The uncertainty surrounding school openings — and the quality of education that can be provided in safe, social distancing settings — are a source of great concern to parents, students and teachers. And while all area schools are doing their best to fashion suitable learning environments, issues abound concerning creating enough space to comply with CDC and state guidelines without having to stagger the days on which students can attend schools.
These issues are not as prevalent to local Jewish day schools, which assert their intention — and ability — to welcome students to their premises and provide the same quality education parents expect.
“We will be open five days a week to all our students and offer a full load of classes,” says Dr. Andrea Kasper, head of school for the Solomon Schechter Day School, which educates students from preschool through eighth grade. “We are blessed with ample space in our facility to meet all social distancing guidelines, in accordance with all the pertinent guidelines, and still have room to spare for additional students.”
The same is true for the New England Jewish Academy, a Jewish Orthodox day school that serves students from its early childhood program through high school. Currently, NEJA operates out of two campuses — the Lower School is in Bloomfield and the Upper School is in West Hartford. The plan is to have the entire school come together in September 2021 at the West Hartford Campus.
Because NEJA has two spacious facilities, it is able to ensure that all its students will be able to come to school every day — at safe distances. “Let me be very clear, we will be open from 8:20 a.m. to 3:40 p.m., every day of the week and all students will be able to attend school every day,” says Naty Katz, NEJA’s head of school. “There will be no rotating students on odd and even days; they’ll all benefit from in-person teacher-led classes together with their classmates.”
To achieve this, the Lower School will organize on separate floors into “pods,” while the Upper School will offer 53 different classes each week, with only nine classes having more than 10 students, according to Dr. Richard Nabel, principal of the Upper School. “So we’ll have plenty of room for our current students to learn and be safe, and the ability to absorb newcomers as well.”
Similarly, Schechter also boasts a large footprint comprised of ample indoor and outdoor spaces that will be utilized to assure regular classroom sizes and quality academics.
But what happens if Covid-19 cases spike during the academic year and schools are forced to go virtual again? No problem, say officials of both schools. They point to their proven records last year in ramping up immediately to provide a full schedule of high-quality, virtual classes that always included live teachers.
“We excelled last year in providing robust, reliable and interactive virtual learning environments that allowed students to fill their school day, have much needed structure and continue learning as if they were in regularly scheduled classes in our building,” said Kasper.
Schechter’s preschool and elementary divisions used both SeeSaw, a digital service that allows both teachers and students to post videos and send messages, and zoom for morning meetings, one-on-one and small group conversations and for academic live instruction. Middle school students continued to use Google Classroom and Google Meet. These platforms made it possible for the middle school to retain its schedule and students had live instruction for all of their classes keeping them learning and most importantly connected to each other and their teachers.
In addition, Schechter fashioned its remote school days with social components that kept students engaged with each other, which is essential to the overall well-being of school-age children stuck at home. For example, middle school teachers used Google Meets to arrange students into small groups, where they interact simultaneously among themselves and with their teachers. The elementary school used SeeSaw to share art and language arts projects with their classmates as well as their teachers.
“All this provided students with a sense of community, which is usually taken for granted when they are at school,” said Kasper.
NEJA similarly did not miss a beat last year when schools were forced to go virtual. Within two days, NEJA was conducting classes with live teachers via Zoom. In addition to regular academic instruction, the faculty also focused on ensuring the social and emotional welfare of each child, according to Rabbi Zev Silver, principal of the Lower School. In the Upper School, faculty connected with students through social activities that included scavenger hunts and team activities, and rabbis held social hours to keep everyone engaged, according to Nabel.
To keep students engaged, NEJA regularly invited guest speakers and participated in extracurricular events that were accessible online. Examples include:
A Zoom presentation from Former Prisoner of Zion Yosef Mendelevich, who spoke about making Passover Seder in a Soviet prison camp.
An Israel Memorial Day presentation from an Israeli soldier.
An Israel Independence Day program featuring virtual activities and activity kits that were pre-sent to each student.
A parade where the teachers drove by the homes of NEJA families.
A virtual field trip to the American Revolution Museum in Philadelphia.
At home chemistry “labs.”
The only thing certain in these uncertain times is uncertainty. But knowing that Greater Hartford’s Jewish day schools are well-prepared to provide a full, quality education both in the classroom and online (if necessary) is certainly assuring to parents and students alike.