Jewish day schools adapt to the new normal in the face of the pandemic

Most schools have now been open for just over a month and continue to face unprecedented challenges due to COVID-19. 

Before classes began, there was concern in multiple areas: would children find it difficult to wear a face mask for long hours? Would children be able to maintain a safe distance from their peers? Or would their mental health be significantly impacted by the unusual changes to their daily routines?

While it’s certainly been challenging for schools to prepare how best to ensure public health requirements are followed, staff say children are adapting fairly well to their new reality. 

“Wearing face masks has not been an issue,” Regina Lulka, Head of School at Montessori Jewish Day School in North York, told me. 

“And when we’re indoors because it’s rainy outside, it’s no problem, they know what to do. They each have a fanny pack where they keep their masks and hand sanitizer.” 

Students outdoors. (Photo courtesy of Montessori Jewish Day School)

Not only have the students been compliant and adaptable, but the initial concern over whether they would be able to gage their peers’ emotions by only seeing their eyes hasn’t been a problem. 
“Their ability to read facial expressions is incredible,” Lulka emphasized.   
Currently, at Montessori Jewish Day School there are 80 children learning in-person with 12 learning at home. 
Because of the Montessori model of education—which promotes more space in the classroom for children to be active, and giving more time to connect with nature—the school has been able to adjust well.

“We’ve been better poised. Initially we were really worried because we have a hands-on education-specific apparatus that we use, which we needed to change. But we found a happy solution by doing a lot more outdoor learning,” Lulka said.  

“And physical distancing hasn’t been a problem because the classrooms are very large. But we’re not in the classroom so much. Intrinsic to our learning is nature education for the children, so for them to be outside is very natural.” 

Taking more aspects of the classroom outside is not unique to Montessori. Greg Beiles, Head of School of The Toronto Heschel School, said if there’s one silver lining, it’s children being given more time to spend outside than they were pre-pandemic. 

“This has shown us the value of outdoor learning,” Beiles told me. “Our school is an arts-based school and our curriculum integrates environmental stewardship. So now we’ve expanded outdoor learning even more. With these challenges there are some opportunities to think differently.”  

Beiles also noted that he has never seen students so excited to return to class, indicating that socializing and being with friends is important for children, especially now.  

“The kids just took a few days to get used to the protocols. They accept the reality, unlike adults who take longer to adjust. They wear the masks and use hand sanitizer, and line up on the dots… It’s not always easy at recess, but for the most part, they do it in their structured environment,” he added. 

Students at The Toronto Heschel School. (Photo by Bailey Daniels)

Class sizes used to be 18 students, but have been reduced to 15 to 13 to ensure distancing can be maintained. 
But one of the challenges for The Toronto Heschel School has been adapting their chevruta learning model which allows for more hands-on work in small groups, and incorporates drama and movement in the everyday. 
But these activities must now be redesigned. Currently, there are four outdoor classrooms, and every gym class uses the field. These changes allow for more movement to be incorporated into the curriculum due to the great expanse of the outdoors. Beiles added that out of over 300 kids, around 97% of the families chose to have in-person learning, as “virtual is not optimal.” 

Similarly, at The Leo Baeck Day School, approximately 5% of students chose to do online learning. 

“We expected many to learn from home but in fact people are so pleased with all of the safety measures in place that fewer than 5% of students have chosen learning from home,” Head of School, Eric Petersiel told me. “Students of all ages have adapted really well to the measures in place because they understand the important role they each play in keeping our community safe.” 

The Leo Baeck Day School also made significant investments to upgrade auxiliary spaces like transforming the staff room or art room into regular classrooms to allow for more distancing. And invested in HVAC filtration and HEPA filters in each room to improve air purification.

But with the return of the school year approaching, there was an overwhelming desire to learn and be taught by teachers in-person. 

“Back in March, the learning curve was steep when we adopted remote teaching and learning. This was a very stressful time for all involved,” Jennifer Shecter, Director of Admissions and Communications at Vancouver Talmud Torah, told me. 

“However, everyone rolled up their sleeves and capably adapted to these new circumstances. Now that everyone is back on campus, there is a renewed sense of energy and relief. Our teachers are happier to work in this more familiarand student centredenvironment.” 

And the same can be said for the teachers at Miles Nadal Jewish Day School in Toronto.

Students at The Toronto Heschel School. (Photo by Jaimie Carson)

According to Cathy Indig, Director of Children’s Education, while some teachers were anxious before the start of the school year they have easily adapted to the new protocols.  
After meeting with the teachers individually, Indig said they acknowledged that the new measures have “become a natural way of life.” 

And if feeling overwhelmed, Indig added staff are encouraged to “step out” if they feel the need to get some fresh air and “relax their bodies and minds.”

When it comes to the mental well-being of the students, all the schools said they have added resources to mental health awareness. 

The Toronto Heschel School acknowledged that the outdoor time has been beneficial for children. Though the school always practiced mindfulness, and meditation, this year they introduced yoga, which allows kids to be active while in their own space. 

Additionally, some have hired on more staff to address mental health. Specifically, The Leo Baeck Day School having a dedicated social worker and three teacher coordinators to oversee sections of the school to offer “social-emotional learning lessons for each class as well as to support teachers by grade division with attention to the unique emotional needs of students in this difficult time,” Petersiel said. 

A full-time counsellor for the 2020-21 school year was also hired at Vancouver Talmud Torah to support students and their families in navigating some of the challenges associated with the pandemic.

“We are also working to incorporate wellness options into the weekly offerings to our teachers, whether it be a gesture of appreciation, surprise meal or otherwise,” Shecter said. 

While schools will need to adapt more with winter’s arrival, educators, students, and families have already shown immense malleability in a situation that was initially deemed insurmountable.  

Feature photo courtesy of The Toronto Heschel School. 

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Clarrie Feinstein is a journalist based in Toronto where she is currently a reporter for Metroland Media. Her previous work can be seen in Daily Hive, Business Insider, Salon, and Bedford + Bowery. Clarrie earned her M.A. in journalism from New York University.

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