By Rabbi Yehudah Potok
“My child will not be able to wear a mask all day;”
“She is going to be scared to return to school with so many restrictions, so we plan for her to be on Zoom for now;”
“He will not be able to socially distance from his friends.”
These are just a few of the many comments that I heard as a Head of School as we planned for reopening our campus this fall. As with every school around the country, our Reopening Task Force struggled with the dilemma of if/how to bring our students back to campus safely for live instruction after such a long break from in-person learning. We were determined to find a way to have children back in our physical school and as a result we developed many protocols, policies, and procedures to ensure a low risk environment for staff and students. As much as our community wanted the children back together in a normal routine, there were still so many worries.
Recently, I have been reading many articles about how the pandemic is having a damaging impact on our youth. I am not going to suggest that there have not been some real and serious struggles for our children. But every day, I also see great strength. Too often, we superimpose our own anxieties as adults onto our children instead of allowing them to feel and react in their own way.
This is a story you have heard before, from so many angles. Change is hard, we fear the unknown, and children need routine and consistency. However, I want to tell you where my students are after six weeks of in-person summer camp and ten weeks into our school year.
I can honestly say that we do not give our kids enough credit. Our children are resilient!! As millennials and Gen Xers we have become so accustomed to protecting our kids from any discomfort, paving their path to success, controlling the variables in their lives. Until now, many of us have had the ability to shield them when a situation is too traumatic or reframe a story that might feel overwhelming. This global pandemic is so pervasive that we were unable to do so. Even our youngest students know the words “COVID” and “social distance.” This is our new reality but the good news is, our kids are adapting.
In August, we opened our 520 student school with 90% of our students returning to campus and 10% of them online.
At the start of the year, as with any year, teachers spent a lot of time teaching classroom routines and expectations. But this year there were some new pandemic twists including, The 3 W’s – Wear a mask, Watch your distance, and Wash your hands. New changes were added to our schedule such as “mask breaks” and “temperature checks.” Low and behold, the kids got it. Within two weeks, our students understood what was expected of them, they use words like “pandemic” and “quarantine” in their creative writing – they adapted. The children understand that to safely be in school, their happy place, they must make changes to their routines and adjust.
But this is not the whole story, some students took this new normal even further. They began to use our pandemic structures in ways we never even dreamed. Students began to personalize the plexiglass dividers on their desks creating homey spaces within their classrooms. Children added drawings, colorful pen and marker “holders” strung across the top with elementary school precision. Their desks are now adorned with sticky note walls of favorite quotes. At recess the students invented new games that allow for social distancing (I would write more details about these games but alas I do not understand half of the rules, I can only watch the children run around with glee seeming to fully understand how these are played!) And in our middle school building is perhaps my favorite pandemic adaptation – the 8th grade mural. Every morning, we do temperature checks before students are allowed to enter the school building. As with many schools when the children are cleared, they get a little sticker the size of a pea to indicate that they are allowed in. These stickers are different colors each day of the week so we as a staff can keep track of the process. So, one day as I was walking through our 8th grade wing I noticed a new bulletin board festooned with these small stickers organized by color. On closer inspection I saw that one of our eighth graders had sketched a beautiful beach scene in pencil and noted which color sticker belongs in each section. Every day the eighth graders walk by the mural, pick the appropriate colored section and deposit their sticker.
When I saw this mural, I nearly cried. All of these months of planning, the stress and anxiety for myself, my staff and our parents, and yet here were our children doing exactly what they are so capable of doing – creating beautiful and creative art! They took the materials we provided – and dreamed up new uses that never occurred to us. Children have such a deep strength and perseverance in the face of adversity and we tend to underestimate them.
Hopefully these systems we have in place will last us through the rest of this crisis and we will be able to continue to offer our students a productive and seamless year of learning, although I am sure there will be a few bumps along the way. But, the next time I am lying awake at three in the morning stressed out about my students, how are they going to handle this new curve, this added restriction, I am going to think about the resilience I see today and remember that they are safely sleeping in their beds dreaming up the next step that I had never even imagined.
Rabbi Yehudah Potok has been in the field of Jewish education for over eighteen years serving in both teaching and administrative roles in camps and day schools. He is currently the Head of School at Katz Hillel Day School in Boca Raton, FL. Rabbi Potok received rabbinic ordination from Yeshviat Hamivtar in Israel, a master’s degree in Education from the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration, and his bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania where he studied computer science and sociology of health and medicine. He has published a number of articles and presented at conference regarding organizational change, and has published a curriculum on Jewish bioethics as well as a siddur for summer camp. Additionally, Rabbi Potok has served on a number of nonprofit boards and has been an active member of Head of School Consortiums as well as regional independent school accreditation associations.