Plexiglass, social distancing, and masks are not considered a part of an ordinary classroom, but having them in place means that teachers like Alissa Zeffren, a faculty member at Ida Crown Jewish Academy in Skokie, can carry on with in-person instruction during a year that has been anything but ordinary.
Following the outbreak of COVID-19 this past March, Ida Crown pivoted to remote learning for the remainder of the spring 2020 semester. The school only decided to open its doors this past fall after the implementation of strict health protocols, which also include regular temperature checks. Now, with a recent surge of cases of COVID-19 in Illinois, it appears that Zeffren and other educators will be adhering to these rigid standards for many months to come. Fortunately, said the 10-year Ida Crown veteran, who teaches Jewish history and Torah, she has adapted with relative ease.
"It is way more manageable" than she had anticipated, she said. That's because Ida Crown was already tech-savvy, which enabled the school to provide remote instruction for students who cannot attend in person due to preexisting conditions or health concerns. Likewise, she added, it has allowed some of her peers to teach remotely. None of this is ideal, she said, conceding that concurrently managing two sets of students-those in the classroom and those attending through a Zoom platform-"changes the way group work" functions. Nevertheless, it is keeping everyone safe.
There has also been an unexpected fringe benefit to Zoom learning, noted Zeffren. As the advisor to the Student to Student club, she works with Jewish students in schools throughout the region to educate those in school districts with few Jews about Jewish history, practices, and culture. In years past, she and her students would schlep to remote parts of the Chicago metropolitan area to provide in-class instruction, often racking up hours of travel time. With the pandemic barring in-person experiences, she and her students can now reach more students, in more distant locales, through Zoom.
"Logistically, it is a lot easier," said Zeffren, whose Student to Student participants recently met remotely with peers from a central Wisconsin school.
Another Jewish teacher, Mardi Caminer, grew up in Chicago's Lincoln Square neighborhood. She has also become, at 24, an old hand at remote instruction. A special education teacher in a Title I Washington, D.C., public elementary school-so designated because it receives federal dollars to close educational gaps experienced by large concentrations of low-income students-Caminer said that teaching under COVID-19 is not a 9-to-5 endeavor.
"It is nonstop, every hour of the day," said Caminer, who provides reading and math instruction through Zoom and whatever technology students and families can access, including mobile phones. It is, she said, a humbling, as well as eye-opening, experience.
"You get to see the whole family-you can hear the background noise," she said.
To keep in touch with students in a more personal way, "I sent postcards to my kids in the spring," she said. She also worked hard to win a grant that provided funding for summer books for her students and basic household needs for them and their families.
In addition to her teaching responsibilities, Caminer serves as an instructional coach to peers and a soccer coach for her school. Asked how she coaches soccer online, Caminer said that "virtual soccer practice involved focusing on fancy footwork."
Caminer said teaching has been a lifelong dream, "ever since first grade," and that it became more of a reality while she was in high school. She was working as a teacher's assistant at her family's synagogue, Anshe Emet Synagogue, helping children with learning disabilities learn Hebrew. The teacher, Anne Johnston, observed Caminer's rapport and joy with the students and suggested that she consider teaching as profession, Caminer recalled. It was, for her, an "aha" moment. The light bulb turned on, and it continues to shine to this day.