How One New York School Switched to Online Learning During Its Coronavirus Closure

March 6, 2020

Source: JTA 


Teachers at Salanter Akiba Riverdale Academy (SAR) are among the many educators across the country whose schools are turning to online learning during the coronavirus epidemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has encouraged schools and districts to prepare for potentially extended interruptions to school attendance, a challenge that could be hard to meet even with ample planning.

For SAR, the interruptions came faster than anyone expected. The school has found itself at the center of the coronavirus outbreak in New York City, which has spread through more than a dozen people in and around the Orthodox community of Westchester County. Students and parents from the school, which is in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx to Westchester’s south, are infected. The school is closed until at least March 11. Families are grappling with the same unknowns as the rest of the country, but find themselves physically much closer to those who have gotten sick.

Amid the uncertainty, SAR has tried to maintain structure by building an extensive remote learning operation in a matter of days. Much of the high school — four or five class periods per day, so far — is being run through the videoconference platform Zoom. Teachers are still giving lessons and students are still going to class. Except now it’s through their school-issued iPads while they sit at home.

“It’s remarkable how the dynamic was very natural, organic,” said Rabbi Tully Harcsztark, the school’s principal and a teacher of ninth-grade Talmud, including via video chat this week. “It was an eager energy on the part of the kids. … They don’t really have that much to do and there’s anxiety around what this all means, and having a schedule, being able to connect with their friends, it’s like, this is good. It’s normal.”

Planning for distance learning began last week at the school — during the coronavirus outbreak, but before it came to Westchester. When Rabbi Avi Bloom, the school’s director of technology, found out that the plans would have to go into action in a matter of days, he embarked on a whirlwind of educating the SAR teachers on a number of how-tos: managing a Zoom conference, sharing their screens, and having the students raise their hands virtually or enter a group chat, as well as break into smaller groups within the conference. Plus more.

SAR isn’t alone among Jewish day schools in confronting this challenge. Prizmah, an umbrella group for Jewish schools, has received dozens of inquiries in recent days on how to deal with the coronavirus. It set up a detailed information page with examples of letters that schools have sent out, resources for online learning, guidance regarding planning (or canceling) school trips, maintaining child safety during online learning and more.

Read more at JTA.

Updated: Mar. 11, 2020