Returning to School in the “New Normal”
As Ohr Torah Stone’s high schools and post-high school yeshivot and seminaries reopened their doors, they focused on certain key values – the importance of constant learning and growth, and providing support within one’s community and beyond.
When restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 forced Ohr Torah Stone’s institutions to physically close their doors, staff worked hard to maintain the pace and level of learning, and equally crucial, the sense of community and caring for each student, parent and teacher. Among the first questions administrators considered was, “How do we continue to connect to each member of our family – students, teachers and the extended community – to show them they are not alone and provide the support each one needs”? This central question framed schools’ entire educational approaches; their strategies to maintain personal connection; and their emphasis on encouraging students to reach beyond and help people in the broader community.
According to Yonat Lemberger, Principal of Oriya High School for Girls in Gush Etzion, “Although I have many years of experience in education, I had to create myself all over again. I had to consider how to best facilitate distance learning, how to build community and also relate to each individual, using a whole new strategy.
“We created a network of support for teachers, parents and students, with a particular emphasis on students already at risk who normally receive counseling in school,” Lemberger shared. “And now that we’re back at school, there is a sense that we’ve returned to normalcy, but many things are different, and many of our families have experienced a very difficult few months. Our first priority is to relate to each student, teacher and parent with sensitivity and provide everyone with the individualized support they need.”
Chezi Zecharia, Principal of Neveh Shmuel Yeshiva High School, noted, “There was so much excitement on the day we returned. It felt like the beginning of the school year and showed how much the students love being here, how much they really feel this is home.
“At the same time,” Zecharia continued, “we are aware of how difficult this period has been for many families. Many parents are out of work. Their children are anxious. We are constantly evaluating how we can help, whether through financial assistance, counseling support, or extra, social and values-based activities.”
“Much good has also come out of this”
Over the past few months, educators had to learn a whole new method of teaching through entirely digital means. At the same time, they gained new skills that they now seek to incorporate into their educational approach going forward. According to Rabbi Yoni Hollander, Principal of Derech Avot High School, “Despite the challenges of the past few months, there is also much good that has come from this shared experience. As educators, we are considering what we learned through the process of distance learning that we can implement into our educational approach in the future, in particular, more individualized work with students.”
Lemberger added, “We all developed and it’s important that we implement what we learned to improve our work. While face-to-face contact is ideal, I think we will see a much greater use of technology, both in our work with teachers and with students.”
According to Zecharia, “Early in the school year, we initiated continuing education classes focused on the use of technology, a topic which intimidated many teachers. They weren’t comfortable with technology and preferred to use the standard methods familiar to them. Over the past few months, they had no choice but to adapt. Now they are discussing ways to continue incorporating their newfound skills into their classes – through Zoom, films, and individualized work using technology.”
Maintaining a Personal Connection
Rabbi Ronen Ben David, Headmaster of Neveh Channah School for Girls, shared the emphasis he and his staff placed on maintaining a personal connection while everyone was home.
“While the classes continued online, what was really important for us over the past few months was to figure out how to maintain the personal connection that is central to our school’s philosophy, and to continue to be involved in the community when we weren’t physically together to plan and organize these efforts.”
Neveh Channah used various strategies to maintain personal connection. Students were divided into small groups, each with a teacher who checked in at least twice a week, enabling students to connect with one another and share any personal difficulties. Those in the smaller, special education class received daily calls from their teacher throughout the period when they were learning from home.
Community involvement, a central Neveh Channah value, was emphasized from the first day that schools had to close their doors. In a letter to the Neveh Channah community, girls were encouraged to reflect on how to best help those in need. A group of students immediately took the initiative and began considering how they could make a difference. They organized a WhatsApp group to respond to the needs of individuals and families throughout Gush Etzion (where the school is located), and quickly began receiving inquiries. Working with local municipalities, they developed a database of 400 volunteers of all ages from throughout the area, and received regular messages regarding people in need. Each request was quickly matched with an appropriate volunteer, and organizers followed up with each one to ensure that needs were met appropriately and quickly. Volunteers delivered food to people in isolation, helped with child care for as long as this was allowed, picked up medicines for the isolated elderly, and provided online tutoring to students who needed extra help with their school work.
Learning to be Creative and Flexible
Rabbanit Naama Frenkel, Rosh Beit Midrash of Midreshet Lindenbaum’s Lod branch, said, “We all learned how to be creative during a situation that was constantly changing. Now, we are thrilled to be back together, but still need to be flexible. We had a special evening with singing and dancing in honor of Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day), adhering to the social distancing guidelines. On Shabbat, since we couldn’t pray in the local synagogue due to the 50 person limit, we instead brought in Shabbat together in a local park – and it was lovely,” she related.
Volunteer projects are also a central component of the Midreshet Lindenbaum experience. As social distancing guidelines still prevent students from entering peoples’ homes, they took on a new initiative. According to Frenkel, “students are making calls to some of the 12,000 elderly people who live in Lod, to find out what they need and how we can help. Some want to receive a daily or weekly phone call, and some need specific items delivered to them, such as food or medicine. We are working with the municipality to ensure appropriate follow-up.
Alongside their text learning, our students have immediately immersed themselves in the Lod community to help however they can. It’s one of the lessons that was brought home to all of us over the last few months – the importance of finding creative ways to learn and grow as individuals, while also reaching out to help others, even when we cannot be together in person.”