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Distance learning in the age of COVID-19

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More than 300 children and their families gather on Zoom daily for Solomon Schechter Day School’s morning announcements, led by Head of School Lena Kushnir (top left).

Turn a class with 20 kids in one room into a class in 20 kids' rooms. Everything a Jewish school does-put that online. And do it in under a week.

That was the task faced-and met-by Chicago metropolitan Jewish schools responding to the coronavirus pandemic.

"Gov. Pritzker closed the schools on Friday, March 20," recalled Rabbi Leonard Matanky, dean of Ida Crown Jewish Academy (ICJA).  "On Monday, the students came to school to get supplies, while the teachers trained in distance learning. Tuesday morning, we were operational...The devotion, adaptability, and wisdom of our teachers, students, staff, and lay leadership is overwhelming." 

The students are adapting to distance learning, despite its challenges. "After playing around with Zoom, I began to feel comfortable with this style of learning," said Yakira Robinson, an ICJA senior. "But it's difficult to communicate when you can't physically be with your fellow students."

Twins Leona and Byron Himebaugh-Feuer-Chicago Jewish Day School (CJDS) fourth graders-likewise lamented the lack of real-life interaction. "In school, the teacher reads to us," Leona sighed. "Now, we read alone."

However, both Robinson and the Himebaugh-Feuers say they enjoy the convenience. "You wake up and stay in your room in your comfortable clothes, while getting the same education," Robinson said. "What could be better?"

 Or, as Byron put it, "You don't have to leave your house!" He attends class at his kitchen table. "And we still have cooking, P.E., and tefillah (prayers)."

 His twin goes to school in her room. About her classwork, Leona mused, "It's all the same stuff-just in a different way."

  The schools are striving for normalcy in an abnormal situation. "AP courses are on track. Those with learning differences are served. Student clubs are still meeting," Matanky said. "We finished the quarter and issued report cards. Attendance was taken, and we're all still there."

 Beyond the virtual classroom, schools are being resourceful in creating supplementary programming. They're not letting the pandemic stop the students from participating in extra-curriculars like coding, band, cooking, dance, and theater.

 After all, the show must go on-at least some day. That's why Solomon Schechter Day School of Metropolitan Chicago's (SSDS) production of The Lion King continues to rehearse on Zoom. "We may have very little time for rehearsals prior to opening, so we want to keep the students primed to perform." said Dr. Andy Rosenson, the school's musical director. "We want them to feel as much a part of the school community as when they are in the physical building."

 Some Jewish schools, too, offer distance pre-Shabbat programming. SSDS hosted an online pre-Friday night event recently, with 300 students and their families participating, while CJDS presented a similar service featuring popular Jewish musician Craig Taubman.

 Schools are working to infuse meaning and boost the emotional well-being of their students in a difficult moment. CJDS issued its students "fun, but meaningful challenges, like making window signs thanking medical workers," said Jen Minkus, Marketing and Communications Associate at CJDS.

 Before distance learning began, Schechter held a webinar to help parents navigate the psychological challenges they would face. They were advised to practice self-care and to model it for their children. "We keep track of the kids' emotional needs," Tami Warshawsky, the school's director of advancement said. "This time will pass academically, but we need to ensure it will not harm them emotionally."

 Perhaps most of all, this unique time is helping students evolve their resilience. As Robinson put it: "Distance learning has taught me the importance of making things work."

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