The Coronavirus Diaries: School-At-Home ≠ Homeschool

How quickly the world turns…

Four days ago, we were celebrating Ruach Week and I was dressed like a pirate.  Today, we are preparing to launch the OJCS Distance Learning Program and I am dressed like a teenager.  Four days ago, we weren’t sure if we were going to close.  Today, we aren’t sure if we are going to reopen.

I cannot believe how quickly things have moved and I cannot believe how quickly our school and our teachers have mobilized a response. Sure we had started talking about what would need to be true for us to go live with a distance learning program, but even I wouldn’t have thought we’d be able to switch tracks on a dime.  [I am just as impressed with how our entire Jewish Community has responded, led by Andrea Freedman and our Jewish Federation.]  But I am most impressed by our parents.  With all the challenges of transitioning to telecommuting, preparing for creative childcare, and just the nuts and bolts of being at home for a sustained period of time – plus balancing all the anxiety and concern that is so understandable – we have been so blessed to see such positive attitudes and growth mindsets.

Maybe I am still getting used to #CanadaNice, but to all the people who have found time to express their appreciation for the work the school has been doing, please know that it is greatly appreciated.  Please also know that it takes our entire team of teachers and staff to make this happen and they are just as worthy, if not more, for your appreciation.

If you thought 1,000+ words in a blog post is fun, you must really be enjoying my daily emails!  I imagine that once we launch that the email traffic (at least from me) will recede, but we are trying to strike the right balance between sharing too much and sharing too little.  I am also trying to find my balance between what information belongs here, in my blog, and what can remain contained to direct email.  I don’t want my blog to be repetitive for parents, but there is a wider audience I want looped into our work.  (Why?  Because of the “moral imperative of sharing”.  We learn from other schools and other schools learn from us.)

So in this section, I am going to cherrypick the most salient issues from parent emails.  If you have already read them, feel free to jump to the next section.

  • As previously stated, our Department of Special Needs is reaching out to each family of a child who has a support plan or IEP to discuss how we are going to continue to support and make accommodations during this transition.
  • We spoke today with Shannon Lavalley, our school’s psychotherapist, and she wanted to share out a few things…
…as JFS plans its transition to e-counseling, Shannon’s individual sessions with OJCS students is on hold.  She will be directly in contact with those families to discuss next steps once they have worked out their logistical concerns.

…we will be adding a blog for Shannon in the days ahead.  This is where Shannon can and will share out global advice and resources for OJCS families during this challenging time.  In the meanwhile, she recommends:

  • We are beginning to think about how our special school community can help ward off the coming social recession as social distancing kicks in.  Our PTA is brainstorming virtual social opportunities and calling on parents who have bandwidth to email the PTA (pta@theojcs.ca) with proposed day/time/subject.  We are thinking about things like, “PTA Happy Hour” on Thursday at 4:00 PM.  Or “Family Passover Baking” or “Adult Yoga” or “Managing Children’s Anxiety”.  We would love a blend of fun and practical ideas; #TheOJCSDifference isn’t just for students.

Our main story today, however, is about structuring a learning environment conducive to the OJCS Distance Learning Program.  Or as the blog post title suggests, what does it mean for students to participate in a “school at home” program and not homeschooling?

The biggest difference is that we do not wish for parents to have to serve as teachers.  The majority of our parents will, themselves, be trying to figure out how to perform their own jobs by remote and are not educators.  We aren’t putting together plans and activities for our parents to facilitate with their children.  We plan on providing schooling itself, albeit through a creative blend of live, remote and at-home experiences.

Let’s name that depending on people’s homes, access to devices, techno-comfort, childcare needs, etc., etc., that very few homes will be operating in what we would consider to be an “optimal environmental setting”.

What is an optimal environmental setting?

The ideal, which we imagine very few families will be able to navigate, has each OJCS student in your family logged in and actively engaged throughout his or her school day.  That they are alone in a room with a device that allows them to participate in all the live experiences, while having access to their books and materials to participate in all the remote experiences.  That when the schedule calls for breaks, that healthy snacks are available.  That when the schedule calls for physical activity, that materials or space is available.  That those who have enough executive functioning skills will be able to self-navigate and that those who do not will have enough access to an adult to find success.

Will that be equally true for each student in each grade in each family?

For sure no!  That’s why we are building care and concern, flexibility and freedom, attendance and accountability into the system.  It is also why we will be surveying families along the way to see what we can do to make things easier or more effective when we can.

Can we talk about screen time?

Let’s name that we will all need to be more flexible in our understandings of “screen time”.  Opting for a screen when lots of IRL (“in real life”) experiences were available was never our goal at OJCS.  But now that we are living in the “upside-down” it is possible that use of technology will provide our students with more and richer IRL experiences, that through technology we can combat social isolation with conversation, faces and laughter.  All “screen time” was not, and definitely now, is not equal.

Family Kabbalat Shabbat is best done with us all together in the Chapel.  But live-streaming it this Friday, through a screen, is going to be way better than not having it all!  (Hope you join me!)

Tomorrow, we launch a new chapter in our school’s journey.  Whether it winds up being a three-week, five-week or rest-of-the-school-year journey is not yet clear.  What is clear, however, is that because of the work that our talented teachers have been putting into their professional growth over the last three year, the Ottawa Jewish Community School is ready to meet this moment.  Let’s be sure to give each other permission to feel anxious or scared.  Let’s recognize that we will have both failures and successes in the weeks ahead.  Let’s create space for the messy learning and schedule challenges and conflicts.

This chapter in our journey may have been totally unexpected, but it does not delay us from our ultimate destination.  We have been saying for years that the “future of education” is happening at OJCS.   The future begins tomorrow.

Author: Jon Mitzmacher

Dr. Jon Mitzmacher is the Head of the Ottawa Jewish Community School. He was most recently the VP of Innovation for Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools.  He is the former Executive Director of the Schechter Day School Network.  He is also the former head of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School, a K-8 Solomon Schechter, located in Jacksonville, FL, and part of the Jacksonville Jewish Center.  He was the founding head of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Las Vegas.  Jon has worked in all aspects of Jewish Education from camping to congregations and everything in between.

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