On Friday, March 13, the day after the province of Ontario extended public school closures by two weeks beyond March break due to COVID-19 concerns, I sent an email to the families in the Beth Tzedec Congregational School advising them that we would be moving our learning online as well.
Our dedicated teachers and I used the March Break week to brainstorm, troubleshoot and plan for moving all of our learning experiences into an online format. We discussed the ideal length of online class for each grade, how we would deliver Passover learning in particular to our students and how we could maintain a sense of school and classroom community during this challenging time.
We decided that we would blend a face-to-face Sunday morning experience on Zoom with small daily Passover-focused assignments that students could engage in at their own pace. This not only allowed us to maintain the same number of hours of instruction per week, but it also took the pressure off the Sunday experience to be the be-all and end-all of the educational interaction; also, it meant that the teachers and their students were engaging every day with each other, even if it was not live.
We also made plans to move our small group Hebrew learning to online platforms. This meant working with and training some teachers on the technology as well as the best practices for managing an online classroom. In the end, we decided to offer all our Hebrew learning experiences in a one-on-one format that would be followed by independent work. Again, we are trying to be sensitive to scheduling, amount of screen time and capacity to engage in time-based learning during this difficult moment.
Our Hebrew learning and daily assignments got underway the week of March 23, and on Sunday, March 29, we held our first virtual Sunday morning class for the whole school. We began as a school community, hearing our usual weekly Havdalah, learning our usual weekly Milat HaShavua (word of the week) from our shinshinim, Alona and Gal – who were still in quarantine in their bedrooms in Israel after their return from Toronto – and then broke up into individual classes. Our younger learners – JK to Grade 2 – spent 25 minutes in their class and then came together for 10 minutes of Passover songs with our music teacher. Our older learners in Grades 3 to 7 did the same, but were in their class for 45 minutes.
Somehow, it all came together. The tech worked as it was supposed to. The teachers got on board right away, learned the new skills they needed to, adapted their lesson plans for the new circumstances and were 100% supportive of the virtual program. Our parent partners jumped in with both feet and are spending the time helping their children engage with the learning.
We are all prepared to complete our school year with these new approaches, and the faculty and I are already thinking hard about how to present the post-Passover learning – focused on Yom Haatzmaut, Shavuot and completing our other units – using online resources.
We know that our world will not be the same as it was once the COVID-19 pandemic is over. It may be that part-time Jewish education will not be the same either. While these measures were put in place urgently and as a response to crisis, who knows where they will lead. All I can promise, right now at least, is that wherever quality learning and social experiences can happen, the Beth Tzedec Congregational School will be at that place and in that space to continue to provide meaningful Jewish learning and experiences for the children of our synagogue and community.
Sunday, March 29 was the first Sunday on Zoom. We began at 10:00 a.m. as a whole school. We had 75% attendance. Gal and Alona shared a short presentation from their locations in Israel, our music teacher led us in Havdalah and then each class met separately using the breakout group function of Zoom. I was able to circulate between each class and ensure that things were going smoothly. The JK/SK and Grade 1/2 classes spent around 25 minutes learning in this way, and then came together for music and finished by 11:00 a.m. The Grades 3/4/5 and Grades 6/7 classes spent around 45 minutes in class, then came together for music and were done by 11:30 a.m. All the tech worked very well and, for the most part, the students were engaged and participating. Some teachers were better than others at engaging the kids with their lesson and/or their style, and I have given them constructive feedback and help to improve for April 5.
On Monday, March 30, I trained the final weekday Hebrew teacher on Zoom. I also gathered the textbooks of the students who do their weekday Hebrew learning at Beth Tzedec and dropped them off at students’ homes.
The last of the weekday Hebrew tutorials will recommence on Tuesday, March 31 and Wednesday, April 1.
It was fortuitous that March break landed where it did, as it gave me and the teachers extra time to assess, plan, implement and communicate. While the immediate planning ran only through Passover, we are preparing to operate in this manner for the remainder of the school year, which ends on May 10.
The format used on Sunday, March 29 seemed to
work well and is replicable for the remaining five Sunday classes on our schedule.
The Hebrew learning has been adapted to be in one-on-one virtual settings for
15-20 minutes per student followed by independent work, rather than a 60 minute
group experience, as the group format is less successful on Zoom.