Innovations in Covid Schooling
By Rachel Mann, Schechter Manhattan Parent and Alumni Parent
If you had asked me last March what this school year would look like, I couldn’t have predicted it. While school this past spring required an overnight-shift to distance learning, this year Schechter Manhattan leaders have reimagined how students can learn under difficult circumstances, once again. With most students in-person in the school building and some in the distance learning program, the school leadership team has innovated, recreating how a Schechter Manhattan education is delivered, without losing sight of the school’s values of menschlichkeit, caring for one another and the community, and active learning using collaboration.
Head of School Benjamin Mann expressed his “gratitude for the teaching faculty’s capacity to pivot in the face of the unexpected circumstances. I am especially grateful for Principal Gary Pretsfelder’s powerful combination of innovative and steadfast educational leadership. His vision really made this shift happen as smoothly and successfully as could be. In my view, Gary and the whole team have been heroic.”
How did they do it? Gary says the innovations came together as “an iterative process” as he and Ben worked together with faculty, and in consultation with the health committee and leaders of other Jewish day schools. While other schools focused on hybrid or online learning, Schechter Manhattan leaders were committed to opening every day. “First and foremost, the most important principle was the health and safety of the community,” Gary said. “We believed that having kids with their peers and their trusted adults in an in-person environment was critical for our families and the students’ social-emotional development. We were really focused on making sure school could be open.”
Several innovations have been instrumental in keeping the learning environment safe, while also allowing for the constructivist, collaborative, and differentiated learning that are essential to Schechter Manhattan. The health protocols, including using the MyMedBot app, a nurse on site taking each child’s temperature, having staggered arrival and dismissal, and plastic shields on the desks at lunchtime, were prerequisites to getting the doors open.
Technology solutions like cameras in every classroom, ipads, laptops, and headphones, allow students to work collaboratively from their own desks, both within the classroom, and with students learning at home. The Daily Learning Plan enables students to know what to expect each day, creating consistency. This innovation, developed by Shira Jacobson, Ruth Servi, and Deanna Stecker, was particularly useful when the health protocols were put to the test early in the year, and several classes had to quarantine. The DLP helped those classes to continue learning, without skipping a beat. And the health process proved its efficacy; there was no spread of the virus within the school or the community.
So is it working? Is it possible to teach children without sitting on the rug? Without singing songs or saying tefilot aloud? With teachers standing in the front of the room in their own six feet of space? With some students learning at home? The answer is a resounding YES.
Eighth grade distance learning student Ella Chalamish said, “I have learned throughout the first few months of the school year that you do not need to be in school physically to have the same experience. I am very appreciative of technology and my teachers who have made the effort to ensure that we were learning to the best of our abilities.”
Fourth and fifth grade teacher Maria Knourenko said she feels safe at school because of the health protocols, and “the silver lining is that the kids are so happy. They are thrilled to be at school. Knowing that we are able to provide that for them is really motivating. They are learning and managing all these new protocols so well. Not only are they moving through the day in a safe way, but they also are enjoying themselves, and finding excitement in little things.”
As a parent of a fourth grader, I could not be more grateful for every day that my daughter is receiving a Schechter Manhattan education. In this year when we have seen institutions that we rely on crumble under pressure, it’s reassuring to see that our school is resting on a firm foundation of educational, social, and scientific principles.