Jewish Educators Talk About How Things Have Changed During Pandemic


Gan students at the Stern Center with teacher Marlee Glustoff | Courtesy of Perelman Jewish Day School

One educator said it was like trying to put the wheels on a moving car. Another said it was more akin to building a plane midflight. Both of them were talking about teaching during a pandemic, and other educators at local Jewish educational institutions gave fairly similar accounts of what the last 10 months have been like.

After a hectic spring, when some schools were better prepared than others for the new reality of pandemic education, the summer provided an opportunity to survey students, meet with other teachers and develop a solid game plan for the fall.

Some schools chose to meet in person, and others remained online. All were forced to try new things, even as they tried to preserve as much of their pre-pandemic practices as they could.
Now, as many schools kick off their second full semester in the pandemic, educators talked to the Exponent about adjusting to unprecedented conditions.

Leslie Kornsgold, associate principal and sixth-eighth grade social studies, Abrams Hebrew Academy
For a brief moment at Abrams, students were allowed to bring their cell phones to school, a break with long-established policy. The thinking, according to Kornsgold, was that students would need extra downtime during such a fraught school year, spending five school days a week wearing masks.

This didn’t last long, and the phones once again became contraband.

In Kornsgold’s eyes, the brief cell phone era is emblematic of Abrams’ approach to pandemic education. When in doubt, give students structure, and show them that expectations are the same as they always have been.

It’s easier said than done. Most clubs are out this year, and so is art and music class. Older students know that they’ll likely miss out on their class trip to Israel and other privileges afforded the biggest kids.

“So there are disappointments,” Kornsgold said. “But they’re resilient. They’re making the most out of it all. And we are just really gratified by that.”

Rachel Scheinmann, Humanities Department chair, Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy
Teachers at Barrack, Scheinmann said, had a pretty good sense of how to use teaching platforms like Canvas and Google Meets prior to the pandemic. What kept things moving in the spring was the fact that Barrack had an education technology officer on staff, allowing everyone to go from basic literacy in those programs to fluency without too much disruption.

Last fall, Scheinmann’s students found writing papers to be a less daunting task, as the immediacy of Google Docs-based edits gave them ample time to write. It also keeps them from potentially forgoing help because they didn’t want to give up a lunch break to talk over a paper.

And in Google Meets breakout rooms, where Scheinmann will drop in on group conversations, she’s pleased by what she’s hearing.
“Whenever I go in, everyone’s really active and engaged with each other and doing their work,” she said.

That said, Scheinmann still prefers when her students are at the building, as Barrack students have been on a rotating basis.

Elsie R. Stern, vice president for academic affairs and associate professor of Bible, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College
Stern figured that there would be a grace period at the beginning of the pandemic, three weeks or so to make some decisions about how RRC would move forward before students grew tired of full-day academic schedules that were simply moved to Zoom.

“It took a week,” she laughed.

RRC’s students now spend no more than four-and-a-half hours per day on Zoom. Based on student and faculty feedback, one-sided lectures are kept to a minimum; students have reported that smaller, hevruta-size discussions yield more than those of a full-class Zoom discussion or written forum discussion. Students are encouraged to take a lighter academic load.

Avoiding burnout has been the name of the game at RRC thus far, and will be going forward.

Bryan Kirschner, fifth-grade general studies teacher, Perelman Jewish Day School Stern Center
More than any other semester that he can recall, Kirschner said, fall was a time for him and his students to really get to know each other.

While PJDS has managed in-person education, setting up outdoor classrooms, the social environment of pre-pandemic school can’t quite be replicated; seeing that, Kirschner decided that this was the year to more actively foster relationships, and to “have conversations that maybe we would never have had with kids if we were in a typical school year.”

With those relationships deepened, Kirschner and his students have more easily navigated the quirks of pandemic education. In graduate school, Kirschner noted, they don’t teach you how to run a classroom while spotted lanternflies fly in your face.

Paul Bernstein, CEO, Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools
When it comes to assessing what works and what doesn’t, Bernstein and Prizmah have the benefit of the 30,000-foot view.

Some of what they can see is quantifiable. After surveying 81 day school leaders in August, Prizmah found that early childhood centers and K-5 schools would be more likely to be fully in-person than middle schools or high schools, and that the most commonly reported precaution taken for in-person learning was “manipulating classroom space” (85% of respondents).

Now, with a full semester of observation, Bernstein and his team at Prizmah see things that can’t be expressed numerically. The energy spent on fashioning something resembling communal experience during a difficult year can’t be represented as a number; ditto for the relief felt in schools where in-person learning was able to last for the full semester.

“There are certain things we’re learning to do that may well actually serve us better in the future,” he said.

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