April 12, 2024
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April 12, 2024
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A Parent’s Virtual Reality: School at Home

Who could have imagined a time and place that uses “lockdown” and “quarantine” in daily conversation, a world where children in the middle of a school year are sent home with as many books as their backpacks can bear and no clear answer on when they might return to their classrooms? Alas, here we stand—a group of parents turned into homeschool partners overnight.

It’s no secret that as parents, so many of us eagerly await the Monday morning send off—be it by bus or carpool, whether we’re rushing to catch a ride to the city or to be on time for a gym class— secure in the invaluable knowledge that comes in knowing our children are cared for and educated eight hours of the day..

I have four children who attend the Moriah school in Englewood. Their last day there was Wednesday, March 11, Shushan Purim. Late that afternoon a joint letter was sent by many of the Bergen County Jewish day schools informing us that school would be closed, effective the next morning. In one click of the “send” button our sense of security in the school day as we knew it was turned upside down. Every chat and Whats App group I belong to immediately echoed the same cries of panic—what would our children do all day? How would we occupy them? How far behind would they fall in their subjects? How could we keep up with our regular duties and jobs that fill so many hours of our days? Who would watch them? Would they see their friends? When? How??

Despite entering uncharted territory for both parents and educators, now, less than two weeks after we received that closure notice, my four children wake up each morning to a new daily schedule provided by the Moriah administrators. In just a week and a half they’ve already learned to eagerly scan the schedule before breakfast, impatiently asking if they have STEM or art, which extracurriculars will take place that afternoon, and if I already know what their homework assignments will be.

The Moriah school launched into action as soon as the decision was made to shut their doors. In fact, two weeks prior to the actual closing Moriah was already testing the Zoom classroom platform in different grades to ensure a smooth transition should it come to that. Now we not only have a full daily schedule but a new website called Moriah@Home, which is easy enough for even my first-grade twins to access, pull up their schedules and hyperlinks and log in and out of classes on time.

The agenda rolled out by Moriah is thoughtful and intuitive. Since the morning routine in so many of our homes has now been elongated, with no more drop off at 8:15, Moriah students start their days with a 15-minute “morning warm-up.” Both my sons and daughters love getting in these stretches. What could be better than school-sanctioned jumping jacks and mountain climbers in our living room! I see how even as young children they feel the benefit of getting their heart rates up and “shaking it out” before another day at home and many hours in front of screens. By the time tefillah begins at 9 a.m., all four of them have settled their bodies and feel ready to tackle the day.

They proceed into live scheduled periods. An average day now has them learning math, English language arts, chumash, safa and the laws of Pesach. In addition they have special programming, guest authors, STEM, music, art, assigned book reports and projects. One of the highlights of the third-grade curriculum is a rotating current events presentation that students do each Friday for their classmates. Even this practice has been preserved. The week’s assigned students work on their current events articles and get to present in their live Zoom class each Friday. It doesn’t feel like an exaggeration to say it’s miraculous how engaged the teachers have kept my children in a totally new concept of distance learning classrooms.

I, on the other hand, have basically morphed into a line chef for most of the daylight hours (and some of the dark ones, too). However, I love jumping between their remote set-ups and seeing how one is learning about fractions while watching his teachers “draw” on the screen to illustrate 3/8th of a pizza pie, while the other is reciting the Kiddush from the Haggadah to his first0grade teacher as she provides real time feedback to correct his pronunciation.

The Moriah teachers have not only risen to the occasion but have almost totally transformed lesson plans into virtual reality. I don’t pretend to understand the hours that go into this, but as a hands-on mom at homework time each night, I know what the kids’ usual assignments look like, and I see how they’ve been beautifully adapted to reflect the limitations but also the nuances of remote learning.

Moriah has gone so far as to provide breakout sessions for leveled reading groups. The gasp that my seven-year old-daughter made when she saw she was with her small reading group, which just so happens to include her “BFF,” was audible throughout our home. She thrives on the personal attention she receives during these sessions. Individualized learning has not been sacrificed due to remote restraints. If anything I feel its intensified effects. I regularly receive phone calls and emails from teachers. They can’t always listen to each child read during class time so they make the time to hear them read over the phone or to receive recordings even when their period of instruction for the day has ended.

With the cancellation of so many aspects of daily life we also found ourselves without our normal extracurricular activities. Aside from the sheer fun extracurriculars provide, I was concerned about my childrens’ need to move around and be creative while homebound. The Moriah Association of Parents has organized daily challenges to engage the kids. They are as silly as school spirit-themed breakfasts to daily boot camp classes, and even the launch of Cooking with Moriah! This week alone the school arranged for a lesson in dipping and decorating with chocolate, a Pesach cooking demo, and a pre-Shabbat challah bake. Normally, I wouldn’t be eager to mess up my kitchen post dinner, but without ice hockey, basketball, piano, hip hop or ballet we’re thrilled to have an activity that’s not academic or corona-centric and brings our family together.

It’s not always easy; my 4-year-old daughter can’t troubleshoot any Zoom issues on her own. We definitely have our moments of technological frustrations and frazzled patience. But what we don’t have is loneliness. Not even a little. The children are able to see their classmates regularly throughout the day. They see and hear their teachers. They interact with one another and I have literally overheard them finishing each other’s sentences. They run to their devices at the start of each new period because those are their lifelines to the world now. Moriah has managed to turn a system of remote learning into a system that gives so much more than education. It gives our homebound, locked down, sheltered-in-place children a connection. It gives them life, laughs, continued friendships and strengthened relationships.

Though no one would have chosen this remote learning or these dark days where our shuls are closed to prayer and smachot are canceled, the sounds of my 4-year-old singing along with her Morot and my eight-year-old getting the chance to be Zoom chazan for the Moriah lower school, bring my husband and I the greatest comforts. As the familiar sounds of tefillah and learning now fill the halls of our home, we pray for the return to happier days but rejoice in the power of our yeshiva day school to adapt and give our children continued strength, education and enrichment.

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