July 17, 2024
Close this search box.
Close this search box.
July 17, 2024
Close this search box.

Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Yeshivot Mobilize Online With Ingenuity

Along with the rest of the community and the entire country, local school administrators watched the coronavirus crisis begin to unfold in early March, never imagining the lengths to which the schools would have to go to continue educating their students. As the virus spread, schools began closing, with the announcement by the World Health Organization on March 11 that COVID-19 was officially a pandemic, sealing the fates of the schools which remained open.

“Some of the infrastructure was already planned in advance when we saw some of the other communities were going into self quarantine,” said Head of School and Klatt Family Rosh Hayeshiva at Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy/Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School (JKHA/RKYHS) in Livingston, Rabbi Eliezer Rubin. “We mobilized a wide range of teachers in the school who had expertise in a variety of areas for long distance learning. We brought the faculty in on Friday, March 13, for a full day of training, with teachers learning from their peers.”

“One of the most critical keys to our success has been teacher training,” said Rabbi Daniel Alter, head of school, The Moriah School in Englewood. “We asked our teachers to radically shift their entire paradigm, learn new methodologies and adapt to a very different learning environment, and asked them to do this almost overnight.”

When the crisis began, the teachers at Bruriah High School in Elizabeth met for an intensive distance learning training. According to Rabbi Joseph Oratz, principal, Bruriah High School, “Each and every faculty member ‘hit the ground running,’ working tirelessly to serve the students in this new environment. Remote learning schedules have been consistently running and most, if not all, classes have been provided to maintain academic excellence and support.”

Rabbi Dov Emerson, director of teaching and learning, The Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy (MTA), said, “We launched MTA@Home, an online educational experience that reflects MTA’s goal of joining talmidim at home to learn, rather than feeling the distance of remote learning.”

Alison Landa, director of teaching and learning, pre-K to grade five, Yavneh Academy, stated, “Our school began preparations for a possible closure several days before we were required to close. Our teachers, administration and technology department worked together to devise developmentally appropriate and academically rigorous plans for each grade level. In the days leading up to our eventual closure, teachers prepared materials and resource packets for students. We also began sending home books on a daily basis so that students would have what might be needed in the case of a closure. Finally, teachers worked quickly to ensure that students were comfortable and prepared to obtain and submit materials digitally.”

On the first day of remote learning, The Frisch School wrote on Facebook, “This morning, we began our first day of remote learning with an address by Rabbi Ciner. He began by reciting a perek of tehillim for all those affected by the COVID-19 outbreak. He also addressed our yeshiva about the importance of what we are doing by remaining in quarantine. Sometimes, we make an impact by doing something, and sometimes we make an impact by not doing something. In our case, quarantine will contribute to making our community and the wider community safer.”

On Monday, March 16, Governor Phil Murphy ordered all public and private schools in the state closed until it was deemed safe to return. All schools which had not already begun remote learning ventured into this new environment, with students adjusting to the situation with varying degrees of difficulty. Younger children often needed parent involvement in their “school day,” while the middle and high school students independently navigated the new world of Zoom classes, complete with the expected technical glitches. Teachers on all levels were required to rise to the challenge, continuing to teach and assisting their students with the new Zoom platform, while still in the learning stages themselves.

“We have seen a tremendous amount of peer-to-peer support among our faculty, which is extremely powerful. Additionally, we host daily faculty check-ins on Zoom, where faculty members can share ideas, troubleshoot and get support,” said Rabbi Emerson. “Our administrative team, our department chairs, our IT department and our remote learning working group all work together to provide the highest level of support possible for our faculty, talmidim and parents.” The remote learning working group is an ad hoc committee that the school developed to coordinate efforts for faculty support and training, with its members specializing in educational technology.

“To make the transition as seamless as possible, we recognized the need to offer significant support,” said Rabbi Alter. “We begin every day with division-wide faculty meetings where teachers can share success stories, ask questions about pedagogy or technology and where we choose different areas of the learning experience to grow their skill level.”

The second week saw adjustments to the schools’ learning plans, with a renewed focus on clubs and extracurriculars. The schools recognized the importance of keeping, as much as possible, “regular routines within an irregular experience,” as Rabbi Rubin noted.

The JKHA/RKYHS (Kushner) sports management club invited Anthony Bozzella, the head coach of the Seton Hall women’s basketball team, and Mark Wilf, president and co-owner of the Minnesota Vikings, as virtual guest speakers. Its AIPAC club heard from retired British army officer, Col. Richard Kemp CBE, and its SEED (student enrichment, education and development) program hosted Jason Greenblatt, former special envoy for Middle East peace under President Trump, and former NYS Assemblyman Dov Hikind.

The school also put out a call to its parent community, asking for volunteers to run virtual programs for the students and parents on a wide variety of subjects. Cookbook author Susie Fishbein gave a cooking class, a community-wide kumzitz was held virtually and there was a wellness program offered, first to students and later to parents. Moving forward, parents are making themselves available on topics including technology, science, Hebrew language, self defense, interviewing skills, CPR, leining, marketing, creative writing, woodworking and more.

“We want to provide an opportunity for parents and students to feel community in isolation. We are trying to mitigate loneliness by having community events,” Rubin stated.

MTA also added programming, with special Zoom sessions built into the students’ days. “We enhance the experience for our talmidim by offering daily fun activities, as well as additional Torah learning opportunities. Examples include Let’s Make a Deal, a kumzitz with Joey Newcomb, scavenger hunts, slam dunk and trick shot contests, pizza making and Taboo, as well as a daily night seder, shiurim for both current talmidim and alumni and a daily Maseches Tamid Shiur to help talmidim make a siyum on Taanis Bechoros,” noted Rabbi Emerson.

Bruriah has included student programming as well, featuring virtual programs such as ZoomZitz, led by students; Mincha Minute, a brief moment of inspiration; Hallel, led by the Bruriah choir heads; a live Zoom session for 11th graders with Rabbi Goldwasser, with whom they would have connected on their Jewish history trip; a virtual talent show; a pre- Shabbat ruach session with a Bruriah alumna on the piano/guitar; Zoom-ba workout sessions and more.

Landa noted, “Students in all grades are currently benefiting from…a number of extracurricular specials and evening activities, including art, music, social lunch groups, baking and athletic activities. Sometimes, full families participate in our special activities.”

Yavneh is offering erev Shabbat assemblies and kabbalat Shabbat; daily Redhawks Recess with the school’s coaches; Redhawks Rock Rosh Chodesh, which offers a full array of activities including musical Hallel, magic shows, makkot with Lego and a virtual matzah factory; ZOOMba; learning ways to build up the core along with the Jewish thought behind working out, from Coach Mike Dube from @TheEliteMethod; Great Big Zoom Challah Bake and Chesed Never Stops, among others.

Frisch has had “extracurricular” events and programs including songwriter Jeff Jacobs; infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist Dr. Eran Bellin; the Gdanski twins sharing their comedy during a Zoom assembly; special davening; an online daf yomi shiur, along with the continuation of other “regular” shiurim; “quarantined cooking” with Chef Eitan Bernath; and more.

Initially the remote learning was intended to be a short term solution, and schedules were planned as such. As the situation evolved, and with both the governor’s newest announcement that he will not revisit the school issue until April 17 at the earliest, and the president’s order to maintain social distancing until at least April 30, it became apparent that there needed to be a longer term plan in place.

“We had to create a new grading system, and a new way of looking at this situation that will help to explain that life is not usual. We need to shift our way of seeing school, yet it is critical that we maintain standards and expectations,” Rabbi Rubin remarked. “We are trying to move away from tests and towards assignments, which are easier to monitor and assess remotely. We are relying on the integrity of the students. There is nothing conventional here. We must keep recreating our system to create a new norm. There will be actual grading, which will include participation, attendance and assignments.”

Rabbi Emerson said, “Our primary focus has been on developing educational goals for this time period, shifting to more formative assessments that lend themselves to online and technology based learning, developing a blended curriculum that includes both synchronous and asynchronous learning opportunities for our talmidim, and the development of a weekly assessment tool that reinforces engagement by our talmidim.”

Davening and Judaic learning continue to be an integral part of the school day, as schools endeavor to keep students’ religious experiences vibrant. They are also working hard to provide social connections for the students even as they are physically separate.

The schools all recognize that this is a fluid situation and administrations are trying to work within a changing framework. They are reaching out to families, students and teachers for feedback, and trying to adjust accordingly.

“We put out a parent survey to get feedback on families’ situations; we have a high school student liaison group and are seeking feedback from them as well. No two situations are the same, but we are finding some patterns and that is informing our decision-making,” said Rabbi Rubin. The school also holds guidance meetings daily and faculty meetings regularly to ensure continued communication and allow for feedback.

“We host a series of faculty conversations to continue optimizing the MTA@Home learning environment. These discussions are ongoing and collaborative, as this is a new experience for everyone and we rely on feedback to make adjustments,” said Rabbi Emerson. “We seek regular feedback from…parents, talmidim and faculty, through both formal and informal surveys to help inform the manner in which we teach the MTA@Home program.”

Rabbi Alter said, “Administrators meet every night to review the day and look for areas that we can adapt or offer training to teachers. There are a number of WhatsApp groups for teachers and a number of staff members on call to respond to teachers who require immediate support. We also have an incredible amount of daily one-on-one sessions to continue to ensure that all our teachers are at the top of their game. On the technology side of things, we have developed a FAQ page from all the common questions we have been getting from our teachers and have been sharing this FAQ page with teachers across the country.”

The schools are also working to find chesed opportunities in which students can engage during this time. At Yavneh, students are making cards for hospitals and nursing home patients and videos for children with special needs.

Kushner alum Dr. Perry Wengrofsky contacted RKYHS about the desperate need for a variety of types of medical equipment in his hospital. The school answered the call and donated goggles from its science labs.

Rabbi Rubin said, “[Kushner] collaborated with the [MetroWest] Federation to encourage students to take on volunteer phone calls with the homebound. We are learning how we can deploy our students remotely to help those in need. We have asked our alumni whose year in Israel was truncated to learn with our lower school students. We are happy we can keep them engaged as well.”

Rubin hopes that there will be positive takeaways after this crisis resolves. “I think we will see some benefits to enhancing our ways of teaching, and understanding how to reach people when it may be difficult. Hopefully we will learn not to think too much about our own struggles, and see how we can help others. That is a message to take with us going forward.”

By Jill Kirsch

Leave a Comment

Most Popular Articles