For Perelman Jewish Day School, the immediate focus was to provide all its students, staff and teachers with the support they needed. But it also was determined to ensure its students and their families would continue to be connected to the greater Jewish community.
“For elementary school children, moving into virtual education has a great deal of change,” said Judy Groner, Perelman’s head of school. “Kids desperately want to be with each other and their teachers, and we know how important it is for them to be in a social environment. Our biggest challenge from the outset has been maintaining the strong sense of community we have in the physical space. And I think we’ve done well in translating that to a two-dimensional format.”
Turning elementary school curriculum into a virtual platform was a major challenge, and Perelman staff only had three days to do it. Knowing it would be a quick turnover, Groner and her team began getting in touch with Jewish day schools in the New York region that were a few weeks ahead in the process.
Along with learning how to accommodate their students’ needs, staff had to educate an entire faculty that didn’t yet have the technical skills to teach virtually. Like most of us, they also had to work around many technical issues and glitchy Zoom platforms.
Through it all, Groner and her staff maintained as much of their mission and the school’s culture as they possibly could, knowing that children thrive in a clear framework and structured schedule. They continued their traditional morning routine of having children read the Pledge of Allegiance and singing Hatikvah, followed by Milat Hayom (the Hebrew word of the day). While waiting for everyone to log on, the staff plays Israeli music and the kids chat about it in the chatbox.
The most significant change to the morning routine is how much families are getting involved. Groner said that many parents and even grandparents are now tuning in regularly, allowing Perelman to enlarge and engage more people in Jewish education. “It was a little unexpected, but positive!” she added with a laugh.
From there, students move on to their virtual classrooms, where they get plenty of face-to-face time with their teachers. Students are also connected to other children across the region who are going through similar experiences, allowing them to meet and engage with peers they likely wouldn’t cross paths with.
Perelman encourages students and their families to continue to engage in Jewish life together by holding Kabbalat Shabbat services hosted by a local rabbi. The services have been so popular that parents have requested them to continue throughout the summer.
Through it all, the students have been flourishing.
“What we’ve really seen is just how flexible and resilient our kids are,” Groner said.
“They have adjusted in the most beautiful ways.” She noted that the gesher ceremony — where fifth graders move on to middle school — was particularly creative. The graduating students chose to write about all the new responsibilities they have learned, such as feeling held accountable, valuing education and taking the time to reflect.
Many parents have enjoyed the opportunity to better connect with their children’s education and their Jewish journeys.
“The staff and teachers are Perelman created a strong learning environment for our children at home,” Perelman parents Allison and Stu Goodman said. “We were able to teach our kids the value of keeping a schedule by learning how to use a digital calendar, navigating technology and holding themselves accountable for their class. While there is still a great deal of anxiety for our kids and for ourselves, we’re grateful to have a community of educators who care so much for our kids and their well-being, both emotionally and intellectually.”
Summer has begun and now Perelman is shifting its focus on how best to safely reopen in the fall.
The plan is to start school two weeks early with a phased entry, beginning with youngest children who will need time to become adjusted to new rules, with six-foot social distancing. Starting earlier will also allow teachers to take advantage of the warmer weather by holding outdoor classes, lunches and playtime. With the knowledge that a second wave of the virus could hit as the weather gets cooler, getting a head start on the school year could be incredibly beneficial.
The other challenges related to reopening the schools are not insignificant and will be worked on over the summer. Perelman will be retooling its curriculum so it is ready to adapt to any possible situation — in-person, virtual or a hybrid. The school will be providing teachers with continued professional development and giving them a chance to rest from a very difficult year.
“It’s been a difficult few months, but thanks to our hardworking staff and the continued support of our board we’ve been able to get through it together,” Groner said. “But the challenges loom large. The next five to 10 years will be difficult for Jewish day schools. It will require us to dig deep and truly dedicate ourselves to preserve Jewish identity and leadership.”
What Groner hopes will be a lasting impact of this time is how the entire Jewish community has strengthened by coming together and reinforced the benefits of a united Jewish community.
“Jewish day school is not cheap and the comprehension of the value beyond the education to the value of the support that can be found in a Jewish community has really become very clear to all our families,” she said. “We’re seeing how this thirst for knowledge and information similarly yields to a thirst for spiritual need. Our children also have strong spiritual needs, and it’s been very moving to see that displayed and to see how we can offer it to them and to their families.”