it would have to sit for three days without being touched,” Tilles said.

Also, students were not able to do show and tell, which Tilles said is important to young students’ social development, but they found a way around it.

“So we had parents sending in pictures to us, and we would display them on the projectors, for all the kids to see. It was a really good way to get them to open up and speak to the whole class, because getting to see their things on the big screen was so exciting,” Tilles said.

Tilles said she was impressed by the resiliency of her young students.

“This [past] year, our class just blew me away, how well they were able to adjust. It showed me how strong and terribly intelligent these 4 year olds are,” Tilles said. “It’s opened up a window of possibilities of what we can do in the classroom.”

At Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School of the Nation’s Capital, the plan is for all students to return to a full week of in-person classes this year, beginning with the start of school on Aug. 31, according to Ronit Greenstein, director of communications,

Last year, only students in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten returned for a full week of in-person classes while students in other grades had in-person lessons three days a week, with the other two days held virtually.

Greenstein said classes were often held outdoors or in rented space.

“In the beginning, we really tried to use the outdoor space to the greatest degree possible,” Greenstein said. “Teachers would integrate where they were into the curriculum and make it part of learning,”

Gradually, the number of in-person days was increased, Greenstein said.

Students at Berman Hebrew Academy, in Rockville, began the school year virtually, but returned for in-person learning in October 2020. However, things were different when they returned, said second grade general studies teacher Rebecca Kugler. Desks were spaced in rows six feet apart, materials were not shared, and classmates who were sick, in quarantine or learning remotely attended class via Zoom.

“I had a bunch of kids in class, but then I also had my friends on the computer, who were home sick, who I was also teaching,” Kugler said. “I’d have to create my lessons digitally, so that I could send it to them so they’d have the same worksheets as the students in class.”

Kugler said students adapted easily to the changes, and to the host of new rules and safety measures that accompanied their return to in-person learning.

“They did a great job of following the rules, they knew exactly what was expected of them. The students were really amazing,” Kugler said. “I think that kids are way more resilient than we give them credit for.”

This year, when students return to school on Aug. 31, things will look a little more normal — desks are in groups again, and Kugler has brought back games, manipulatives and books to her classroom.

“I would say that the feeling of the classroom, in terms of warmth and sensitivity, is the same, and I think that we did an amazing job of creating a space [last year] where we had a fully-functioning classroom, and it didn’t matter that we didn’t have extra tables or games, but now I’m able to bring in my manipulatives.”

But some things will still be different; students will still need to be masked, socially distanced and not share materials. Kugler said there are benefits to some of the ways in which class will be different this fall.

“There were real benefits to incorporating more technology into our teaching, and I think that will carry with us in terms of our creativity and how we create lessons, balancing technology and hands-on work,” Kugler said.

One of the biggest changes for teachers will be in mindset, Kugler said. “We overcame something. We know that this year will be great because of what we did last year,” Kugler said. “We’re going to be OK.”

Kugler said she is proud of the way teachers all over have adapted to the changes and learned new modes of teaching.

“I think there is definitely a camaraderie among teachers, no matter what school. We’ve all been through something that was so unexpected,” Kugler said. “I feel proud of what we all did, and I think it really unified teachers everywhere to have that feeling of, ‘We owe it to the kids to come in. We know we can do it, even though it’s scary, and it can be done,’ and I think we have done an amazing job.”

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