Lessons learned from schools’ responses to COVID-19

August 18, 2020

By Fayge Safran Novogroder and Nina Bruder

As an organization that has served close to 200 Jewish day schools across North America and across religious denominations, Jewish New Teacher Project (JNTP) of New Teacher Center has been in a unique position throughout the COVID-19 crisis. Not only have we been able to facilitate collaboration and sharing of challenges and solutions among our schools, we’ve also gained insights that we would like to share with the Jewish day school field at large. What’s emerged from this crisis about how students learn and how schools educate has long-reaching implications for the field going forward, for both in-person and remote learning.

Lesson 1The big picture – what successful schools did right

North American Jewish day schools have so much to be proud of for how they devised and implemented a Plan B almost overnight, working hard to provide instruction to our children despite the unfamiliar and stressful circumstances. Schools with ed tech competencies quickly established interactive remote learning environments, while schools without technology worked hard to adapt their curriculum for directed learning at home. All schools learned they needed to be flexible, agile, and willing to make changes in real time.

The most successful schools were committed to ongoing, frequent communication with parents, students, and teachers. Their approach was one of transparency about expectations, roles, structures, and schedules – and about how much was unknown and that plans could (and likely would) change as time went on. Schools that fostered a sense of community during these isolating times found greater buy-in and engagement from all of their constituencies as they built trust and a sense of caring. For example, SAR in Riverdale, NY conducted weekly online Town Hall meetings for parents and other stakeholders to share information and to ensure that their community felt heard and remained engaged.

Perhaps the single greatest factor in the success of online learning was the training and ongoing technological supportof teachers. Schools that devoted resources toward training teachers in available technology reaped significant rewards in the quality of the online learning experience and in teachers’ feelings of competency and satisfaction throughout this challenging period. Equally impactful was the availability of immediate tech support to trouble-shoot in real time as teachers ran into issues. YDE School in Brooklyn NY, for example, created a direct email system for teachers to reach a team of technology experts for on-the-spot help when needed.

Lesson 2Social-emotional health is critical and will need to be at the forefront moving forward

This experience has reinforced that sensitivity to social-emotional health is essential for successful learning and good teaching – always, and especially during times of crisis. Entire school communities – students, parents, teachers, and administrators – have been and continue to be impacted on a social-emotional level. In a recent JNTP-sponsored webinar, Supporting the Emotional Wellbeing of Jewish School Communities, Zahava Farbman, Associate Director of Chai Lifeline’s Crisis Intervention, Trauma, and Bereavement Department, explained: “Everyone is suffering … whether it’s isolation and quarantine, financial loss, loneliness, uncertainty, illness, or death.”

Teachers are emotionally exhausted. They have experienced anxiety, fear, and death. In addition, the need for constant adaptation during the last months of 2019-2020 created a tremendous amount of stress and challenged teachers’ endurance. Schools that were able to support the emotional needs of their educators understood the importance of explicitly thanking and appreciating their teachers, many of whom were being asked to radically move beyond their comfort zones, learn new skills very quickly, balance their work and home lives in previously-unfathomable ways, and provide cheer, comfort, and routine to their students all while they were grappling with their own emotional states. Educators who were given permission not to be at their best and who were allowed to take care of themselves managed to stay resilient.

Children, too, experienced fear and anxiety; some perhaps even death of family members. Unfortunately, some students have spent these months locked up in dysfunctional – or, even worse, abusive – environments. Some are in mourning for missed experiences such as camp, family vacations, and birthday or bar/bat mitzvah celebrations. Next year’s teachers should communicate with last year’s teachers and make use of guidance staff to gain insight into the emotional baselines of their new students, so that they can immediately notice areas of concern and ensure issues are being dealt with in a timely manner.

On the social side, it is important to note that for some children the social damage caused by months of isolation has been devastating. Similarly, many teachers and administrators lost opportunities for in-person collaboration and collegiality which make their jobs rich and meaningful. Some schools addressed the importance of relationships to emotional wellbeing by creating opportunities for distanced or virtual socializing. Examples include regular phone check-ins by teachers with students; staff drive-by of students’ homes; story time with teachers (for younger classes); virtual staff paint party; night of ‘wine and whine’ for teachers and admins to celebrate and vent together.

Moving into next year, with a likelihood of at least some time spent in a remote learning environment, schools must stay tuned in to the social-emotional needs of students and teachers, which is a foundation for successful learning and teaching.

Lesson 3: Students thrive when they have agency over their own learning

Students responded in different ways to remote learning, whether online or self-directed. Many students who usually do well in school struggled in the new learning environment and many who had struggled in the classroom setting were engaged and successful in home-based school.

As we move into next year, it is incumbent upon teachers to understand what worked/didn’t work for their students in distance learning, so that they are equipped to support their students in whatever circumstances emerge. This past year’s teachers should share strategies that worked/didn’t work for each student with incoming teachers. Likewise, next year’s teachers may want to reach out directly to their new students (and even to their parents) to find out what worked for them last year (and to check on their social-emotional state to get a baseline, as discussed above).

Over the past few months, educators learned that students have a hugeunexplored capacity for creativity and also that it is crucial to set goals in order to keep students motivated and progressing. Perhaps most importantly, what emerged was the power of granting students greater autonomy in learning by providing them with more choice in terms of asynchronous learning and opportunities for self-regulation, self-reflection, and self-assessment. Moving forward, teachers may want to consider how they can incorporate more choice, autonomy, responsibility, and reflection into classroom learning and, also, how they might help students optimize the opportunity to take ownership of their own learning.

Lesson 4Teaching will no longer look the same

Some amazing things happened to educators during this remarkable period. First, all teachers and administrators suddenly became novices. Nobody (unless they were already part of an online school) had ever before experienced running a school or teaching remotely. This leveled the playing field between more and less experienced educators, leading to greater empathy and collaboration. It also allowed some newer, younger, more technologically savvy teachers to gain confidence and take leadership in educating more veteran teachers and administrators with limited technological skills. Second, teachers discovered that they have an amazing capacity to adapt and to learn new skills, even those that might have seemed overwhelming at first. Some principals reported that this has allowed them to introduce other innovative ideas for next year (such as block scheduling) that had previously been rejected by teachers who were hesitant to try new ways of working.

During the COVID-19 crisis, schools have had to grapple with the following questions in regard to teaching:

  • What is essential curriculum and what can be discarded under these conditions?
  • What is the right balance between synchronous and asynchronous learning?
  • How do we assess students when they are learning remotely, either self-directed or online?
  • How do administrators supervise teachers in an at-home teaching environment?
  • What skills do teachers need at this time and does that change hiring criteria?

The answers may look different for each school and are likely to change in response to emerging facts on the ground as we go through the 2020-2021 school year. That said, each school has had to plan with these fundamental questions in mind as they create a new model of teaching moving forward, whether they aim to be in school or are starting next year remotely.

Finally, the walls between school and home came down and a shift in power occurred between teachers and parents. Whereas previously parents had little direct exposure to what was happening in the classroom on a day-to-day basis, school was now happening in their homes. More than that, parents were asked to shoulder a significant burden with home-based learning, depending on their children’s ages and whether/how much online instruction was taking place. No matter what model of schooling emerges for next year, communication and relationship between home and school may shift to a more equal partnership in which both teachers and parents are supporting/facilitating student learning.

Conclusion

There remain a number of big-picture questions which each school must address in order to navigate the future successfully:

  • How can schools support teachers and students when their place of learning may be in a constant state of flux, such as one day home, one day in school, some people (students and/or teachers) online, some people in the classroom?
  • How can schools build community remotely?
  • What is the role of parents in home-based learning?
  • How will schools plan for meeting the social-emotional needs of the entire school community during a time of crisis?
  • How can schools make remote learning work successfully for younger students and special needs students?

What we’ve learned from conversations across the field is that what we know about good teaching in a school environment also applies to good teaching in a remote learning environmentNobody knows what this coming school year will bring, even as schools plan for multiple contingencies. While this unknown is disconcerting and uncomfortable, it also provides a unique opportunity to take a step back and “re-imagine school” — whether in person, remote, or a combination — in light of lessons learned. The good news is that this past year’s experience has already started to change mindsets around setting priorities, revising academic expectations, attending to the social and emotional needs of the school community, and allowing for flexibility and adaptation. More than anything, creative, out-of-the-box thinking will be necessary to meet the needs of this “new normal.” Our greatest achievements moving forward will come from the lessons we learned, from a commitment to our students, and from the conviction that we can and will be successful together.

Fayge Safran Novogroder, Senior Manager at Jewish New Teacher Project, directs JNTP’s Administrator Support Program, providing cohort and one-on-one coaching to early career administrators. Nina Bruder is Senior Director at JNTP, a self-funded division of the award-winning New Teacher Center.

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