Has Remote Learning Set Back Jewish Day School Students?

New research that surveyed nearly 1,400 9-12th graders at Jewish day schools shows that 60% of those students believe that “their remote learning has not had a notable negative impact on their education.” Students also appreciate the efforts made by their schools and, even when they feel their education has been set back “somewhat” or “very much,” they don’t tend to attribute their problems to their schools.

The research was conducted by Rosov Consulting in partnership with Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools and supported by the Jim Joseph Foundation. In July 2020, 16 Jewish day high schools fielded a survey to their students about their experience of remote learning since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Ten of the participating schools are Modern Orthodox; six are Community or Conservative high schools.

The research notes that “It has been widely reported that Jewish day schools have been especially nimble in responding to the pandemic. Student responses confirm this impression. Schools should take great pride in this accomplish­ment. Their students – not always the most appreciative of audiences, especially at high school level – are grateful for their efforts.”

Key Findings Include:

1. Overall, a majority of students (60%) believe that their remote learning has not had a notable negative impact on their education. Female students feel significantly more strongly than male students that remote learning has set their education back. A significantly greater proportion of 10th grade and 11th grade students feel that remote learning has set them back the most, compared with 9th and 12th graders.

2. Students appreciate the efforts made by their schools. Even when they feel their education has been set back “somewhat” or “very much,” they don’t tend to attribute their problems to their schools.

3. Personal mindset strongly impacts how students assess the impact of this experience on their learning.  Commonly, those who report that remote learning set them back least tend to view this experience as a growth opportunity. They appreciated having more free time than usual. They were glad to have a more intensive educational experience than peers in public schools. Those who felt their education had been most set back viewed almost every dimension of this experience in negative terms: they experienced more friction with siblings at home, and they were disappointed with the quality of the resources employed (Zoom classes, school projects, etc.).

4. Students assessment of the extent to which their learning was set back is very strongly related to the extent to which they feel that remote learning strengthened their connection to their school community. The schools with the highest proportions of students who assessed that their education was not set back at all attended relatively small schools with fewer than 20 students in a grade; they inhabited already existing tight-knit communities. These schools also invested heavily in community-building experiences: some form of daily prayer; town-hall meetings for students; and extra-curricular events such as shelter-in-place color war and a Yom Ha’atzmaut parade that came to every student’s home.

The researchers offered two primary recommendations for day schools to consider.

1. Less is more.

Spend fewer hours in direct contact with students. Give them more time to breathe. Give them a chance to get on top of the work, get off the screen, be more independent of the teacher, and more dependent on one another. (At one of the schools with which we spoke, going to a four-day week has been critical in enabling students to find their equilibrium, to keep up, and to breathe.) And when students do have contact time, create space during that time for students to share their experiences with one another; consider not just using the time for teaching. Even during class time, less is more. No doubt, a minority of students will feel they’re not getting full value if schools cut back in these ways. Those students will need more personalized attention.

2. Build community, and then do it some more.

In large schools, this means carving out “pods” so students have a chance to spend more time with the same peers. In parts of the country where groups of students can get together in person, work on cultivating micro-communities among the same groups of students. In smaller communities, celebrate what’s special about everyone knowing everyone else. In normal times, this may be claustrophobic. In these times where we face the most elemental challenges to our needs as social beings, cultivating such communities is the most effective way in which we can enable students to thrive personally, socially, and academically.

If some of these recommendations are too challenging to implement across the high school as a whole, then focus attention on rising 11th and 12th graders. Those are the students who perceive their education to be most at risk. And fears of this kind can be self-fulfilling. Those are the first students to bring back into school.

Teaching in a Jewish day school is challenging, although rewarding, work at the best of times. At present, especially for those educators who are themselves home alone, far from family and friends, this work is doubly difficult. Teachers need community, too. Students will be best helped if schools provide their teachers with emotional support alongside technical training.