By Alex Pomson

Since the COVID-19 pandemic first disrupted life and work in North America in March 2020, a steady stream of reports has provided updates about What’s going on in Jewish education.” Informed by leading practitioners, these reports help construct a picture of how educational institutions have been hit by the pandemic and how demand for their services has been impacted.

Over the next few weeks, we will share insights gained from a distinct and different vantage point. Our data come from a major study of the career trajectories of Jewish educators led by CASJE (Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education) and conducted by Rosov Consulting. As part of this study, we conducted interviews and focus groups during July and August of this year with 75 individuals responsible for hiring Jewish educators in a wide span of educational institutions: overnight and day camps, Hillels, day schools, congregations and afterschool programs, JCCs, and early childhood centers. By exploring the marketplace for Jewish educators now, we opened a new window on the broader landscape of Jewish education and its current state.

Our findings are reported in an interim report, Facing the Future: Mapping the Marketplace of Jewish Education during COVID-19. Over the next few weeks, we share with readers of eJewishPhilanthropy what we found as seen through the lens of human capital. In this first piece we discuss a potentially significant shift in Jewish education from a labor market of part-time to full-time work.

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Historically, the field of Jewish education has been heavily populated by part-timers. Across the largest sectors of Jewish education – congregational schools, early childhood education and day schools – about a third of Jewish educators are part-timers. It has long been argued that it will be hard to professionalize the field of Jewish education while this situation persists; institutions are reluctant to invest, for example, in the professional development of those who “only” work part time.

The exigencies of the current moment have seen the beginning of a seismic shift. In those educational sectors that were among the first to reopen following the spring closedown – early childhood centers in the summer, day schools in the fall – health regulations have limited the number of children who can gather in one space. Programs are restricted in their use of substitutes and “floaters,” part-time or occasional staff used to plug gaps in staffing rosters. Take the case of early childhood education: parental demand is down, with some parents expressing anxiety about returning to any kind of “center.” Nevertheless, because of health regulations, centers are having to staff up. They’re finding that part-time staff are not so willing to return to work – it’s not worth the health risk in a sector where compensation and benefits have been intractably subpar and part-timers are not their family’s primary breadwinners. The best way to break this jam is to employ a smaller number of full-time staff.

In day schools, where Heads had to plan for a wide variety of scenarios – fully online, in person pods, and some hybrid – the solution has been to build bench strength. Some schools are finding that it pays to double down on full-time teaching assistants who are often cheaper and more flexible than regular appointments. Assistants help keep ratios down in the classroom or in breakout rooms on Zoom. Other are opting for a more expensive alternative: they’re hiring permanent substitutes who they don’t have to share with other schools. They’re hiring “plug and play” folks who can ensure that schools aren’t caught short if a staff member has to be quarantined, and, again, they help reduce student-teacher ratios. With many schools making clear they won’t accommodate teachers who can’t be at school in person because of healthcare or childcare needs, there is also a good deal of faculty turnover. As with early childhood education, the solution is staff consolidation: fewer people working longer hours.

The dynamic in congregational education has been different, but the outcome in terms of staffing is much the same. Programs have been hit by a barrage of financial blows. Congregations have cut budgets for a variety of widely reported reasons. Parents have pulled children who have little appetite to spend even more hours on-screen for “supplementary” Jewish education; they don’t see the point in paying both synagogue fees and afterschool fees when the synagogue is physically closed or they can attend services anywhere in the world, remotely.

The congregations that have embraced the challenge of remote provision, investing in virtual learning platforms and dispersing their offerings across the week, have discovered some promising advantages. Operating online, they’re no longer tied to the vagaries of the local labor market for part-time staff; they can offer more work to their star performers, even those who may have moved out of town. The key is to find people who, in the words of one interviewee, are high tech and high touch. Education Directors report that these online offerings have been especially welcomed by parents; they’re not limited to specific hours and, of course, don’t require sitting in afterschool traffic. When schools can fully reopen, these alternative modes of delivery have every chance of remaining viable and appealing; they are much more in sync with families’ lives.

The pandemic has been painful, often heartbreaking. When the pain dissipates, we may see its contribution to the restructuring of the marketplace of Jewish education in ways that once seemed a pipedream. In some sectors, there might be fewer providers, operating with leaner, higher-quality teams, offering a more diverse array of programs, some of which will no longer be tied to bricks and mortar. In other sectors, the numbers of providers might not change much, but the providers could be employing more coherently structured full-time teams. This adjustment has potential to be a significant enabler of the upgrading of this field to a stature that reflects its contribution to Jewish life.

The multi-year research project is generously funded by the William Davidson Foundation and Jim Joseph Foundation.

Alex Pomson is Principal and Managing Director at Rosov Consulting.

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