Reimagining Jewish Day Schooling:
New Realities in the Face of COVID-19
Dr. Chaim Y. Botwinick
As principal of a medium size Jewish day school, I am beyond inspired by the tremendous grit, resiliency, creativity and innovation many of our Jewish day schools and yeshivas have exhibited during this unprecedented pandemic.
Although we are far from being “out of the woods” of uncertainty, there are a host of critical “take-a-ways and important “lessons-learned” for when our schools reopen. To be sure, these realities have transformed our thinking regarding the future “new normal” for effective schooling; our assumptions regarding the manner in which our students learn; the limitations and boundaries of parental patience and responsiveness, the breadth and scope of teachers bandwidth and capacity; and, the continued imperative for promoting and celebrating transformative school leadership. These outcomes not only inform and shape the future normal of our Schools, but they will also help us sharpen our resolve and thinking, as we begin to reimagine how our schools will function in the immediate and foreseeable future.
First and foremost, we must be mindful of the fact that one-size never fits all. Many states, counties and school districts have different guidelines, laws and requirements – some more stringent than others. From social distancing requirements of students and faculty to the mandatory wearing of face masks on campus; from the creation of new class scheduling and carpool requirements to temperature checks; from student hygiene monitoring to virus and contact testing; and, from physical plant modifications and frequent deep cleaning to revised Judaic and general studies curricular goals, objectives and expectations – we must be prepared to undertake all or most these challenges as never before imaginable.
At the end of the day, our schools will need to comply with the guidelines and standards set forth and informed by government, science, halacha and thought-leadership. Anything less, compromises the health and wellbeing of our students, their families and our communities. We must be informed in our thinking and bold in our wisdom. But above all, we must continue to be student-centered in virtually everything we do
Reports are now circulating that there are a growing number of parents who may be hesitant to send their children back to our schools until there is a vaccine for the virus. And, there are many more parents who are looking forward to the reopening of our schools with great relief coupled with trepidation, concern and anxiety. Be-it-as-it-may, most of our day schools and yeshivas, with Hashem’s oversight, will eventually reopen – some sooner, some later; but, they will reopen.
The other challenge among many will be to provide our principals, Rabbeim, faculty and staff with the strength and support (“chizuk”) they so desperately deserve and require. This will include intensive and extensive professional development and supervision focusing on our new normal teacher training requirements. Several of these trainings will include topics relating to how schools should monitor student hygiene, how to create and manage new classroom structures, establishing new testing protocols, closer vigilance regarding social and emotional concerns including post traumatic student behaviors, more advance curricular modalities through technology; and significant remediation requirements for a growing number of students who unfortunately are significantly lagging behind in Judaic and general studies skills. And the list goes on and on.
All of these challenges (and more) are exacerbated by select faculty who may be concerned about returning to school – especially those over the age of 60 with underlying health concerns. This is addition to desperately needed school fundraising activities which were put on hold temporarily; and, a parent body, many of whom lost their jobs and will not be able to afford school tuition during the coming school year.
With these daunting exigencies in mind, it is imperative that we continue to plan for the future of our Jewish day schools and yeshivot with hope, optimism, vision and promise. We will all get through this mess; and, our schools will rebuild what was lost or temporarily put on hold. They will eventually flourish. But, it will require time, energy, grit, patience and above all, leadership. This pandemic is a defining teachable moment for all of us. We must learn from these experiences in order to help build a brighter and optimistic future for our schools, their students and their families. We must begin to reimagine the future of our schools through the lenses of what we are now experiencing. Will it be easy? Absolutely not. But, we have no choice. High quality chinuch must grow and flourish like never before. This is not only an imperative, it is an obligation
So what are some of the important take-a-ways and lessons learned since the beginning of the pandemic and how will they potentially impact our day schools and yeshivas in the future?
The following are several observations and suggestions for serious consideration:
- Parents will require school leadership to respond to their challenges and concerns with conviction, empathy, compassion, and confidence. There is no time for leadership waffling or room for posturing or indecisiveness. No spinning, pretty talk or faltering. Heads of School and Principals will need to be strong yet empathetic. They will need to “walk the talk” like never before and they will need to be exemplars of best practice during this most trying and challenging time. Therefore clear, concise and timely follow-up with parents and effective communication must be a top school priority; and, it must be informed and anchored in wisdom, knowledge, decisiveness and professionalism. We must continue to build parental confidence in our school’s leadership decision making processes … especially in light of mounting concerns resulting from this pandemic.
- For better or for worst, we have all learned a new-found respect for the multi-dimensional use of technology as an invaluable teaching tool. Over the past eight-weeks, we all learned the hard and difficult way that the effective use of educational technology, albeit necessary, is no panacea. Schools had no choice as they were unexpectedly thrust into the dizzying fray of educational technology dependence. It is remarkable how teaching technology skills which teachers did not possess prior to the pandemic, were quickly learned and even mastered prior to the Shavuot break. This was not by choice, but rather out of dire necessity. Our challenge will be to ensure the appropriate best fit (read “filtered”) technology for our schools, lest we easily forget its pitfalls and potential misuse due to over-zealous plans, irresponsible carelessness;
- Between Pesach and Shavuot, our faculties stepped up like never before imaginable. Rabbeim, secular studies faculty and staff all pulled together in true “achdut”( partnership) in order to create a supportive teaching community for their students. Again, the driving force and energy behind this reality was a profoundly deep passion and an unswerving commitment to our children and families. The dedication is indeed palpable.
Schools must now plan to position themselves with continuous and ongoing support for their teachers and staff. It is now “all hands-on-deck.” This must require the sharing of national and local professional development training and resources in partnership with other Jewish day schools and yeshivos. The creation of new professional development groups, consortia, and seminars will be essential. It will also require Heads of School and Principals to encourage and provide continuous support, leadership and empathetic understanding that wave the “banner” that reads – “together, we can do it.”
- Many of our students may unfortunately require significant psychological counseling and therapy for post traumatic clinical presentations. The impact of social isolation and distancing, family illness, and endless days and nights of surrealistic realities of uncertainty can be extremely confusing, depressing and stressful for many children (and their parents). These fears, unless addressed properly and expeditiously can manifest themselves in a variety of behaviors that can have a very negative impact of the child. Moving into the future, our Schools will need to begin leveraging communal intervention and support services from human service agencies and mental health practitioners. This includes early diagnostics, therapy and continued monitoring. The school must play a pivotal role in helping respond to this painful eventuality;
- Depending upon CDC, state and district protocols and school group requirements, most of our day schools and yeshivot will probably need to undertake a wide variety of physical plant and classroom planning modifications. These include the reconfiguration of classrooms to ensure that our students and faculty maintain safe distances from one another; the serving of breakfast, snacks and lunch in spaces that are open and well ventilated; the adjustment of HVAC air conditioning and heating systems to ensure maximum air flow and ventilation; the review and planning of recess breaks, physical education programs and davening that adhere to strict guidelines; and the possible rescheduling of carpool and class schedules in order to minimize bottlenecking and congestion; Schools may also want to begin exploring the use of underutilized neighboring building facilities (in close proximity to their schools) so that they can distribute their student body to more than one location. This will also help mitigate cramped school facilities. The use of vacant and/or underutilized shuls and other facilities may be useful in this regard.
- The provision of accelerated academic remediation programs for students with a special learning challenges will be paramount. During the past several months, students with learning challenges have been impacted the most. Although many schools tried desperately to provide these students with special remedial work and tutoring, reports suggest that these students are falling significantly behind in their Judaic and general studies. Schools must now begin to identify remedial tutors and teachers to engage small group or one-on-one tutoring/remediation; It will also be imperative for schools to test and asses the academic skills of all students in the beginning of the reopening phase of school. This will provide the faculty and administration with desperately needed data in order to help recalibrated their curricula goals and objectives for the coming school year.
- The COVID-19 Pandemic has created a global economic crisis of epic magnitude. This impact has resulted in tragic job loses, furloughs, and the closing or reduction of business. These realities have also impacted negatively on a growing number of families who will no longer be able to afford day school and yeshiva tuitions – even at reduced rates. This financial crisis, exacerbated by the stresses and strains for schools to pay teacher salaries, vendors and other essential school expenses, are endless and unless addressed, will have significant consequences regarding the school’s current and future viability and fiscal sustainability. It is therefore imperative that our schools begin to engage in a comprehensive financial resource development planning process. This fiscal planning process requires the best minds and thought leadership. It will require the engagement of philanthropists, lay business leadership, lending institutions, banks and foundations. It may also require the consolidation of resources and the remote possibility for smaller schools to engage in possible mergers and consolidations. Finally, this new fiscal reality should encourage schools to engage in individual and joint fundraising efforts. This is another critically important opportunity for the boards of our day schools and yeshivot to help undertake major fundraising initiatives – in concert with their fiduciary roles and responsibilities.
- Finally, the future of our Jewish day schools and yeshivot will be greatly dependent upon the amount of time, energy and resources they invest in planning for their future. This will require a different kind of planning. A planning based upon current new realities, as opposed to past experience.
To this end, Schools may want to consider creating an ad hoc Task Force on School Reopening comprised of the school’s professional educational leadership, parents, board members, rabbinic leadership as well as medical and business experts. The purpose of the Task Force would be to help determine the extent to which the school is truly ready and prepared to reopen and a clear articulation of readiness requirements, and preparedness. Once these blueprint requirements are determined and in place, the next phase in the reopening process will involve the successful implementation of the school’s operation and the careful monitoring of its progress.
Many of the assumptions in this article are based solely upon current realities. They are at best, based on this writer’s experience, thoughts and reflections since the beginning of the COVID-19 Pandemic; and, an attempt to project (not predict) a future path against a backdrop of uncertainty.
It is obvious that anything can change, at any time, under any circumstance. Only Hashem has the power to direct and guide our future. At best, we can only prepare for tomorrow based on what we now know and experience today.
Finally, this article attempts to help guide Jewish day schools and yeshivot through a maze of surrealistic uncertainty. These thoughts are presented respectfully and with the intention of encouraging our schools to engage in extensive and comprehensive planning processes.
It is our hope that Hashem will continue to watch over all of us with bracha as we weather the clouds of uncertainty. We must do everything in our power to help our schools evolve into islands of educational calm, hope and promise in a sea of uncharted waters.
May we all be blessed to go from strength to strength.
Dr. Chaim Y. Botwinick is Principal of the Hebrew Academy Community School, Margate, FL; organizational consultant and executive coach. He is co-founder and partner of LEV Consulting Associates and has served in a variety of senior Jewish educational leadership posts on the local and national levels.
Originally published in the Five Towns Jewish Times, June 5, 2020; reposted with permission.