A middle school student at Brandeis Marin at an outdoor classroom, February 2021. (Photo/Anya Shuteroff)
A middle school student at Brandeis Marin at an outdoor classroom, February 2021. (Photo/Anya Shuteroff)

Our Pandemic Year: Jewish day schools had to relearn the ABCs of teaching

Part Four of OUR PANDEMIC YEAR, a week-long series examining how the Covid pandemic has changed our local Jewish world.

“I think we’re all wondering what’s going to happen.” That was Contra Costa Jewish Day School parent Liat Egel speaking to J. a year ago. It was March 2020 and her two kids, like all children in the Bay Area, were suddenly faced with shuttered schools and an abrupt switch to online learning.

It was a time of uncertainty as teachers and parents tried to cope with a world nobody had planned for. But contacted by J. one year later, Egel was much cheerier, happy that both of her kids were back in the classroom: CCJDS in Lafayette was one of the many Jewish schools granted a waiver for reopening last fall.

“They’re much happier across the board,” she said. “It’s been great.”

Looking back at last spring, she said her seventh-grader was able to handle computer-based work, but it was a struggle for her second-grader.

“I was holding her hand, logging in with her, helping her with her homework,” Egel said.

Nowadays it’s a different story.

Although Egel praised the work that CCJDS did last spring and summer in adapting and implementing an online education plan — an “amazing job,” she said — there’s really no substitute for her kids spending the school day with peers.

“I can’t even quantify it,” she said. “Because they need to see other kids their own age, even behind a mask, even 6 feet away.”

The statewide waiver program that let some schools reopen was announced in July 2020. All elementary schools were eligible to apply, but most waivers went to private or religious schools, institutions that (in general) are more flexible because money is available and negotiations with teachers’ unions, which are slow, often are not required. The waiver covered K-5, and the schools with waivers were allowed to expand to grade 8 once their county was in the red tier.

The list of other local Jewish day schools that opened with waivers includes South Peninsula Hebrew Day School in Sunnyvale, Gideon Hausner in Palo Alto, Ronald C. Wornick  in Foster City, Yavneh in Los Gatos and Brandeis Marin in San Rafael.

Last March, when Brandeis Marin head of school Peg Sandel spoke to J., she had no clue whether the 2020-21 school year would take place online or in person.

“Will we be able to resume our full normal schedule? Will we be totally online still?” Sandel wondered at the time.

A few months later, when the waiver system was set up, “we jumped at it,” she said. By Sept. 16, kids were coming back to school. But it wasn’t simple.

Peg Sandel teaching an 8th-grade class at Brandeis Marin with hybrid students in attendance, February 2021. (Photo/Anya Shuteroff)
Peg Sandel teaching an 8th-grade class at Brandeis Marin with some students attending virtually, February 2021. (Photo/Anya Shuteroff)

The school administrators and staff had a laundry list of changes that needed to be made. They enhanced the Wi-Fi and bought tablets or laptops for every student so they didn’t have to share. The air-conditioning system was upgraded, and fans were bought for every window and portable air filters for every room. The school also acquired pavilions to set up for outdoor learning, as well as face shields, masks, gloves and cleaning supplies for staff.

“It was just a whole lot of scenario planning,” Sandel said. “Literally, everything about the school had to be replanned from the bottom up.”

Sandel said they were lucky to have the space and financial resources to make it happen, but she said it wasn’t all that expensive. The total cost of the measures was around $250,000, she said, but most of that was for internet and technology that will be used by the school for years to come. The outdoor tents? Reasonable, and ordered on Amazon.

“We found solutions that were safe and reliable but not super expensive,” she said.

Sandel credited the parent community for its support and the Marin County Office of Education under Superintendent Mary Jane Burke for making sure schools were working together, sharing experiences and best practices for making schools safe. It takes creativity, she said.

“It’s OK to fail when something doesn’t work,” she said. “You pick yourself up and try again.”

But most of all, she said, it was the Brandeis Marin teachers who made it possible. They’ve been teaching in person since fall, all the while without vaccinations (which they were expected to receive in early March).

“The teachers are heroes,” Sandel said emotionally. “It makes me choke up a little, but I’ve just got to say it.”

At the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco, classes are still online. Last year when he spoke with J., Jewish studies teacher Evan Wolkenstein had just started holding class on Zoom. It was hard, he said then: “Students want to feel seen — seen and heard. They’re feeling claustrophobic.”

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

One year later, it’s still not easy. JCHS, like other high schools, is still online and has been since March 2020, although it is currently moving to a hybrid model. Wolkenstein said the school had been doing the best it could under the circumstances.

“We changed our expectations to fit what was possible, but the love still comes through,” he said. “It just doesn’t look the same as it would otherwise.”

He said it was a constant challenge to find a balance, teaching demanding academics and critical thinking while knowing students are facing screen fatigue and social and mental health stresses.

“There’s a delicate balance of pushing and demanding, but also having compassion,” he said.

He said it has meant that teachers have had to draw on their improvisational skills and be nimble.

“Teachers are kind of like firefighters,” he said. “We’re heading into a blazing building and wearing whatever gear we have.”

Wolkenstein compared the experience to a passage from Pirkei Avot, the book of rabbinic ethical teachings: “The day is short, and the work is plentiful, and the laborers are indolent, and the reward is great, and the master of the house is insistent.”

“That is how it feels!” he said.

A year ago, Jenessa Schwartz, a middle-school language-arts teacher at Yavneh Day School, was already thinking of Zoom teaching as “the new normal.”

Yavneh Day School teacher Jenessa Schwartz working from home.
Yavneh Day School teacher Jenessa Schwartz working from home.

But looking back now, she thinks that schools didn’t know how complicated it was going to get. Although Yavneh has a waiver, not all kids are back on school grounds in Los Gatos.

“I know there are a lot of people who don’t feel comfortable sending their kids until they are vaccinated,” Schwartz said.

That means the school has to offer distance learning, as well. It’s a complex situation, Schwartz said, calling the logistics “mind-boggling.” Some teachers are still teaching from home — including Schwartz, who is immunocompromised. She’s waiting on her second dose of the Covid vaccine and is eager to return in April, when middle-school students are slated to come back into the classroom. She’s tired of trying to connect through the screen.

“I’ll hit a Zoom wall, it’ll feel sad and I’ll feel like I’m grieving again,” she said. “And then I’ll get over it and I’ll be back.”

Some younger students have been in school, on computers, with their teachers at home waiting to get vaccinated. The different grades have been divided into virtual and in-person groupings. But with some kids in person and some not, hybrid classes pose challenges for teachers, who have to engage with students both in the room and at home looking at a computer screen.

“It’s time for us teachers to practice what we preach to our students,” Schwartz said. “To have a growth mindset.”

Being flexible and creative is key, and that’s been proven again and again over the last 12 months.

“None of us have done anything like this before,” Carol Piraino, interim head of school at Gideon Hausner, said a year ago. The Palo Alto school, like the others, had just pivoted to online learning when Piraino talked to J. last March.

“We thought we were out for a couple of weeks, or a month,” she said. But as the year dragged on, it became clear the pandemic was going nowhere.

“It was so hard,” Piraino said. “And parents really saw their kids have challenges around that, socially and emotionally.”

A student looks at an unrolled Torah at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School.
A student looks at an unscrolled Torah at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School.

So the moment the waiver program opened, the school leapt at the opportunity.

“We were one of the very first schools in Santa Clara County that got approved,” Piraino said.

It meant implementing a host of measures, from keeping students 6 feet apart to monitoring traffic flow, doing weekly testing, keeping cohorts isolated and making sure there were high-efficiency filters in each classroom, “really everything, soup to nuts,” she said.

“Our music room is now a third grade classroom, our library is now a first grade classroom.”

To pay for all this cost “a lot of money,” Piraino said, something not every school has.

“We have to keep remembering how fortunate we are,” she said.

Gideon Hausner was able to get all children back at school by early November. Piraino said it made a notable difference in everyone’s mental health to be operating again, and now that teachers are finally getting vaccinated, “we feel like there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”

But it still brings up a lot of questions about the 2021-22 school year, she said. Even with vaccines rolling out, there are plenty of unknowns about what will be allowed by county public health departments — such as whether masks will be required and what the students-to-teacher ratio will be in each class.

“Is it 12-to-1, is it 15-to-1, is it back to normal and 24 kids will be in a classroom? We just don’t know,” she said.

But schools have become adept at adapting to those changing targets.

Sandel said the success that Brandeis Marin and other Jewish day schools have had in opening — and staying open — has already sent applications for the 2021-22 school year “through the roof.”

“The word is out that our Jewish day schools have rocked it,” she said.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

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