New normal

Teaching, learning & parenting after COVID: Where are we now?

In Short

In January of 2021, just one year ago, we were in the midst of surge of Omicron cases and there was talk in some areas about closing schools again. Fast forward to January of this year; we are back in a big way

As we near the end of our third year since COVID first entered our lives, we find ourselves navigating a “new normal” in so many aspects of our daily lives. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the fear and uncertainty embedded in everyday living has had a profound impact on our world and in our communities. In my work at the Community Synagogue Early Childhood Center, I feel compelled to reframe these past few years so that we can learn and grow from our shared experiences.

Around the world, we are collectively in the process of navigating and making sense of our “new normal.” In some parts of the world, COVID continues to pose a significant threat to the health, safety and wellness to their community. In the world of early childhood education here on Long Island, we find our community in the process of redefining our roles. Parents, teachers and especially the children in our schools, have all been impacted in some way by the experience of living during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic – lockdowns, school and business closures, working from home, going into work – we all have a story.

In January of 2021, just one year ago, we were in the midst of surge of Omicron cases and there was talk in some areas about closing schools again. Fast forward to January of this year; we are back in a big way. Our ECC  children and their teachers are able to talk and interact freely without the barrier of a mask. We are able to hold events indoors, and for some of our families, they are welcome inside our school building for the first time since their child started school two years ago. It is crazy to think about that – a child has been attending our preschool for two years, and the parent has never set foot inside? These are the stories we will tell for years to come about our time “doing life” during a global pandemic.

How are we doing now? 

Our Students

On a macro level, our ECC students are thriving and happy. Items such as play dough, sand and other sensory materials previously removed from classrooms as a COVID safety precaution, have since been restored. Children come to school un-masked, and are able to interact unrestricted with their teachers and peers. These changes alone have had a huge impact on our program. The children are eager for connection and conversation with their same-age peers, and we make sure to include stretches of unstructured play time in our daily schedules.

What we are noticing more and more as the year goes on is that our ECC students crave connection and community with one another within our kehilah kedoshah, our sacred community. The sense connection in community is something that even our littlest learners have been missing. We are noticing in ways big and small that many of our ECC children struggle to negotiate and navigate social interactions. During lockdown, parents and caregivers were often times the only playmates available for these young children. Our preschoolers were not exposed to opportunities to hone their social-emotional skills through interactions with other young children. So much of our curriculum in our ECC this year focuses on the well-being of each unique child in our care. Teaching skills and competencies of menschlehkeit – being a mensch, are equally as important to our program as the academic skills. Qualities of menschlehkeit such as empathy, self-control, active listening and problem-solving are now, more than ever, skills that so many of us couldbenefit from additional practice.

Our Teachers

Our ECC teachers are the real-life heroes. Daily life during the height of the pandemic was not easy for any of us. Our ECC teachers who left their homes daily to teach at our school were faced with daily challenges none of us were prepared for. The responsibility of caring for someone else’s child(ren) during a global health crisis felt enormous, even for our most seasoned teachers. For months, our staff taught outdoors in tents, no matter what the weather forecast. When we moved indoors finally, our teachers wore masks for long stretches of time. They spent classroom time reviewing the rules, which included proper hand washing and mask wearing protocols, limited use of toys and games to only those that could be washed and disinfected properly, and enforcing no sharing, touching or exploring. The list was long and exhausting. One of the greatest losses during the pandemic was the ability to connect face to face with the students. Young children so often make meaning from the expressions they see on the faces of their grownups and friends. Words alone are not as meaningful, nor as easily understandable, when lacking an emotional component. In many cases, teachers lost the ability to make deep meaningful connections with young children in their classes because of the barrier that mask-wearing created. The Jewish value of b’riyut (health and wellness) reminds us that our obligations to ourselves and to others can be met only if we exercise sufficient self-care. Our ECC teachers felt an immense burden on their own physical and mental well-being each and every day they came to teach, as they absorbed the additional responsibility of caring for their students. Today we are thankfully in a much less-restrictive school environment. Our Pre-K students still ask before touching and playing with the available toys in the classroom. Many of our students are experts in hand-washing. Our teachers are working  to redefine their classroom expectations so that they can meet their students on new levels in our post-COVID school. While the burden of following strict cleaning and disinfecting protocols has been lifted, our teachers are most often tasked with helping to reassure that they are safe, and loved, and free to play with their friends, share toys and dress up to their heart’s content.

Our Families

For parents of young children, the pandemic robbed preschool-age children of the very thing they need for healthy growth and development – socialization with their peers. During lockdown, parents were often the only accessible playmate for their preschooler. Families with older children may have fared somewhat better given the presence of another child, however interactions were confined to the home, and did not, and could not replace a play date, a birthday party, or a classroom interaction. Pandemic parents were also faced with the impossible juggling act of work, homeschooling and life in general. Once schools reopened, some of these burdens were lifted, however the lasting effects of the early days of COVID are still being uncovered. What remains above all else, no matter the challenge or circumstance, is ahava – love. In Judaism, it is said that love is a central source of joy and it is what gives life meaning. Despite the myriad of challenges that families of young children experienced during the pandemic, ahava prevailed. 

In his book, Life’s Daily Blessings, Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky writes, “We should celebrate each passing year, each year that we grow older, with fervor and enthusiasm and be thankful for each day that we have lived, for each day that we have learned, for each day that we have loved.” As come together as a school community to rebuild our proverbial strength, there is still so much uncertainty about the long term effects of COVID. Our kehilah kedoshah is forever changed after COVID. We lead from a place of ahava, one day, one breath at a time. As we teach our ECC children the value of tikkun olam, repairing the world, we practice in our daily lives. Through our words, and our actions, we are all more connected after doing this work together.

Jen Schiffer has worked in the field of Jewish early childhood education for almost 15 years, teaching in Queens and Long Island, and serving on the board of the Jewish Early Childhood Association. In her role as director at The Community Synagogue L’Dor V’Dor Early Childhood Center in Port Washington, New York, she is passionate about engaging young families in her community by providing meaningful Jewish learning experiences in her early childhood education program.