When Governor Inslee’s March 12 COVID-19 announcement prompted school closures across Washington State, distance learning took on immediate importance. Schools, teachers, parents and students have had to assess the tools and techniques on hand, discover what was still needed and create ways to fill any gaps discovered along the way. The teamwork needed to implement new paths to learning, and the innovative digital learning centers that are growing, open doors and create connections throughout the school community.

Seattle Jewish Community School (SJCS) and other Seattle-area Jewish day schools had pre-empted the directive by soft launching their remote learning program days earlier, seeking feedback from students, parents and teachers and getting everyone up to speed.

“It was like I had hired 12 brand-new teachers despite the decades of seniority and experience they had,” says Head of School Ron Waldman. “In this format, all bets are off. None of our educators had ever been trained for this type of teaching and learning and not all children can easily adapt to continuous learning.” Even though they’ve had their challenges, Seattle Jewish Community School – along with Northwest Yeshiva High School (NYHS), Jewish Day School (JDS) and Seattle Hebrew Academy (SHA) – are making it work, teaching students important lessons and forging strong communities at the same time.

Assessment

“It started with surveying everyone’s needs. For distance learning to work, it’s important for teachers and students to have the tools they’ll need. This includes hardware like laptops or tablets, software, and access to reliable internet service,” Waldman says.

On their first day, Northwest Yeshiva High School held an orientation for distance learning, where each class met for 15 minutes and there was a check-in to make sure students had access to technology such as laptops, internet access and cameras, according to Head of School at NYHS Jason Feld. They also conducted troubleshooting sessions with teachers so that the following day, regular classes could start.

Schools are continuing to seek feedback throughout this crisis. According to Waldman, SJCS is sending out surveys at least once a week, while Jewish Day School is adjusting practices as they go.

“We have made revisions to our remote learning schedule and instruction along the way, based on feedback from families,” says JDS Head of School Vivian Scheidt. “Our teachers have reached out individually to each family to get their input on how their child is doing with remote learning.”

Tools and techniques

Access to tools is just the first step. It’s also necessary to determine the best way to utilize these tools. “Before the stay-home order, technology was used in conjunction with place-based learning. Teachers interacted directly with students in a controlled classroom environment where they could assess student needs and outcomes, and provide differentiated learning. Now professional educators have the singular tool of technology coupled with the added variable of parents,” Waldman says. To adjust, SJCS has pivoted to one-on-one, teacher-student sessions and small group instruction, depending on the need.

The schools that had already been participating in a tech cohort Community of Practice led by Dr. David Wicks, Seattle Pacific University’s chair of Digital Education, promptly convened to make sure they had the right tools to conduct virtual classes. Tools included platforms such as Zoom, Edpuzzle, Google Hangouts, Kahoot, Camtasia, Screencast-O-Matic and Seesaw.

Since traditional teaching won’t work on these platforms, Feld says they’ve encouraged teachers to come up with exciting new methods. “The charge to the faculty was to be brave in experimentation and to really let learning objectives drive the technology, not the other way around.”

Schools help build a virtual community connection through learning about Jewish rituals. (Samis Foundation)
Schools help build a virtual community connection through learning about Jewish rituals. (Samis Foundation)

Trial runs

One way to engage teachers, students and parents with new technology is to put it to use, even when it’s not needed. This allows teachers to explore new methods of sharing information to see what works on different platforms. And it gives students the opportunity to provide real-time feedback.

When teachers were ramping up to deal with educating in the age of coronavirus, they recalled what they learned the last time a major disaster slowed down Seattle, along with what they were taught during their initial trial runs at the beginning of the shutdown.

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Teachers at NYHS are drawing lessons from what they learned during Seattle’s 2019 “Snowmaggedon,” such as using flipped instruction, a blended learning strategy that allows the students to see the material before the class and then deep dive into it with their classmates during school hours.

As schools try out different modalities for remote learning, they are discovering the value of using a variety of formats, including full class groups, small groups and individualized meetings, as well as instructional goal reassessment. “Beyond the objectives of getting through a syllabus and finals, we are finding that instruction has become learner centric, with students increasingly driving their learning and building community in a more thoughtful and intentionally deeper way. This has really been the silver lining of distance learning,” says Feld.

Engage the community

Learning is the focus, but community building and engagement are important as well. Hosting events that bring in the community helps to create the feel of a real school and builds connections that extend through generations. Head of School at Seattle Hebrew Academy, Rivy Poupko Kletenik says they organized a drive-through food drive and held online events for Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day and Yom HaAtzmaut, Israeli Independence Day. They will hold a virtual Grandparents and Special Friends Day this month.

Schools have long been a community center that extend beyond the student/parent population. Many schools have offered classes for adult learners, from GED programs to language, computer and music lessons. This community involvement can continue remotely.

According to Feld, NYHS is emphasizing the importance of building community not only inside of the school, but outside of it as well, by hopefully offering adult learning in Hebrew for the large Israeli population in Seattle. The school opened up a student-led music history club meeting to the general public as well as weekly adult education courses and a Trivia Night where community members, including alumni and grandparents, Zoom in from near and far.

“We are using this as an opportunity to extend our sense of school community,” says Feld. “It’s actually been quite beautiful.”

“Our Jewish day school partners have been doing an incredible job making sure students stay connected and continue receiving exemplary academic instruction in these unprecedented times,” says Connie Kanter, CEO of the Samis Foundation, an organization that provides grants to support K-12 Jewish education in Washington state and initiatives in Israel. Samis supports scholarships, tech education, special needs and professional development for seven Jewish day schools in the Seattle area. The Foundation has put a particular emphasis on supporting the schools’ technology needs for the past decade. “We hope other educators in the public and private sectors can benefit from our schools’ models.”

While schools and families are taking this tough situation one day at a time, 10 years from now, some are optimistic that students will look back at this moment with reflection.

“I hope that they will remember this as a time of personal growth, and as a time where a lot of what we talk about in our day to day learning of grit, resilience, kindness and community were tested in a real way during this crisis,” says Feld. “My hope is that instead of feeling isolated, they will have some meaningful memories.”

The Samis Foundation supports K-12 Jewish education in Washington State and initiatives in Israel.