As schools adjust to the new realities of remote learning, they are faced with obstacles of unfamiliar digital platforms and the challenge of engaging students from afar.
SINAI Schools, which operates within different yeshivot in New York and New Jersey to serve students of all ages with special needs and complex learning disabilities, faces the challenge of needing to remotely support its faculty, parents and students, who are accustomed to learning in highly individualized classrooms. Students also receive physical, occupational and speech therapy, all of which are difficult, but not impossible, to accomplish remotely.
“Everyone is feeling a little alone, disconnected and stressed at this time,” said Rabbi Dr. Yisrael Rothwachs, dean of SINAI Schools. “In our microcosm of SINAI, that’s true as well, and the expectations are the same if not higher in the sense that now (our faculty) have to do all of their amazing work in a brand new way.”
SINAI Schools has organized a virtual paint night, hosted by SINAI’s art therapist, and a mindfulness coping session for educators specifically, hosted by a mindfulness coach, in order to help alleviate stress amongst faculty members.
NCSY has partnered with SINAI Schools to provide students with much-need emotional and social support. Through “Zoommates,” more than 100 NCSY teens across the country hang out with SINAI students via Zoom, a remote conferencing service that schools have begun using for digital instruction, from 4 to 8 p.m. This also helps parents find some reprieve during their day.
For parents and community members at large, SINAI Schools is offering different lectures by SINAI parents and education and psychology experts aimed at providing parents with tools to support their children during this crisis.
Parents are also dealing with the challenge of keeping their younger children occupied while many of them are juggling their own jobs and responsibilities.
A.S., a parent with two young children, one of whom is enrolled in a yeshiva in Bergen County and the other a day care center in Bergen County (who also asked that only her initials be used), works as a psychiatric nurse practitioner. Her husband is an ICU doctor, and works on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic. Both are considered to be essential personnel who must continue commuting to work.
They have been able to work out their schedules so that one or the other is always home to help guide their children through their school day, but they both work every day and share no time off.
Her older son, who is in kindergarten, logs onto Zoom twice a day for two 30-minute sessions with his teacher. While she knows the school is doing its best to keep up the same quality of education it had inside the classroom, A.S. sees her son struggling to follow the suggested schedule. She tries to cater to his academic interests by incorporating more advanced math lessons into his schedule while using other online resources such as ABC Mouse and Lexia, which both children enjoy. She is also helping them put together their Haggah during project time, guides them through different science projects, has storytime and lets them play outside in the backyard when the weather is nice.
While their system is working for now, A.S. will likely have to stop commuting to the office and will switch to a telepsych model, where she will work from home and see patients via her iPad. She is not yet sure how she will be able to balance scheduling patients with her children’s school day.
“We’re taking it day by day,” she said. “I have a caseload of patients who need me, but my kids also need guidance.”
Other parents working from home are struggling to strike a balance between their work and home lives as well. Rachel Shachar, who has two children in elementary school (a daughter in fourth and a son in fifth grade), has found that the school administration has been very responsive when she’s reached out with concerns. Her children’s last day of regularly scheduled school was Friday, March 13.
“They get back to me almost immediately,” she said. While her daughter is more or less able to navigate her digital classroom, her son, who usually has aids to assist him in the classroom, is having a harder time adjusting. His aid is available by phone when he needs help.
“He gets frustrated, but overall he’s doing okay,” Shachar said. “He does miss the in-person interaction.”
Despite the stress over scheduling and engagement, parents are finding unexpected silver linings to having their children learn at home.
Talya Safier and her husband, Yoni, have three children, a daughter in fourth grade, a son in second and a daughter in nursery school. Their two older children attend a local yeshiva and have been home since March 11.
“Everybody needs help managing their day,” Talya said. “It’s not like I can say, ‘Here’s your schedule––go online and figure it out.’ They need help opening the next lesson or printing out papers. We’re ping-ponging between the two older ones.”
She is happy with the balance of live Zoom and prerecorded lessons, which gives her kids time to work at their own pace, and her youngest daughter’s nursery school teachers have called a few times to check in.
Both she and her husband have found themselves treasuring the unexpected amount of family time, and the opportunity to really get involved in what their kids are learning.
“Yoni doesn’t see the kids much during the week, and they’re asleep before he gets home, but now he’s around every day,” Talya said. They’ve also started more productive routines with their kids that they want to continue implementing after this pandemic subsides. “We don’t have the housekeeper come anymore, and we’re demanding more from the kids in terms of cleaning, staying organized and being on top of their work.”
Shoshana Yagoda, mother of three, is able to spend more time focusing on her children’s schedules because, as an orthodontist, she can’t go to work or work from home. In order to help supplement some of the social interactions her children are missing, she started organizing WhatsApp sessions for her oldest son, who is in third grade, and his friends.
Yagoda has also been good about introducing new hobbies and online resources to keep her children entertained, like skateboarding and bike riding. They also watch online tours of the San Diego Zoo, read-alouds by well-known children’s authors such as Dan Gutman and online “Lunch Doodles” by author Mo Willems.
Yagoda is grateful that her kids have adjusted to such a drastic change in their routines. “My kids have been adapting pretty well,” she said. “I’m sure there will be a breaking point, but for now it’s smooth sailing.”
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