Families seek stability and silver linings as self-isolation continues

Jonathan Zakar, 9, helps his sister Emily, 6, with her remote schoolwork. Photo courtesy of David Zakar.

An average day last week for David Zakar consisted of “trying to get work done while making sure my kids are getting school done, and maybe getting them outside and fed once in a while,” he said via email.

A software project manager for a defense contractor, Zakar likes going into the office but can work from home in Aspen Hill as needed. His wife, Debbie, is a mechanical engineer for the Department of Defense who primarily works outside the home but is doing substantial amounts of telework now. Their children Jonathan, 9, and Emily, 6, attend Berman Hebrew Academy — or at least they did, before the school moved online March 16. Now, they go to Berman@Home.

Across the Jewish community, and the country, families are discovering what it’s like to be together 24/7. Following the call to self-isolate, parents are navigating the novel experience of directly overseeing their children’s studies while enforcing social distancing from friends and extended family for the kids. And trying to get their own work done on top of that.

Gesher Jewish Day School’s front office administrator Sharon Montanez-LeDuc is home in Woodbridge with her 6- and 8-year-old children, both Gesher students. Every morning around 8:30, they log onto Google Classroom to see the day’s schedule. They were sent home March 13 with packets for study, she said, and they’ve had General Studies, Judaics and Hebrew work to do every school day since.


The Orlofsky family in Silver Spring has one daughter back home from Stern College for Women in New York and two teens studying from home as well. Izzy, 13, is a seventh-grader at Berman Hebrew Academy. Elana, 16, is in ninth grade at Shearim, the life skills program at Sulam.

“Other than just providing a structure to their day and continuing with what they were learning in school, the sense of stability and comfort that the kids feel when they see their friends and teachers online every day brings me so much comfort in this difficult time,” said mom Ahuva. “I have spoken to friends who have kids in other schools and communities whose kids schools are doing far less than ours are. We are very lucky.”

Aaron Orlofsky works in real estate and Ahuva is a stay-at-home mom, but with older children childcare wasn’t a concern for the family. Instead, Ahuva wondered whether the special education programming for Elana, who has Down syndrome, would transition well to a virtual learning format. “The program is typically so hands on,” she said. “Elana thrives on stability and knowing what to expect, so my concern was that this would be the hardest for her.”

“I am so impressed at how the Sulam faculty are able to keep this as similar to school as possible, while still teaching the kids that sometimes plans change and they need to be flexible,” she said.

Elana Orlofsky chats jumps on a Berman Buddies virtual lunch chat. Photo by Ahuva Orlofsky/Facebook.

Balancing acts

Amanda and Asher Siegelman also live in Silver Spring. Their daughter, Miriam, is a kindergartener at the Torah School of Greater Washington (TSGW), which is conducting classes via the conferencing platform Zoom like Berman and other day schools.

“I’m happy she’s in kindergarten, so it’s not like a ton of work,” said Amanda. “It’s definitely a very manageable amount. They try to do some live chats in her Hebrew class, and the teacher sent recordings of the simple morning prayers.” Amanda focuses on secular studies with Miriam in the morning while Asher takes Hebrew in the afternoon.

Amanda is a professional recruiter and was already working remotely, so working from home was not an issue with her employer. Asher, on the other hand, is an intern at Spring Grove Hospital Center in Catonsville and needs a certain number of clinical hours to complete his PhD. in psychology. He has to balance time with patients at the hospital with the need to be home so Amanda, the family’s breadwinner, can get work done.

“I told my company I am not going to be available [at certain times] and it’s hard because I still have clients and colleagues reaching out to me,” said Amanda. “My colleagues, a lot of them are married and have a wife at home doing everything for them, so I am in kind of a unique situation.”

Facilitating at-home curricula and Zoom classrooms are not something public school parents are dealing with just yet, although that is likely coming.
Andi Shuman Wirpel’s 11-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter attend Fairfax County schools, and she said they were essentially granted the equivalent of a two-week snow day while the school system prepares to launch remote learning. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) announced this week that there will be no return to school campuses across the state for the rest of the school year.

Montgomery County’s plan is to launch a distance learning system “that will bring some degree of normalcy to the lives of our 166,000 prekindergarten-Grade 12 students” by March 30, according to a message to the community posted March 22 on the MCPS website. At press time, there was no word on whether on-site classes would be cancelled for the rest of the current school year.

In Rockville, Amanda Manes’ 4- and 6-year old children have a daily schedule that mother, who works from home as a freelance attorney, rattles off like a cruise director: free play and TV; structured work (workbooks and flashcards); lunch (TV while waiting); outside time; artwork; and family time once their dad, director of operations for an education tech company, is done working from home. Their oldest goes to a public elementary school, so he is in snow-day mode, while their daughter’s private preschool holds Zoom sessions for the kids.

Shuman Wirpel, on the other hand, is a government contractor and her husband, William, is a program manager for a company that does museum exhibits. After leaving the kids on their own the first day without school, she took off work to stay with them for the first week, and then this week her husband teleworked. “The contract that I’m on does not allow for telework and needs to be modified,” she said. “This is an extraordinary circumstance.”

“I know personally I need some legal perspective on this new FMLA [Family Medical Leave Act] and see if there is anything I can take advantage of from a financial perspective,” she continued. “FMLA protects your job, and that’s fine and dandy, but is there something I can count on to get some income if I can’t work?”

Unlimited free time is every child’s dream, but Shuman Wirpel’s kids
have told her they want to go back to school. What’s really hard for them is the social distancing, she said. To compensate for the lack of social interaction, the kids communicate with their friends by phone and online, taking virtual visitors on tours of their house and
displaying treasured personal possessions.

‘The best day ever’

When asked what their primary concern is these days, Shuman Wirple said that hers is “the unknown.”

“There’s just too many things we don’t know. We know there will be a new normal but we don’t know what it’s going to look like,” she said.

For both David Zakar and Amanda Manes, the potential of their parents or in-laws contracting COVID-19 is a top worry. Zakar is also observing the emotional toll of social distancing. “My son is an introvert, and is doing fine thus far with distance learning. But my daughter is a decided extrovert, and really misses the in-person interaction with her teachers and friends. Both of them are bearing up well, but you can start seeing some of the emotional cracks,” he said.

“I’m concerned, if this is long term, how this is going to affect my job,” said Amanda Siegelman. A struggling economy means people won’t be looking to recruit new talent, her forte. The Siegelmans have saved up money to make aliyah in the near future, and Amanda is nervous they will eventually need to dip into those savings.

“I am worried about the multiple nonprofits that I care deeply about — some of which I am on the board of — that I know will be coming into a hard time fundraising and keeping their budgetary commitments for this year,” said Orlofsky. “Even after this is over, there will be some real donor fatigue, and that concerns me deeply.”

Despite the stress and uncertainty, multiple parents shared positive experiences and lessons as well.

“We’ve had more family meals in a week than I think we’ve had in a month,” observed Zakar.

“Lots of great family time,” said Orlofsky.

Miriam Siegelman (pictured with family dog Gizmo) on a walk with her parents in the woods behind their home in Kemp Mill. Photo courtesy of Amanda Siegelman.

Despite the fact his daughter’s social life “is very restricted right now,” Asher thinks she is enjoying the attention from her parents. “I remember one day I took her out and we went into the woods,” he said, “and we were talking about plants and we were walking and we decided to clean up the creek from the garbage that was in it.”

“Afterward, she told me, ‘Abba, that was the best day ever!’” he said.

“It’s been a great experience getting to see how she learns,” Amanda Siegelman added.

And unusual circumstances can lead to humorous situations. Shuman Wirpel’s family was online for Congregation Olam Tikvah’s Havdalah service when their candle set off the home’s smoke detector.

“You can tell how many times we did Havdallah in this house,” Shuman Wirpel joked.

Luckily, the family was on mute during the hubbub, but her son did take it upon himself to inform the congregation what was happening via group chat.

CORRECTION 03.25.20 5:08 P.M.: This article mistakenly stated that Russ Manes is working in DC; his office has been moved to teleworking only for the past two weeks. Also, the younger Manes child is in private, not public, preschool, and her school is holding Zoom sessions.

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