Day schools meet academic/social needs online

Editor’s Note: We had scheduled profiles of Portland’s Jewish day schools for this issue. With our current reality, we instead focused on their response to the crisis and will run the profiles at a later date.


On March 12, Oregon’s governor ordered schools to cancel classes; Portland’s three Jewish day schools quickly pivoted to offer online programs designed to give students a sense of normalcy and the chance to continue growing academically.
Portland Jewish Academy, Maayan Torah Day School and Maimonides Jewish Day School are using a variety of online platforms for group classes and homework assignments. Maimonides began classes March 16, and PJA and Maayan Torah began online classes March 18.
Maimonides identified two goals of the virtual classroom: students emotional well-being and academic growth. These are hard times and certainly for children. Having face-to-face time with the people they are used to seeing every day is important. It shows the students that we are safe and continue to be here for each other.
“One parent called in tears about how much this meant to her,” says Maimonides Principal Rabbi Shneur Wilhelm. “Getting her child to feel a sense of security in such uncertain times was so important.”
Normally, PJA students in 3rd-5th grade leave their Chromebooks at school, but with the closure, the students took their Chromebooks home. All students in 3rd-8th grade now have their own Chromebooks at home. Students at these grade levels all have learned how to access Google Classroom (middle school students were already quite accustomed to using this tool), and teachers are using it as a platform to post assignments and calendars and to check the students’ work.
PJA Executive Director Steve Albert says that “some of the time is spent in synchronous learning (everyone in a class on a Zoom call at once, for example), and some is asynchronous (students working on their own, at their own pace, on their own schedule). Work is submitted electronically using email or one of the many other platforms that we are utilizing.” The school also has Kabbalat Shabbat celebrations and other virtual gatherings.
Maayan Torah already used Google Education within the school, so it was an easy step to transition onto Google Classroom and stream live with teachers on Google Meet.
 “Obviously, we don’t feel this is a real replacement for in-class studies, but for the time being it allows us to continue learning,” says Maayan Torah Judaics Principal Rabbi Yerachmiel Kalter. “We have live lessons every day, as this gives students a feeling of normalcy where they can see/interact with their friends and teachers. We also have teachers recording lessons and posting work for students to be able to do on their own whenever they want. Having students and families access learning at this tumultuous time has been really important for them to maintain normalcy and a sense of schedule.”
PJA Principal Merrill Hendin shared comments from some of the families about the new distance-learning program, which show that the goals of creating a sense of normalcy and continuing learning are being met:
• It is clear there are a lot of smart and dedicated people working behind the scenes. Please pass along my deepest gratitude to all those behind the scenes folks! Our kids continue to be engaged and thriving in this new learning format, but it is nice to hear them acknowledging that they miss going to school. 
• I can’t imagine how challenging the last several days have been for you all. A lot of chaos, creativity, compromise, stress, discussion, improvisation, innovation, imagination, experimentation, hard hard work. Thank you to Merrill and Steve and other PJA leadership and to these phenomenal teachers for your excellent response to the current chaos.
• Thank you for everything that you and the PJA teachers have done. We are so impressed with how quickly an online curriculum was put together. In a time of much uncertainty, it is nice to have a little bit of normalcy and calm.
• I am SO grateful for all of you, your leadership, foresight, your quick action and your amazing delivery of a technology plan that allows the wonderful teachers to continue teaching. But mostly I am so grateful for the inclusion of community – the virtual lunches and the ability to share and hear each other. Just hearing our child laugh with his classmates warms my heart. I couldn’t have imagined a better scenario in this situation. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.


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