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The ABCs (and Fs) of Distance Learning
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The ABCs (and Fs) of Distance Learning

Families and faculty get used to the Zoom classroom — and consider its sustainability for the long term.

Amy Sara Clark writes about politics and education. A Columbia Journalism School graduate, she's worked at CBS News, The Journal News, The Jersey Journal, Mom365, JTA and Prospect Heights Patch. She comes to journalism from academia where she earned a master's degree in European History with a focus on Vichy France.

Let the virtual parties and milestone celebration continue until we can meet once more in person.
Wikimedia Commons
Let the virtual parties and milestone celebration continue until we can meet once more in person. Wikimedia Commons

For many area day schools, the first weeks of distance learning were a sprint of learning new platforms and adapting curricula, figuring out what would work in a video classroom and how to help parents and students master the steep learning curve at home.

But now that families and faculty have begun to settle into life under coronavirus routine, and the prospect of social distancing has stretched from weeks to months, school communities are wondering how sustainable these online classrooms, however robust, will be over the long haul.

“Obviously I would love for my kids to be in [a brick-and-mortar] school, but [the online-learning platform] was easy to navigate through. I think they planned it out well,” said Ren’ee Kahn-Bresler, a photographer whose 6-year-old and 12-year-old sons go to Luria Academy of Brooklyn (where this reporter sends her third and fourth graders).

So far it’s working, she said, but she’s not sure for how long. “I don’t know if the kids will get tired sitting in front of a screen.”

And she’s not sure how parents trying to work at home will manage.                 

“Because I’m not working it was OK, but if you have a little one, I don’t know how you could do it. A 6-year-old is not going to know how to use a MacBook. … You have to be sitting right there,” she said.

Many day schools are running their classrooms on Zoom, the online meeting platform that allows students to log into a virtual classroom. Once there, live video thumbnails of each student appear on one side of the screen and a large image of the teacher or speaker on the other. Students can be muted unless called on, or everyone can remain unmuted, allowing for a more rapid back and forth.

Teachers email parents and/or students materials to be printed out, while others put up class schedules and links to materials on speedily constructed distance-learning websites. Luria has constructed the Luria@home website that serves as the students’ virtual home base. On it are links to Zoom’s virtual classrooms, class schedules, pages to schedule meetings with teachers, advice for parents and a wealth of resources for extracurricular learning and recreational activities.

Preschoolers are watching videos of their teachers or meeting up through Zoom several times a day for stories, songs, phys ed and even arts-and-crafts projects. And older kids are continuing to work on the same rigorous curricula that they had in their brick-and-mortar classrooms.

By the second week of at-home instruction, many parents had come to realize that their new, dual role as assistant teacher/work-from-home professional was taking a toll.

Many teachers, meanwhile, are trying to engage their classes on video when they have their own children at home,

“I was just on a conference call,” said a teacher at a Modern Orthodox day school in Bergen County who asked to remain anonymous because he is not authorized to speak to the media. “One of the teachers was overwhelmed by all of her teaching responsibilities coupled with her responsibilities as a mother and a wife. Normally she’s a teacher in school and a mommy at home. And now she’s both at home. And she’s finding it hard to juggle that.”

Jewish schools have earned praise for adjusting to the new virtual reality, but also some backlash. A 90-second video of Shiri Keningsberg Levi, an Israeli mother of four and a special-education teacher herself, ranting about the nightmare of trying to help four children with multiple subjects, has gone viral. Titled “If Corona Doesn’t Kill Us, Distance Learning Will,” garnered millions of hits around the world.

“I go from one child to the other,” Keningsberg Levi complains. “Here’s science, here’s math. Forget it! How am I supposed to know everything? Now our children will find out how dumb we are. It’s not right, really.

“Please,” she concludes, “turn it down. Foot off the gas. Leave them be.”

That so many schools were able to put together the distance learning plans and platforms so quickly was thanks, in large part, to Rabbi Avi Bloom, technology director at Salanter Akiba Riverdale Academy in the Bronx, the first school in the New York area to close due to the virus. Even before the virus was discovered in the school community, Bloom watched events in China and Italy, and by the time it began to spread in Europe, he was investigating distance learning platforms and ordering headphones. Right after the Riverdale school closed, SAR’s distance learning program was up and running.

Soon other Jewish schools adapted SAR’s approach, offering interactive programming instead of simply sharing worksheets or assignments and asking students to email them back.

“The schools really did an amazing job,” said Alexandra “Sasha” Fox, a New Rochelle resident who has a ninth grader at SAR and a preschooler and seventh grader at Westchester Torah Academy. As the schools made the decision to close they kept parents constantly updated, she said, and “literally the next day they [the classes] were on Zoom.”

Her kids said they felt like they were “actually in school.”

While many older students have full school days of almost exclusively Zoom classes, many teachers in younger grades have been offering a mix of pre-recorded lessons, videos and in-person Zoom sessions.

Reuven Blau’s 3-year-old son, who goes to Mazel, an Orthodox day school in Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn, has a morning meeting on Zoom. It includes a group Shacharit service, donations to the family tzedakah boxes and circle time, where students this week are showing off the Passover Haggadah pages they’ve been decorating.

Carolyn Koch, who has a second grader at Yavneh Academy, a Modern Orthodox day school in Bergen County, said her school has prerecorded programs and, like Mazel, live morning prayers on Zoom. “They also have cooking activities, though we haven’t checked that out yet,” she wrote.

The anonymous Bergen County day schoolteacher said he has been pleasantly surprised by how similar the Zoom experience has been to his regular classes. Still, he said, “It’s more challenging to get them engaged. [Normally] we ask them questions and it’s a back and forth. It’s hard to have a back and forth online.”

But there are advantages too: If there are noisy students in the class, he can just mute them.

“Everyone would agree that this is less than ideal, but we’re making the best of the situation with the tools that we have,” he said. And, he added, “the kids are buying into it.”

Asked how his family would get through an extended period of isolation, SAR parent Andrew Small, who has children in fourth, ninth and 12th grades, laughed a bit and said they had no other choice.

“I think we’re going to have to adapt,” he said. “I think we may be doing this for a long time.”

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