Navigating What’s Next for Our Schools: Four Questions to Ask After Passover

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Jewish day schools across the country have pivoted overnight to transition into virtual learning environments. We feel great pride in the way our schools’ leadership, teachers, families and students have worked together in a massive collaborative enterprise to ensure stability, ongoing education and support in the face of the uncertainty brought upon us through COVID-19.

The beautiful pictures posted on social media and school websites sharing creative ways of engaging students and community convey the impression that we are all feeling a heightened sense of being in this crisis together. It is true that we are showing the best of what our community offers and that indeed together we are stronger. It is also true that there is new learning and different ways of engagement, and in many cases it is really hard. Most of us are overwhelmed by the new normal and are struggling to feel seen.

It is during these intense and vulnerable times, where we ourselves are feeling stretched thin, that we need to create space to hear our children. Let us hear their voices to understand what they need, create space for us to learn how we can do this better and how they can help us help them. Maybe we can even create stronger relationships and help our children feel empowered to be advocates for what they need. 

Inspired by conversations taking place within the Prizmah Reshet, here are four questions for us to reflect on after the Passover holiday and to guide us in shifting our thinking from crisis remote learning to our children's needs. This blog looks closely at our small school, Einstein Academy in Wilmington, Delaware, as we reflect on the past few weeks and imagine what’s possible if we are asking the right questions.

How might this crisis help us understand what really matters, and what will we do differently in school as a result?

Here are the core questions that guided our team’s initial crisis response:

  1. What are the key aspects of our school that we need to transfer online to continue delivering our product?
  2. What tools should we use to do that?
  3. What can we reasonably expect of our students and their families?

Our school showed students how to access Google Calendar and sent them home on Friday, March 13th to look for links to Google Meet classes on Monday, starting with schoolwide tefillah. We rolled out a calendar with three 45-minute blocks and breaks in between, expecting it to be hard for everyone to sit in front of a screen any longer. The personal connection and the sense of community we found by teaching synchronously was affirmed by students and parents alike.

During weeks 2 and 3, we added specials to affirm our commitment to educate the whole child. We switched to Zoom to have better control of who was talking or chatting. We used a fourth 45-minute block for check-ins and to fit in some of those specials. During this time, closures were extended and stay-at-home orders were put in place.

When I had time over Shabbat to reflect on what we were observing from students, I saw their behaviors as symptoms of grief, in line with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s famous five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Some of our students definitely were angry, though they may not have used that language. We found some turning off their video, some playing with anything and everything in their room, and some not coming to class after exhibiting different signs of anxiety about logging on. We heard them, and before the holiday we called to ask how they were and how our experiment was going. As we approached our Passover break, the limits of our approach became clearer.

It turns out that the right questions are less about how to teach virtually and more, in true Passover fashion, about mah nishtanah, what is different? And what does “different” require of us and our children to be successful?

How might we support our students, teachers and families through a process that often feels akin to grief? 

During a Prizmah webinar on how Jewish day schools might think about commemorating the Yoms (Yom Hashoah, Yom HaZikaron, and Yom HaAtzmaut), it became clear that many school leaders were paralleling Kubler-Ross’s stages of bargaining and sadness. We asked many “what if…” questions, such as: What if we focus on Holocaust stories of resilience? What if older students present to others? What if we share a video of the Yom HaZikaron siren in Israel and then examples of the 7:00 pm pots, pans, and honking for healthcare and other frontline workers here? What if we help families celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut in their homes? 

As the conversation stretched out, the bargaining, looking for versions of what we usually have done in our schools, gave way to a gradual recognition of not being able to mark the days the way we want. If we were unprepared to think about end-of-year programs and graduations, we should imagine that our students and parents will feel that loss even more. If the grieving was not obvious before, it will become so relatively soon after we return.

We now have the opportunity to help our communities get to the fifth stage of acceptance. To do so, we are going to have to name the challenges as more than expecting a lot from students and teachers. We are going to have to state explicitly that no matter how talented our teachers are, they cannot make our existing curricula work well without the magic of the classroom. We are also going to have to admit that whatever notions we had for what parents can pull off at home in support of our initial goals is not sustainable. Lastly, we should also be clear that we are not trained grief counselors nor do we specialize in collective trauma, and we need one another and more support more than ever. We need to be thinking about what supports we need in place to sustain us through the next few months and when we return to our physical co-located spaces.

How might we reimagine the way we are gathering to create space for the many losses our students, teachers and families are feeling?

If Week 1 was a metaphorical shivah, where we tried to comfort the bereaved with our presence and with familiar rituals to keep them distracted from the depth of their loss, we can look to Passover as the end of sheloshim. In fact, many have experienced real losses: loved ones or acquaintances, jobs or percentages of salary, on top of the radical change to how we are living and working. Private burial and virtual shivah minyans are not the same as being comforted by the community. Coming out of Passover, everyone’s mourning has been cut short; our grief has had little outlet and lingers. We are now, to extend the metaphor further, in the year of mourning where our joy is muted and where we make room daily to acknowledge our loss. 

Here are four ways our school will make that room for our K-5 students:

  1. Students lost those moments of unexpected joy and connection: in the hallway, in the lunchroom, passing notes in class or on the way to the playground (especially if we blocked the chat feature). We will build in social time, pressure-free. After break, we will open our day into Zoom breakout rooms by classroom to allow students to start their day much as they did in school, arriving bit by bit and socializing before school started. Then, we will bring them from their breakout rooms to be together as a school for tefillah, instead of jump-starting the day with everyone all at once.
  2. Students are overwhelmed by what they see and hear on a video conference screen. Frankly, group video conferencing is sensory overload for all of us. We will teach skills for coping and for making video conferencing more like a classroom. Students need help to be able to focus on one person, like the teacher. Students also need to learn how to see their peers without being bombarded by all the square screens. We need to guide students to make the most of their independent time when a teacher needs to work with particular student(s).
  3. Our students not only lost their classrooms, we have also turned their homes into schoolrooms. We will help students establish safe spaces for learning and scaffold the learning process in a virtual setting. We need to teach them, like we did at the start of the year, our new routines: when should they be sitting at a desk or table? when can they go to “the carpet” or a comfy chair? what about a bed is out-of-bounds? 
  4. Our students see us and their peers putting on brave, happy faces, making it hard to open up about any other feelings. We will invite students to share their struggles. We can discuss the Psalms that model asking for help, rather than the focus on praise in Hallel and Ashrei. We can ask them to think about what tools they may have been using to get through this period. We will also be even more intentional in regular, private check-ins with children and families.

How might we create meaning together given our current conditions? 

When we look past the challenges, it turns out that there are many opportunities. When we take standardized testing and overnight field trips off our calendar, we then have room to stretch our curricula, worrying far less about what might have been missed. 

In fact, we can balance that extra time with advancing new goals to match this moment. David Kessler, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s co-author, subsequently added a sixth, lesser-known stage to the grief cycle model, meaning. On the first day of spring break, the faculty met and came up with a way to make room for the challenges ahead and to make meaning for this moment: we are dedicating Fridays to teaching community through internal efforts, external efforts, and skill-building efforts.

Internally, we will make more room for class meetings. We will reinvigorate our buddy system to have older students read with younger students, and we will have classes share their work with each other. We are still exploring more options, and the process is giving us new energy. We look forward to getting student ideas, too.

Externally, we will write letters and work on video conferencing with the seniors at our local Jewish senior facilities. We will write about and share out what we are doing and experiencing, and we will leverage ourselves as a resource to the community.

Skill-building is our hidden opportunity. Part of struggling to look at the screen in a video conference is not understanding the importance of eye-contact. We will take the time to teach how to have a good conversation, how to make a phone call, and how to schedule an online playdate. While we are spending time in our homes, we can teach how to be a good host (for the future), starting with how to clean and the science behind cleaning devices, or even simply how to set a table. There are so many ways we can use being home as the classroom for life, especially a life of community.

Community is just where we started thinking about meaning in this crisis. Being #AloneTogether does not mean that we will never be together. We want to turn our current loss into a chance to have a stronger future.

Now is our chance to ask about our exodus from our buildings. Let us use these four questions to help us acknowledge our loss, make room for our grief, and attempt to make positive meaning for our students and for ourselves.