A Study in Resilience: Our Jewish Day Schools in a Time of Crisis

How Greater Washington’s Jewish Day Schools Kept Children and their Families Engaged & Connected During COVID-19

The month of June marks the end of a tumultuous school year and the transition to an uncertain summer for children and parents throughout Greater Washington. To pay tribute to the great work of educators, administrators, and staff members in our Jewish community during the first months of the coronavirus pandemic, we are taking a look back at how Federation’s six partner Jewish Day Schools continued to serve students and families during this difficult time.

Apple on books in front of classroom chalkboard

School still life with copy space on chalkboard

By Friday, March 13, most of Greater Washington was soon-to-be, or already, under stay-at-home orders because of the coronavirus pandemic. Many businesses were forced to close, and schools throughout the region suddenly had to determine how to quickly move forward in an unpredictable time.

Many schools throughout our region and across the country struggled to transition to an online-only learning environment.

Most of the Jewish Day Schools in Northern Virginia, Washington, DC, and Suburban Maryland, however, were up and running online within a week.

Of course, there were challenges, setbacks, and difficulties as these schools, with only days to prepare, made the unprecedented shift of moving their entire educational operation online. But at a time when society was turned upside down, Jewish Day Schools offered a calming source of stability for families who were struggling to adjust to a new always-at-home dynamic.

“The rest of their lives have changed; so much has been canceled or stopped,” says Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, Head of School at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School (CESJDS). “We’ve been one of the constants in their lives, even though the format is different.”

What the schools pulled off was a result of dedication to the students and concerted effort by teachers, administrators, and staff members. Here’s how they did it and why their efforts were so valuable—for students, for families, and for our community.

Teaching the Teachers—and Preparing the Parents

Initially, the stay-at-home orders were projected to last only two weeks. That’s why so many schools experienced delays in standing up their digital platforms—they hoped they wouldn’t be necessary.

But that’s not the approach most of our Jewish Day Schools took.

“We were double planning,” says Sarah Sicherman, Director of Marketing and Communications at Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy. “Planning for being at home and [for] the possibility of going back to school.”

Over the course of one weekend and the first few days of the following week, the schools focused on figuring out the new technologies, training the teachers to use them, and communicating with the parents about what the new virtual school would look like.

For school employees, this was a test in discomfort. They had to put in long hours and stretch beyond their job descriptions.

Sicherman had to become the de facto technology director and help-desk support line to assist teachers who were learning to use these new virtual resources for the first time. “You just jump in and do the jobs that are needed to be done,” she says. “People are making themselves useful and helpful.”

In addition to readying the teachers, the schools also had to ensure the students and parents were comfortable as well.

“We couldn’t do it without the partnership of the parents,” says Rabbi Malkus.

Over the first few weeks of online learning, Rabbi Malkus says CESJDS had received more emails from parents than they had the entire year up until that point—most were outpourings of gratitude. Rabbi Malkus says the school expressed the same appreciation to the parents. “We feel more grateful than ever to have such an engaged community.”

Different Schools, Different Styles

Of course, not every email from a parent simply offered praise and thanks. While the parents were sympathetic to the challenges of creating, launching, and operating a virtual school within a few days, they also had ideas for how things could be improved. And every household had different ideas.

“We love feedback. But there was so much feedback, and there were so many conflicting requests,” says Rabbi Shmuel Lichtenstein, Assistant Principal and Judaic teacher at the Torah School of Greater Washington. “They had suggestions, but they appreciated what our teachers were going through.”

Some of the parents wanted their children to spend additional time on Zoom, others wanted less. Some parents wanted fewer pre-recorded lectures; others wanted more. It’s no surprise that online education during the pandemic has looked different from virtual classroom to virtual classroom and digital school to digital school.

Gesher Jewish Day School has tried to limit “synchronous learning,” where a teacher lectures students in real time, notes Allison Brody, Director of Student Services and Technology. Her school is doing more “asynchronous learning,” where teachers have regular one-on-one check-ins with students to go over homework and discuss pre-recorded lessons.

At the Torah School, Rabbi Lichtenstein approximates that most students are spending 75% of each day on Zoom with frontal learning. Even though that is not the ratio the school prefers for in-person instruction, teachers have found that this format works best for their students and families in this environment.

Regardless of the teaching philosophies they had been accustomed to, in this new environment, teachers had to come up with creative ways to keep their students engaged—and those lessons will help when they return to the physical classroom.

“Due to the pandemic, [we are grappling] with constraints,” says Jen Margolis, a third-grade general studies teacher at Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School of the Nation’s Capital. “It is exciting to realize that … we will be able to provide our students with a wider range of learning experiences after all of this is over too.”

A Community Connected—in New Ways and Old

The switch to a virtual environment has had other benefits, as well. At Milton, virtual Shabbat programs are bringing in more people than the in-person versions ever could.

“Conducting these events virtually means that we have actually been able to include a wider community,” says Jessica Friedman, a third-grade general studies teacher at Milton. “Grandparents are ‘Zooming in’ from elsewhere in the world.”

Another benefit has been the breaking down of barriers between the home and the classroom; teachers have a better view of the home life of their students, and parents have a clearer perspective on the educational experience of their children. This transparency has led to better support of the students and a greater appreciation of the work the schools and teachers are doing.

“As a team, we took the approach that our role as teachers were our way of helping the community during the pandemic,” Friedman says. “Our stories are similar to teachers around the globe. Teaching is a profession of the heart, and as such, I’m always drawn to being there for my students, their families, and the school community.”