Lisa Richman has more than 40 years of experience in Jewish education, but has never seen a school year quite like this one.
The religious school director at Temple Beth Hillel-El in Wynnewood is preparing to welcome students with masks, social distancing and stringent cleaning protocols, including constant hand sanitizing.
Synagogues like BHBE spent the spring and summer strategizing about how to reopen their Jewish education programs. As fall approaches, they are preparing to implement strict safety procedures and improve the online classes.
Many synagogues assembled task forces composed of board members, teachers, parents and usually at least one medical health professional. Those groups relied on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, state guidelines, local school district procedures and input from synagogue members to determine how to reopen safely.
CDC guidelines recommend that in-person learning take place in small groups of students to contain potential outbreaks. It also discourages students from sharing learning materials and promotes frequent cleaning of classrooms. Masks and social distancing are a must.
BHBE plans to bring students back for in-person instruction in small groups on Sundays and hold classes outside as much as possible. Wednesdays will stay virtual throughout the year to prevent kids traveling between Lower Merion schools and the synagogue.
Main Line Reform Temple Religious School plans to offer only virtual learning at the start of the school year and give families the chance to transition to in-person classes in October. It is developing both online and in-person programs so parents may choose to continue to have children learn remotely.
Rabbi Kevin Kleinman, director of education, said the school has shifted its schedule to allow for smaller classroom sizes in accordance with CDC guidelines.
Some Hebrew schools are moving more cautiously and still evaluating options. For example, as of press time, Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen had not yet released its reopening plans.
“What we are hoping for is that when the fall begins we will have had more time to plan and prepare to give our families that really high-quality experience that they are looking for if it is indeed the case that we have to be virtual,” said Aaron Nielsenshultz, director of religious school at Beth Or.
Many parents have told him that they want their children to get a meaningful Jewish education via in-person classes. Others say religious school is not a top priority as they try to balance helping their children with remote learning and working full time.
“I’ve had some parents who have come right out and said, ‘We’re going to take a year off,’ or ‘We’re going to focus on secondary school,’ which I understand,” he said.
In addition to creating safety plans for in-person classrooms, school leaders are investing heavily in professional development for staff to ensure online learning meets students’ needs.
Richman has used using her background in Jewish education to train her staff.
“I was at Perelman [Jewish Day School] for 42 years, and my hobby was technology for Jewish studies instruction,” she said.
Richman and her staff are joining other synagogues for a four-session digital boot camp. The program is designed to boost technological proficiency and help teachers create lesson plans for virtual Jewish learning.
MLRT staff are also attending professional development classes that will improve the quality of remote learning.
“The spring gave us an opportunity to experiment with online learning, so that we could figure out how best to connect with each student in our school, give them a sense of community and provide the robust content that we aim for every year,” Kleinman said.
He noted that online classes need to be taught with high energy to keep students engaged outside of a normal classroom environment. Using Zoom breakout groups, polls and games is important.
“Those are all tools to increase the engagement of the students while they’re participating online. It needs to be a two-way learning platform, not just the student sitting passively behind the desk,” he said.
Nielsenshultz, who has worked with anxious students in the past, knows that it is important to prepare staff to address students’ emotional needs.
The pandemic has caused increased stress, anxiety and fear among children deprived of their normal routines, which can impact their engagement and behavior in class. He said his top priority is making sure they feel safe and supported.
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