Two weeks ago, as some students shut out of classrooms by COVID-19 slept in, Hillel Academy second-grader Lily Karoll sat down at her dining room table, pulled out a gray Lenovo laptop and tuned into her day’s tasks.
Lily davened Shacharis, the morning tefillah, alongside her grandfather, then had a live lesson in Judaics with Morah Tovi Admon. Later that day, Lily’s brother, Mikey, met online with his fifth-grade science fair partner to work on their STEM project about acid rain.
“We’re trying to take advantage of them being home,” said Rabbi Sam Weinberg, Hillel’s principal. “Being in a classroom has its limitations. Let’s look at the benefits of online learning.”
“I would argue it’s even more tailored to them than live school,” said Shoshi Butler of Squirrel Hill, the children’s mother. “That’s really awesome, that they’re still able to participate as if they were at school.”
Parents in Pittsburgh last week gave rave reviews to online learning launched by the three Jewish day schools — Hillel, Yeshiva Schools and Community Day School — in light of COVID-19 arriving in Allegheny County, shutting down life as we know it. Though some admitted technical problems with Wi-Fi or Google log-ins, the overwhelming sentiment was one of support.
Officials from the three schools said the impetus for the virtual classrooms came even before Gov. Tom Wolf ordered Pennsylvania schools to close for two weeks. School leaders met privately March 12 in an effort to make contingency plans for when the new coronavirus inevitably shuttered the academic world.
“As Shabbat was approaching (on March 13), we collaborated by phone and shared Google Docs on a communication announcing our plans to close on Monday/Tuesday to allow for professional development,” Community Day School head Avi Munro said. “Each school customized their communication, but we felt there was a Jewish value to be expressed in making a statement together.”
Mark Davidson, whose sons Aviv and Cobi go to CDS, beamed with enthusiasm about the move.
“My wife and I are collectively blown away by what our sons’ school was able to do in such a short time,” said Davidson, who lives in Squirrel Hill within walking distance of CDS. “The fact that they’re learning, that they have structure? The school didn’t miss a beat.”
There were similar educational threads among all three schools, including a mix of synchronous learning, where a group of students are taking lessons at the same time, and asynchronous learning. In many cases, older elementary students at the three schools had several hours of “live” lessons each day, while younger students worked with a combination of “live” instruction and recorded modules.
“I was worried there’d be glitches, but there hasn’t been,” said Nicole Valinsky, a CDS grad whose daughter, Shayna, is now a seventh-grader at her mother’s alma mater. Valinsky said she “would not have expected everything to come together so quickly and so well.”
She reserved slightly different views of Pittsburgh Public Schools; her son Eric is a junior at Taylor Allderdice High School. Eric kept busy with optional work but had no online curriculum.
“How are they going to be able to do his senior year?” asked Valinsky, who worried what the closure would mean for Eric as he applies to colleges this fall. “I’m very concerned (with Eric) there will be an issue and, with Shayna, I’m not concerned at all.”
“Due to issues of equity and access, Pittsburgh Public Schools cannot currently provide online learning,” spokeswoman Ebony Pugh told the Chronicle. “The district is required to provide Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) to all students. Since all district students do not have access to technology, internet in the home, or transportation to a ‘grab-and-go’ site, new instruction may not be provided and the completion of any supplemental learning is optional. Students will not receive any grades on any activities completed between March 16 to April 14.”
PPS recently launched a home technology survey, with results due in mid-April, and teachers are exploring online instruction, Pugh added.
The Jewish schools also got creative with instruction. At CDS, Shayna Valinsky took part in a history class in which students were asked to beam themselves into the future and answer questions about the 2020 pandemic “history” they’re living. Hillel posted webpages packed with video content and even a “family fun center,” complete with a virtual trip to the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium. At Yeshiva Schools, they examined Passover through the lens of COVID-19.
“Our sanity and our ability to express and deal is about structure,” said Rabbi Yossi Rosenblum, educational director of Yeshiva Boys School. And teaching Jewish values “is a very big part of what we’re doing.”
The new model of instruction at Yeshiva Schools resonated for Shaina Altein, a fifth-grader who’s been going to the school as long as she can remember.
“Sometimes in school we go online but this is the first time we’ve been all online,” the 10-year-old said. “I like it better because it’s easier to concentrate.”
For her computer class, Shaina was learning more about computer coding. The remote learning didn’t bother her a bit.
“I like it because it’s really challenging,” she said. “When you fully get through it, it’s a good feeling.”
Mika Loberant, a CDS sixth-grader, said she’s feeling a range of emotions as she goes online each morning to take part in classes.
“It took me a few days to adjust to online classes because it was a very new experience for me,” said Mika, 11, of Squirrel Hill. “The experience is easier than I expected because it allowed me to space my time out better and be more independent with my time management.”
“I miss my classmates and my close group of friends since we’ve been together every day since kindergarten, but a little bit of time to myself is nice too,” she added. “I’m looking forward to getting back to school because it is easier to learn at school and interact with the teachers and students.”
For now, going virtual will have to suffice.
“If this goes on after Passover,” said Weinberg, the Hillel principal, “that will be the real test.” PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.