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Jewish Schools Are Learning to Experiment in the Covid-19 Era
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Jewish Schools Are Learning to Experiment in the Covid-19 Era

'The question is not if things will shift, but when,' said an educational consultant.

Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week. She covers abuses of power in non-profit and religious settings. She heads up the Investigative Journalism Fund, an initiative to fill a gap in investigative and enterprise reporting. Reach her at hannah@jewishweek.org

At Luria Academy in Brooklyn, students practice distance learning. (Courtesy of Luria Academy)
At Luria Academy in Brooklyn, students practice distance learning. (Courtesy of Luria Academy)

When Luria Academy, a Montessori Jewish day school in Brownstone Brooklyn, contemplated the task of reopening its doors to students and teachers for the new school year, there were more questions than answers.

“We were never a school with kids sitting at desks in rows,” said Amanda Pogany, Luria’s head of school. Among other differences from a conventional classroom setting, a Montessori school allows students freedom of movement as students engage with a diverse variety of educational materials, rather than just pencils and paper.

With the new protocols set in place to slow the spread of Covid-19 — including strict social distancing guidelines — the challenges were obvious.

Students at Luria Academy in Brooklyn learn outdoors. (Courtesy of Luria Academy.)

“We didn’t want to head in that direction,” said Pogany, referring to a more conventional classroom setup. “Even though that was the easiest way to keep kids distant.”

Despite tough odds, Luria is among the hundreds of Jewish day schools that opened their doors to students over the past two weeks. To keep students and staff safe, day schools have devised a wide variety of new protocols and scheduling tactics, including (but not limited to) plexiglass desk guards, intermittent online learning, block scheduling, no more carpooling, outdoor learning, emergency planning and, of course, mandatory mask-wearing for students as young as three.

Hebrew sign reminds students to remain socially distant and wear a mask at all times. )Courtesy of Luria Academy)

Despite the hours of fastidious logistical planning, part of heading into this school year is expecting the unexpected, said Judith Talesnick, managing director of professional learning and growth for The Jewish Education Project, a non-profit that supports school and congregational learning. Over the past several months, Talesnick has worked with “dozens” of Jewish day schools across Manhattan, Long Island and Westchester to prepare for a school year like never before.

“The question is not if things will shift, but when,” Talesnick told The Jewish Week. She worked with teachers to prepare academically and emotionally for schedule changes, remote learning and social isolation in the case of exposure to the virus.

In the meantime, teachers are struggling to keep lesson plans rolling as circumstances change from one day to the next.

I’m teaching high school chemistry in a tent.

“I’m teaching high school chemistry in a tent,” said Arielle Zomberg, who teaches science at two different yeshiva high schools in Teaneck, N.J. Last week, her class was moved partially outdoors into a large tent (“think Bar Mitzvah tent,” she said).

“Relatively, it’s not a huge change but it completely shifts the way you teach,” said Zomberg, who said she’s become adept at teaching chemistry via Zoom over the last several months. “We’re constantly adjusting to make it safer and easier for the students, but that makes it a lot harder for the teachers. In a second, you have to completely transform what you’re doing. The way I would teach in a classroom is not the way I would teach remotely or in a tent.”

Teachers also face the challenge of creating safe environments while not “fixating” on the pandemic, Talesnick said.

“We’re emerging from a challenging time into something kind of familiar — school — but still unknown.”

Despite it all, teachers have been pleasantly surprised by how “excited” children are to be back in school, Talesnick said. “Teachers were concerned that it would be hard to connect with students through masks and with social distancing, but those fears don’t seem to be materializing,” she said. “Kids, and teachers, are relieved to have some consistency back. A lot has changed, but a lot is familiar.”

And much is unfamiliar.

Malka Alweis, a parent of four living in Teaneck, said back-to-school night over Zoom felt like “a science show at the Liberty Science center.” A Hebrew teacher wearing a plastic mask and face shield wheeled a desk into her daughter’s first grade classroom with a plexiglass contraption attached for additional protection. Students sat many feet away as the teacher taught from behind the partition.

Two of Alweis’ children attend Yeshivat He’atid, an innovative Jewish day school serving Modern Orthodox families in NJ’s Bergen County. Alweis described “seven different plans for safety all being implemented simultaneously.” Masks are worn all day long — including at recess and gym class — by children as young as four. During meal and snack times, children are not allowed to speak to one another while unmasked — instead, teachers play them videos in their classrooms while students eat in silence. One corner of the classroom is reserved for “mask breaks” if the “kids can’t take it anymore,” Alweis said. Learning is almost exclusively frontal, with students at their desks for most of the day, and music class, previously an extracurricular, is barred from school premises.

Covid adaptations at Yeshivat He’atid in Teaneck, NJ include masks, plastic barriers and social distancing. (Yeshivat He’atid/Facebook)

Working to implement the new normal goes far beyond the classroom, said Rabbi Jon Leener, the rabbi of Prospect Heights Shul, a diverse Modern Orthodox congregation in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. When Luria, the day school where the “majority of congregants send their kids,” put out a statement requiring those participating in High Holiday services to maintain 12-feet of distance between themselves and other attendants or quarantine for 14 days, Leener had to reimagine yet again what Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur services would look like.

(According to new Center for Disease Control guidelines, to safely participate in a singing activity individuals must remain 12 feet apart from one another. Luria administration decided to include singing at High Holiday services in this category.)

“With schools opening almost simultaneously to the High Holidays, the interconnectivity of the Jewish community comes into focus,” said Rabbi Leener, who will lead services in an 10,000-square-foot empty lot covered by a tent down the block from the synagogue building. People who want to sing during the High Holiday services need to indicate that preference before arrival and must remain 12 feet apart. “There will be some space for them around the periphery of the tent,” said Rabbi Leener.

‘It feels like a post-apocalyptic novel,’ said a parent.

Those who do not intend to sing can remain six feet apart, he said. “I wouldn’t say mumble, but non-singing prayer-goers should recite the prayers in a way that is audible for themselves but not others.”

In her children’s school, singing is also no longer allowed, said Alweis.

“It feels like a post-apocalyptic novel,” said Alweis. “No music. No singing. No talking allowed during lunch or snack. This is what my first-grader thinks is normal.”

Despite it all, her kids are grateful to be back. “For me, as a parent, this is super sad,” said Alweis. “But the kids are so happy to be back at school. I’m trying not to let my own knowledge of what they’ve lost get in the way.”

At Luria, nearly all the furniture has been removed from classrooms to make room for students to move around, Pogany said. Flexible seating options are available and students were asked to bring many of their own Montessori materials to minimize sharing. Large classrooms are divided in half with plexiglass dividers.

Each class, which includes students from a range of ages and grade levels, was divided into “pods” of between eight and 15 students before the start of the academic year. Students and parents are encouraged to remain within these small social pods even outside of school grounds. If students are found to be fraternizing with peers outside their pod without upholding strict social distancing guidelines, they are required to stay out of school for two weeks. Masks are expected to be worn by all, even the pre-schoolers, and the teachers for younger children wear special scrub-like smocks that can be removed at the end of the day.

“We want to be extra careful to keep school open as long as possible, especially after all the work put in to open,” said Pogany.

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