Yavneh Day School teacher Jenessa Schwartz's third-grade daughter Ramona at Yavneh's all-school tefillah. (Photo/Courtesy Jenessa Schwartz)
Yavneh Day School teacher Jenessa Schwartz's third-grade daughter Ramona at Yavneh's all-school tefillah. (Photo/Courtesy Jenessa Schwartz)

Jewish schools making the grade with distance learning

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Jenessa Schwartz, a middle-school language-arts teacher at Yavneh Day School in Los Gatos, has been spending hours these days preparing online lessons for her classes. With schools closed, she and the other teachers at Bay Area Jewish schools have had to pivot from the hands-on tools of textbook and whiteboard to the virtual tools of Zoom and Google.

“It’s quickly becoming a new normal,” she said.

But the online learning environment isn’t just about schoolwork and keeping students on track academically. The schools also want to give kids and their families a sense of stability and convey a feeling of community in the face of uncertainty.

“We are trying our hardest and our best to deliver excellent learning and deep emotional support to students and parents, even as we are going through that ourselves,” said Peg Sandel, head of Brandeis Marin in San Rafael.

While all schools are dealing with the transition to online education, for Jewish schools there’s the added imperative of keeping up the rituals of services, prayer and holidays that bind the school community together.

“We do not want to lose our identity, who we are, so it’s very important to maintain that,” said Carol Piraino, assistant head of school for academics at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto. said. “But in a different way.”

Since schools throughout the state closed in mid-March, educators have been putting in extra hours as they transition to distance learning.

“We’re busier than we ever have been,” Sandel said. “It’s quite hectic. It’s intense.”

The abrupt switch has presented challenges for everyone — administrators, teachers, students and parents — and schools have had to be nimble and adapt to the changing landscape. Some Jewish schools jumped in with a full day online, while others implemented online classes and schoolwork more gradually.

“None of us have done anything like this before,” Piraino said. “Nobody has the answer.”

The answers look different in every grade. At Contra Costa Jewish Day School in Lafayette and the Brandeis School of San Francisco, middle-schoolers have almost a full day of studies. “They are tied into a schedule which is pretty much replicating their school schedule,” said Debby Artz-Mor, Brandeis director of Jewish learning.

Yavneh Day School teacher Jenessa Schwartz working from home. (Photo/Courtesy Schwartz)
Yavneh Day School teacher Jenessa Schwartz working from home. (Photo/Courtesy Schwartz)

Schwartz said having a schedule is reassuring for kids in a time of such unpredictability.

“It’s really good for a lot of students to have the safety of that structure,” she said. “I think it makes them feel secure.”

Teachers are connecting with their students using myriad tools to do face-to-face video chats, manage homework and grading, and create lectures that can be watched before class. Both parents and students are providing feedback.

“You’re basically a startup,” said Tania Schweig, head of school at Oakland Hebrew Day School. “We want input. We want to hear what’s working.”

A full day of Zoom lessons and online assignments is feasible for older kids, who are technologically adept and can handle classes on their own, but it’s more difficult for kids in younger grades who aren’t ready for independent study and require a parent’s help, Piraino said.

“The older kids were able to dive right in, the younger kids needed more help from parents and teachers,” she said.

Liat Egel knows that firsthand. She is the parent of a second-grader and a seventh-grader who are doing distance learning at Contra Costa Jewish Day School. Her older child has a very structured day, but it’s harder to keep the younger one engaged.

“The experience is very different,” she said. “Obviously the seventh-grader is a lot more self-sufficient.”

Educators understand there is a learning curve for everyone.

“We tell our families, do what you can,” said Artz-Mor. “Our end is to do whatever we can to support you.”

Meanwhile, teachers are working to get their curriculum online. While there’s plenty of existing educational content on the internet, websites “can’t take the place of the teacher’s personal touch,” Arzt-Mor said. “We’re not telling our kids, ‘go to this website and play this game.’ We’re creating the lessons.”

But preparing those lessons is definitely time-consuming. “It’s added a lot of hours to my work,” Schwartz said. “Also trying to grade and read student work and getting it back to them.”

As a classroom teacher, she said she especially misses the responsive, immediate nature of in-person teaching.

“A lot of the improvisation teaching takes is no longer available,” Schwartz said. “I can’t just dash down the hall and print something.”

Evan Wolkenstein, who teaches 10th through 12th grades at Jewish Community High School of the Bay, also misses the in-person exchanges. The San Francisco school started with online assignments before the Passover break, and Wolkenstein taught his first Zoom class last week. He said one of his favorite things about teaching is the flow of classroom discussion, but it doesn’t work in the same way on Zoom, where background noise can be distracting.

JCHS' Evan Wolkenstein and juniors Laura Jones and Simona Lewis in his "Power and Perception" class. (Screenshot/Courtesy Evan Wolkenstein)
JCHS’ Evan Wolkenstein and juniors Laura Jones and Simona Lewis in his “Power and Perception” class. (Screenshot/Courtesy Evan Wolkenstein)

“Hitting the mute button kind of hurt,” he said.

Beyond academics, he said, schools have an important role in providing social and emotional connections for students who are under stress from the disruption, worried about Covid-19 or merely missing their friends.

“Students want to feel seen – seen and heard,” Wolkenstein said. “They’re feeling claustrophobic.”

Wolkenstein’s strategy is active listening while emphasizing moments of optimism and even joy.

“There’s sort of an understanding between teachers that our students want us to lift them up a bit,” he said.

Kehillah Jewish High School in Palo Alto offers a host of “morale-focused activities,” including wellness tips, trivia games and a “fireside chat” with dean of students Nathan Bennett.

Another challenge of not being at school is that teachers can’t tell how their students are doing personally. Piriano suggested being proactive and keeping emotional tabs on them, in the absence of visual cues that normally give insights on a student’s mental state.

On top of that, teachers have to make constant adjustments to their teaching style as they discover what works and what doesn’t.

“I’ve lightened up a bit on work, because in the very beginning of this learning experiment we were going a bit overboard,” Schwartz said.

At the same time, continuity is important for students who will be moving from one grade to the next, or even one school to the next, and that means moving ahead with curriculum to make sure they will be ready.

“We’re all aware that there are going to be impacts for the kids,” Sandel said. Thankfully, she said, schools are working together and trading advice as they navigate the new reality.

“We’re all going through this together, and there is so much sharing of resources.”

But there’s one thing that nobody knows: what will happen in the new school year.

“I think we’re all wondering what’s going to happen,” said CCJDS parent Egel.

Much of it depends on the health protocols in place in California come fall. School administrators are making plans and looking at budgets, but it’s hard to predict how much social distancing will affect education.

“Will we be able to resume our full normal schedule? Will we be totally online still?” Sandel said.

Until those answers are known, Jewish schools will continue working in overdrive to make sure their students are learning, engaged and connected to the community.

Schweig of Oakland Hebrew Day School said she’d never realized before how much singing the school did together until they tried to do it over Zoom. Not easy, she said.

“We eat together, we sing together,” she said. “There’s these aspects of Jewish school that are hard to recreate in a way that’s fully satisfying.”

All of the schools are committed to making sure the spirit of community that infuses Jewish education is still part of the online experience — whether it’s all-school prayer through Zoom, like at Yavneh; having kids in student government lead Kabbalat Shabbat services, like at Kehillah; or inviting grandparents to connect to services by computer, like at Hausner.

“It’s kind of amazing how it does really still feel like community, even though we’re ‘virtually’ together,” Schwartz said.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.