It was not until Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 that it became a reality for New Jersey schools to consider the possibility of an extended physical absence from our buildings. Like many of our peer schools did at the time, we had these important conversations and considered ways in which we could exist in a remote world. It wasn’t until early March, however, that these plans that had lived in our heads and file cabinets since 2012 would be forced to be implemented.
The world has been changing on a minute-by-minute basis over these last few weeks, and there was no way to know that shortly after our Purim celebrations, I would be sending a blast communication out to our entire community letting them know that we’d be closing for — at the very least — five weeks, until the end of our scheduled Pesach break. At the time the announcement seemed a bit excessive; a month later, it feels purely aspirational.
The email to our community meant that our students — ranging in age from 4-17 — were leaving school with many books and binders in hand, and our team was beginning the process of changing to a fully remote operation within a matter of days. Under normal circumstances, our team and our entire faculty would have laughed at the idea of flipping the switch to remote instruction in a matter of days. Yet under these circumstances every single member of our Golda Och Academy (GOA) team rose to the occasion.
This is not how change works in the educational world. We strive to be deliberate and thoughtful, always planning with the best interests of our students in mind. In this case, the best interests of our students included continuing their learning from home to provide some modicum of normalcy. As we dove head-first into this process, we worked to consider all the potential problems and pitfalls. What jumped out at us from the start was the need to provide some of our teachers with technical support and assistance. We also examined overcoming the hurdle of some of our youngest students having limited access to technology, the challenge of determining how much screen time was too much, and finding a balance that still enabled our students to feel connected to their learning, teachers, and friends. These were just some of the important questions we considered in these first moments, and have continued to address over recent weeks.
To be socially or physically distant is antithetical to our work. In a flash our educational system was turned on its head, and the term “remote instruction” no longer meant a one-off accommodation we might provide for a student with an illness who has been absent for successive days.
Accomplishing this metamorphosis required a total team effort. Classroom instruction shifted online to Zoom and Google Meet, our students had to shift their thinking and approach, and many of our tech-savvy parents stepped in to provide support and guidance in this new frontier. This collaboration has been inspirational and highlighted the importance of our home-school partnership.
Our teachers are superheroes. Like the majority of adults in our country, teachers began their own “work from home” journeys just a few short weeks ago. The problem, however, is that the majority of teachers did not choose the profession in order to teach through a computer screen. By definition, educators are social creatures who thrive on interactions with students. This new reality that included working remotely, teaching on an unfamiliar platform, and balancing responsibilities at home with their newfound commitments at work could have proved to be an unsuccessful endeavor. Yet we have seen the opposite to be true.
Yes, it has not been without stress and anxiety and a few technical glitches along the way; however, it has enabled our teachers to shine. With creativity, flexibility, and responsiveness, our teachers have moved forward without missing a beat. They have explored new ways to motivate and inspire students while modeling for them what it means to be a life-long learner.
The full impact that this extended absence from school will have on our students is unknown. They have had to create new routines and make changes to their learning styles while balancing their own stress and anxiety. We spend a tremendous amount of time supporting the social-emotional well-being of every student, and that doesn’t end with remote learning. Quite the contrary; the importance is now greater than ever.
As a result of this pandemic, the need for physical distancing is paramount, but it is incumbent upon all of us to ensure that physical distancing does not lead to social isolation. We have encouraged all of our families to continue to find ways to engage with one another, whether during virtual tefillah (prayer) or communal Havdalah celebrations, in an effort to remain connected.
Parents also play a critical new role in the education of their children. As we remain in our homes during this period, our parents have had a much higher engagement level with their children. We recognize and appreciate the stress that the majority of our parents now face. Balancing their own work from home with kids to care for all day long is no easy feat and requires patience — from all sides — for us to ultimately succeed.
Our new (ab)normal is upon us, and I am in awe of our community. It is at the difficult moments that our mettle is tested. While the world around us is filled with uncertainty, we have been given the opportunity to take our school to new heights. No, it will not be perfect and there will continue to be bumps along the way; however, the authentic learning that’s happening in our virtual classrooms will continue to inspire and influence our students for many years to come. When this is all said and done, we will remember how much we’ve been tested and will no doubt come out stronger on the other side.
Adam Shapiro is head of school at Golda Och Academy in West Orange.