The Coronavirus Diaries: When Spring Brings Another Lockdown

Looking outside my office window brings a smile to my face.  The sun is shining brightly, the birds are singing and the weather is warming.  Spring is (finally) here and the feeling it most conjures up is one of things opening up.  We associate this time of year with unbundling ourselves of our winter-wear and starting to be out there, more active, returning to life, stirring the soul and (re)activating the body.

Looking outside my office door, however, tells a different story.  Because we have just begun a four-week, province-wide stay-at-home order.  Schools remain open and, although, a meaningful number of parents are opting to have their children learn from home during this surge in cases, our teachers and our staff are here – bravely navigating their anxiety and safely caring for our children.

Pivoting my view from outside my window to outside my door presents a kind of emotional whiplash.  Our every instinct is to run out into the sun and put the past year behind us.  There are so many good reasons to believe that better times are coming and, in fact, are tantalizingly close.  And yet here we are, locked down again, doing our best to keep ourselves and everyone else safe as we try to get through this next (last?) wave.

Because we know that emotions and opinions are running high, this seems like a good chance to check in.  At this moment in time, with so many questions and concerns (in all directions) about school closures, I think it is helpful to break the year into three parts – what is true during this month-long lockdown, the rest of the school year, and how we are planning to open the 2021-2022 school year.  Let’s deal in this post with the here and now.

If there is one thing I have learned over the last year it is that I am not a doctor, a public health expert, nor a politician.  If there are two things that I have learned over the last year, the other is that when the views and recommendations of doctors, public health experts and politicians are aligned it is pretty straightforward to make decisions, when they are not…things can get dicey and uncomfortable.

Please know that we view the situation right now as extremely “day-to-day”.  We look to our teachers, our parents, Ottawa Public Health, our Health Advisory Committee and to the government to provide us with the feedback and information we need to make sound decisions.  I have had opportunity this week to meet with our school’s Health Advisory Committee and to participate in a meeting of Ottawa private school heads and Ottawa Public Health.  Another critical data point comes from Dr. Vera Etches who shared the following in a letter to the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board earlier this week:

I am writing to clarify that I am not asking for schools in Ottawa to close now. The situation with COVID-19 and schools in Ottawa is currently manageable, as
–          73% of schools have no people with an active COVID-19 infection where there was an exposure in school, and
–          98% of schools are free from an outbreak.
The vast majority of COVID-19 in schools originates with community exposures. Situations identified in schools where there was a possible exposure do not usually lead to transmission in schools. Child-to-staff and child-to-child transmissions remain rare in the school setting. At this time, schools are not a major driver of transmission of COVID19 and so closing them alone will not turn this current COVID-19 resurgence around. Though variants of concern mean we need to be more careful to avoid transmission, the local situation with variants in schools hasn’t been significantly more difficult to control. When Ottawa Public Health ensured everyone in a dismissed school cohort was tested for COVID-19 after a potential exposure to a variant of concern, no higher rates of transmission were seen in the exposed cohorts. There have been outbreaks associated with variants of concern and there have been situations where the variants of concern have not spread in schools.What is most needed is to decrease the nonessential places where people are coming into close contact with others. Until fewer businesses are deemed essential and people get the message to stay at home, closing schools may inadvertently lead to additional gatherings in environments with fewer control measures in place.I ask that teachers, administrators, school staff, parents and students all continue to do their part to strictly follow the COVID-19 precautions in schools and to limit close contacts before and after school to members of their household. This is not the time to let up on our diligence to keep each other safe. Please reinforce the daily screening and ask people to consider if any symptom of COVID19 is present before they enter their school. Adults, especially, should be supported to take care to maintain distance between each other in staff rooms and during break times with their colleagues.

Needless to say, each private school is struggling with the same calculus and have the same kinds of questions that we do.  Of course, we aren’t obligated to do or not to do what other private schools choose to do, but I do believe there is value in understanding what and why and how other schools are thinking and planning.  At this moment in time, the overwhelming majority of private schools are open and plan to remain open so long as circumstances don’t deteriorate and/or we are not mandated to close.

For now, if you are an OJCS parent you should choose to do whatever you feel safest and most comfortable doing.  With the change in weather, please know that we are able to go back to enhanced ventilation practices (wide open windows) and we are using our outdoor space more liberally.  Please know that as teachers patiently wait for vaccinations to roll out, for those for whom the variants present an added risk and/or stress that we will have staff who begin to wear additional PPE, we may see use of N95 masks and extra plexiglass around teacher desks.  We are all doing our very best.

In the meanwhile, we have already reworked all our distance learning schedules based on parent, student and teacher feedback from January and have briefed our faculty.  We are completely ready for the next pivot if and when it comes.  And we will be perfectly okay if we never have to use them…

Stay tuned for a post that lays out our vision and our plans for how we will safely open the 2021-2022 school year, which we know is on people’s minds.

Speaking of the 2021-2022 school year…

…thanks to our amazing parents, for the first time in recent memory we are completely finished with re-enrollment by the first week in April and we have our highest retention rate in years!  Woo-hoo!  We are also welcoming many new families to our OJCS community next year and we know that only happens because so many of you do such a great job spreading the word.  So thank you to everyone who turned in their paperwork on time.  Thank you to everyone for being such great ambassadors for the school.  Thank you to our teachers whose work inspires your ongoing confidence.  Thank you to Jennifer Greenberg, our Admissions Director, and the whole team for crushing it during a second challenging admissions season.

Annual Parent Survey coming soon!

The Trauma-Aware Jewish Day School

Now that I have had eighteen hours of rabbinical school under my belt, I find myself becoming a bit self-conscious whenever I make a connection between something I am learning in school and the work we do here at OJCS each and every day.  I am so barely into the first baby steps towards becoming a rabbi that it almost feels chutzpahdik to make mention of it at all.  (At my current rate of taking classes, I can definitely pencil in my ordination for the Spring of 2037.)  However, I am becoming a rabbi for a reason, and as I explained when I first shared this news, it was both likely and desirable that it lend a new perspective on my work.

One of the books for the current course I am taking is Wounds into Wisdom by Rabbi Tirzah Firestone.  It is a terrific book that deals with the phenomenon of “collective trauma” and its impact on future generations.  Without doing any of her work justice, it perhaps could be best understood in a Jewish context by recognizing that the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors may very well suffer – consciously or subconsciously – the effects of trauma, even if they did not experience the original trauma.  In the context of my course, where all my classmates are either already or will likely be serving in a pulpit or chaplaincy, or otherwise engaged in some form of pastoral counseling, the application is a bit more obvious.  You will inevitably have congregants who suffer from trauma and, thus, let’s spend some time recognizing what trauma looks like and how one might think about managing/addressing/navigating it.

For me, the dots connected differently, but no less powerfully.

We are now into our second year of pandemic schooling.  “Collective trauma” is not an abstract idea that only applies to the victims of genocides and terror attacks, it is literally our lives.  For over a year, our students, parents, teachers and community have been – and continue to – live in and with trauma.  I think this is something we know intuitively, but if you want a little evidence, let me share with you a chart I shared with our Educational Leadership Team this week:

Classic Trauma Reactions

Engagement                       dissociation ←→ vigilance

Control                                 passive ←→ urgent 

Empowerment                  victimized ←→ hyper-resilient

Emotion                              withdrawn ←→ hyper-arousal

Patterning                          amnesia ←→ recall & repeat

Does this not sound like, I don’t know, everyone you know right now (including yourself)?

I see these responses all around me, all the time.  I see it in the normally vivacious student who is unusually withdrawn.  I see it in the normally laid back parent who has grown helicopter wings.  I see it in the normally contained teacher for whom everything is now on fire.  I see all the reverses as well.  I see different reactions from different people at different times in the face of different circumstances.  I see it in the parking lot and I see it in emails and I see it on social media.  And I most definitely see it in myself.

There are techniques and methods from the worlds of psychology, counseling and pastoral care that have proven to have some success in moving individual people through trauma.  When it comes to collective trauma there is much less to fall back on.  (When it comes to inherited collective trauma, even less than that, thus Firestone’s book.)  When it comes to COVID-based trauma…

When I think about all those way-too-long “Weekly Update” emails I sent last spring to our parents and each blog post I have written as part of “The Coronavirus Diaries” series, I can see that I keep coming back to one saving gracenote – empathy.  That’s what I mean when I say that we have to give each other space to make mistakes.  It is what I mean when I encourage and express gratitude for patience and flexibility.  Empathy.  Empathy for the collective trauma of pandemic living doesn’t necessarily change outcomes, nor does it serve as an excuse.  It doesn’t mean that we necessarily do anything differently.  But it does help.

If in a Jewish context we can employ empathy by keeping the notion of b’tzelem elohim – the idea that each and every one of us is made in the image of God, that we each share a spark of the divine – front of mind, perhaps we can find the strength to take a breath and assume the best of each other.

At least we can try…

The Disruptive Miracle of Silvia Tolisano

The future of education fell into my lap in 2010 when I became the Head of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School in Jacksonville, Florida and inherited Silvia Tolisano on my staff.  For the many (so many) in the educational world who knew, followed, admired, and otherwise stood in amazement at the force of nature that was – and it is heartbreakingly sad to type “was” – Silvia, you are probably as surprised as I am that in a small Jewish day school in Jacksonville, a living, breathing prophetess of teaching and learning was a teacher on my staff.   [And if you are a casual reader of my blog and don’t travel in education circles, do yourself a favor and visit the most impactful blog that a teacher ever dared to dream into existence.]

Silvia Tolisano knew all the languages and traveled to all the places.  She weaved all the networks and knew all the people.  How did our little-school-that-could host international conferences and get featured on influential podcasts?  How on earth did we wind up in the orbits of so many significant movers and shakers?  How did we – for a glorious, fleeting moment – become the center of the educational universe?

Silvia.

Silvia Tolisano knew all the platforms and mastered all the literacies.  Each day with Silvia was a call to arms.  Each moment teachable and certainly worthy of documentation.  The Hebrew word for “awe” is yirah and it comes with subtle connotations of fear.  It is fair to say that our faculty was equal parts terrified and inspired during those early days.  How could you not be?  I could spend 10,000 words naming and hyperlinking each platform and pedagogy and idea that she introduced to us during those years and I would still be unable to adequately describe how much it all was.  (No fewer than 40 of my blog posts directly refer to her work.)  How did a small school with few resources blog and tweet and document and share before it became cool (and accepted best practice)?

Silvia.

Silvia was the truth.  I’d like to think that I had the smallest impact on her and her trajectory.  Our richest conversations were about faculty culture and how to move/inspire/cajole/require/utz teachers to embrace the future and I would look forward to learning new German words that better captured the spirit of our struggle.  My job was essentially to figure out how to harness the overwhelming multitudes of Silvia and make it feel achievable to the rest of us, the non-Silvias.  But whatever impact I might have had on her, she made my career.  The things that I am known for are the things that Silvia showed me first.  I simply am not who I am without her.  Did it seem weird that I brought Silvia with me from MJGDS to Schechter and then to Prizmah and then here to Ottawa (as a consultant)?  How couldn’t I?  Who are you going to bring in when you want to paint a picture of what can and should be true about teaching and learning?

Silvia.

Her first/last book (w/Janet Hale) is called A Guide to Documenting Learning and is a fitting testament to everything that she believed about education.  No one knew more and pushed harder for teachers and schools – Jewish schools – to adopt and adjust to a changing world.  What we are all living with during these times of COVID is proof positive that Silvia had it right and had it way earlier than most.  She fancied herself a witch, but she was a prophet – she didn’t dabble in magic; she knew the future.

I have spent the last few days reconnecting with colleagues and talking with my current staff about the miracle of Silvia Tolisano.  She was always a WhatsApp or Tweet away whenever you had a question or needed a resource or just wanted to know what was next.  In the sporting world of coaching, they measure influence by one’s “coaching tree.”  That is to say, one measures one’s impact on the game by how many future coaches learned with and from you and, thus carry your influence, your message, your words, and your ideas forward.

How do you measure the impact of an educational guru, coach, mentor, blogger, tweeter, sketchnoter, author, lecturer, tutorial-creator, infographic-designer, life-grabber, world-traveler, marathon runner, wife, mother, grandmother, colleague, consultant and friend?

Silvia Tolisano died way too early and with way too many years left to live.  I have never known a person who better embodied the notion that one ought not count down the days of one’s life, but should make each day count.  None of us – certainly not most of us, and definitely not me – can be Silvia.  She was an original, sui generis, never-to-be-duplicated.  But we can aspire towards the things she wanted for us.  To never fear the future.  To try and to fail and to try again.  To live a globally connected life.  To keep growing and then grow some more.  Like so many educators and lives she touched, for me, whenever I think I can’t – the job is too hard, I’m too old to learn new things, I don’t have enough time, etc. – Silvia’s voice is there to tell me that I can and I must.  That’s the work.  No excuses.

Silvia Tolisano would have hated this blog post.  She was in many ways as personally private as she was professionally public.  But this is what she taught me – and all of us – to do.  To learn and to reflect and, most importantly, to share.  For me, my professional north star is no longer.  But a star’s light continues to shine for years after its time is over and Silvia’s light – her life’s work – will continue to illuminate the path for years and years to come.  May we each be both lucky and brave enough to walk it…

Pandemic Purim: It Has Never Been More Comfortable to Leave Your Comfort Zone

It is a busy Shavuat Ha’Ruach (Spirit Week) at the Ottawa Jewish Community School!  We are so glad to be back at school – both in general, and after February Break  – that there is lots of joy in the building; the added joy of Adar and Purim just makes it that much…er, joyful.

However, as is often the case in Jewish life where we weave moments of historical tragedy into even the most joyous of occasions (the breaking of glass at a wedding to remember the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem being the most well-known example), this Purim carries with it not just the echoes of past tragedy, but current tragedy as well.  Purim was, for most of us, the last holiday we celebrated before COVID and, thus, likely the last opportunity to be together in groups, in synagogues, in community, etc., that we have had.  That was certainly true here.  Last Purim in Ottawa was actually ground zero for the first potential exposure we experienced as a community and within days we had shut down and settled in for the great unknown of lockdowns and distance learning.

And so here we are one Jewish Year later…

As Zoomed out as most of us are, as hard as it has been for every organization, school, synagogue and institution to provide meaningful and engaging programming over the last year, it is equal parts depressing and inspiring to look back at what we have collectively accomplished and experienced together.  Each event, each milestone and each holiday that we have been forced to reimagine stretches from last Purim to this one in a chain of creative reinterpretations.  I mourn what was lost and celebrate what was gained, like everyone else.

How might that inform our celebration of Purim tonight and Friday?

Too often as parents we treat Judaism the same way we treat Disneyland – as something that we sacrifice for in order to give our children an “experience”.  We scrimp and we save and we sweat in line so that our children can go on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.  We also scrimp and save and sweat over paperwork so that our children can receive a Jewish education and go to camp and have a bar/bat mitzvah.  But what about us?

Maybe this year, not in spite, but because we are home with our families, we can take our turn on Mr. Mordechai’s Wild Ride?

Purim is a holiday of reversals and opposites, of mask-wearing and mask-shedding.  You can be anyone you wish in service of being your truest self.  If you think that wearing a costume is childish, what do you have to lose this year?  You can wear a costume like nobody’s watching…because no one is!  If you are typically shy about booing Haman with all your gusto in a crowd, this is your year.  You can boo Haman like nobody’s listening…because no one is!  If you are someone who likes to indulge a bit on Purim, you can drink like no one is driving…because no one is.  You get the idea.

Virtual Purim means that it has never been more comfortable to make yourself uncomfortable.  Take advantage of the opportunity to do something silly as a family tonight and tomorrow.  Not only should you not let your children have all the fun, your silliness makes a very serious statement about what it means to be Jewish – every year, but especially this one.

From my family to yours…chag Purim sameach & a freilichen Purim!

The Coronavirus Diaries: A Parent Primer for the Pivot

Just when I thought we were out…they pulled us back in.

I don’t mean to make light of the situation.  Back in October, I wrote a blog post explaining why we were taking time to lay the ground for a potential pivot, not knowing and very much hoping that one would not be forthcoming.  And here we are in January, two weeks into a three-week pivot of fully distanced learning…or what we certainly hope will be (only) a three-week pivot.

Let me first answer what I believe are a few pressing questions…

What does being a private school mean when it comes to closures?

Not much.  Other than us getting our letter from a different department of the Ministry of Education, and for some reason getting it consistently a few days delayed, there has been no separation between what has been required for public and private schools at any point along this journey.  One might (this one certainly has) wonder whether there could be a circumstance where private and/or individual schools are given discretion to make choices when it comes to closures, but that is not how it has played out thus far.

What is currently true about a return to in-person learning?

As of this writing, we are still scheduled to return to in-person learning on Monday, January 25th.  We have been told that any decision about extending beyond that date won’t be made/communicated until January 20th.

 

So, if you already feel comfortable with all the ways in which OJCS lives its Distance Learning Program, please feel free to skip the next long section and please jump to the two additional items below.

For anyone for whom this is still new – and for anyone who needs a refresher – let me offer a summary and syllabus of the accumulated wisdom from last spring.  What we learned last year informed how we planned this year’s hyflex program and the kinds of self-directed learning skills we knew we wanted to focus on at the beginning of the year for just this situation.  All of those successes and failures contribute to our current lived experience.

So…what’s most important to know/remember?

In our first post to parents last year about transitioning to school-at-home, we…

…talked about reasonable expectations for parents.

…shared ideas about how to create an optimal learning environment for your children (while acknowledging how unlikely it would be to achieve).

…discussed how we planned on addressing mental health concerns.

…made commitments to honor IEPs.

We ended with…

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.

[That still sounds about right!]

In our second post, after we launched, we focused on…

The spine of our program is the OJCS Blogosphere.  This was in the process of becoming true before the pandemic because of all the things we believe to be true about teaching and learning in the 21st century.  It is really proving its worth now that we have had to transition to distance learning on a dime.  The action is going to take place online; the architecture is anchored in classroom blogs and student blogfolios.

[This still very much remains true!]

We ended with…

I remain in awe of what we have all managed to accomplish here in such a short amount of time.  Let’s keep sharing with each other and with the wider world.  Let’s keep creating space for mistakes and anxiety.  Let’s keep celebrating small victories and minor miracles.  Let’s combat the social recession with creative social experiences.  Let’s live our school’s North Stars and our community’s Jewish values in this new virtual reality.

[Yes, please!]

Our third post focused exclusively on how distance learning amplifies quiet voices.

[This is something we have tried to carry forward to in-person learning.]

As we were gaining experience, we started to realize that there were a lot of positives from distance learning that we very much wanted to name and plan to continue in the transition back to in-person learning.  In our fourth post we highlighted the most significant ones:

  • Amplifying Quiet/Introverted Voices
  • Developing Self-Directed Learners
  • Strengthening Global Connectedness
  • Digital Citizenship
  • Personalized Learning

[These, too, are things we have tried to carry forward to in-person learning AND tried to frontload in case we did have to make the very pivot we are in.]

And I wasn’t the only one blogging out really helpful and important information!

Sharon Reichstein, our Director of Special Needs, has been putting out amazing posts helping parents find their way through the challenges – not just for their children, but for them – of distance learning.

Shannon LaValley, our school’s psychotherapist, put out a post addressing the mental health issues raised by distance learning.

And that brings us full circle.

Whether we are in this place for one more week or longer; whether this will be the only pivot this year or if additional pivots are in our future, please be assured that because of the work that our talented teachers have been putting into their professional growth over the last four years and the experience we gained last spring, the Ottawa Jewish Community School is ready to meet this moment.  We have been saying for years that the “future of education” is happening at OJCS.   Because it is.

Enrollment for 2021-2022 is right around the corner!  As we prepare for another exciting year at OJCS, we have been blitzing social media and holding a series of targeted “parlour meetings”.  This week we had two meetings for potential JK families.  Next week brings meetings for potential SK families and the week after is geared towards families with children in all grades.  As word of mouth continues to be our best marketing technique, your ongoing and visible support through positive social media and conversation with your peer groups has tremendous impact.  You can make all the difference in ensuring that we bring #TheOJCSDifference to more and more of our community’s children and families.

Since we were regrettably slow to inform the last time, let me share with you now the plan for our next round of Parent-Teacher Conferences, which will come around in March.  We, again, based on feedback and evolving circumstances have made changes.  What we will prototype this time, we believe, may be the model moving forward as we try to balance complex needs – most importantly having enough conference spots for a growing school.

We will shift conferences to a Thursday-Friday.  Spring Parent-Teacher Conferences will now take place on March 18th and 19th.  On Thursday, March 18th, we will have an early dismissal at 2:00 PM.  Because of safety protocols, we will be unable to provide childcare.  The conference windows on Thursday will be from 3:00 – 5:00 PM & 6:00 – 9:00 PM.  On Friday, March 19th there will be no school and the day will be dedicated to conferences.  Our feedback from parents about the ability to participate in these conferences remotely – which we will carry forward post-COVID – steers us towards no longer needing to dedicate two evenings to accommodate busy and working parents.  Should this model prove successful, our calendar for 2021-2022 will factor in an additional two days of closure.  We will both ensure we are providing the requisite number of school days and look to partners to help provide OJCS parents with childcare on what would now be four days of closure – two for PD and two for conferences.

Expat Files: Do Civics & Civility Begin At School?

Canada’s last federal election was just about a year ago (October 21, 2019) and as the head of a Canadian Jewish Day School – located in the federal capital no less – I have exactly no vivid memories of the election.

It isn’t that I don’t remember the run up, or the campaigns, or that there weren’t lots of spirited workplace conversation.  It isn’t that I don’t remember the election itself or the results or that people didn’t have feelings or opinions about the outcome.  All of those things happened.  But I cannot identify any specific moment or memory that stands out as noteworthy.

I was the head of an American Jewish Day School in 2008 (Las Vegas) and in 2012 (Jacksonville).  [In 2016, I was working for Prizmah.]  I have clear and distinct memories of both, and here I mean in terms of my normal workaday life in schools, not in my overall awareness.  I remember fraught and painful conversations as both faculty and parent communities tried to reconcile strong partisan feelings (and sometimes rancor) with our work to create safe, nurturing, inclusive school communities that were supposed to foster critical thinking skills.  The day after those elections were either funerals or celebrations depending on which team you were on.  You could see the secret high-fives and commiserating glances up and down the hallways.

Sen. Joe Lieberman Visits SSDS-LV, 2008

I don’t recall a single parent last year expressing a concern about how we were teaching or talking about the election.  Our Grade 8s had opportunity to meet with candidates and parties by virtue of our geography and I don’t recall a single parent asking that their child not be exposed to that person or that party.  In 2008, Senator Joe Lieberman (who at that point in his career was a John McCain surrogate) came to visit our tiny school in Las Vegas.  Let’s just say that people (including my father z”l) had feelings.  When Barack Obama became President and wanted to offer anodyne greetings as part of a “back to school” message, not only did we have to secure permission slips, we had families insist that their children be pulled out of class so as not to hear it.  In 2012, the most beloved teacher (Judy Reppert, z”l) in our school was bombarded with questions and criticisms as she tried to navigate “current events”.  When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came to our Jewish Community Campus in 2018 for a Rosh Hashanah program, it raised exactly no eyebrows as community leaders – some of whom strongly oppose his politics – welcomed him and happily posed for selfies (guilty!).

PM Justin Trudeau Visits Ottawa Jewish Community Campus, 2018

Why?  Why this stark disparity in both civics and civility?  It is very tempting to be reductive (Canada, Good; America, Bad), but I neither feel that way nor is it true.  Political scientists will rightfully point to differing founding narratives, a huge disparity in homogeneity, surprisingly (to an uneducated American) different political systems, among other explanations.  But I am a school-person – my expertise is in education and my milieu are schools.   And so let me humbly suggest perhaps that civics and civility begin at school…

An illustration…

…I am usually the first person to arrive at school each day, after the security guards.  More often than not, I come in to find our two security guards engaged in high-level political discourse, not only about local and national politics, but about American and world politics.  They are well-read and well-informed.  I would wager that these two Canadian security guards know way more about American politics than any two average Americans.  I cannot be more clear that this is not a backhanded compliment or a knock on “security guards”.  What it is, is an indictment of civic engagement and information literacy in the States.

Our responsibility as schools seem simple, straightforward and entirely non-controversial.  We should educate our students as to how our political system works.  We should teach them the history of national politics.  We should instill in them the desire to participate fully in the political process and to proudly exercise their right to vote. We should encourage them to seek truth so that their beliefs and attitudes about how government should work (one of the definitions of “politics“) are rooted in objective reality.  They should learn to be respectful of differing opinions and to always keep an open mind.  And they should honour the office regardless of who holds it.

The most difficult trend in political discourse (particularly in the States), which impacts our ability to help students “seek truth,” is the seeming inability to agree on an objective truth – about just about anything.  This is particularly challenging in schools where the ability to develop critical thinking skills is amongst our highest responsibilities.  Facts are facts and opinions are opinions.  Or at least they used to be.

As facts themselves have been called into question, politicized, and debated, it makes it more challenging for schools to play their proper roles.  We want to provide students with the tools and skills they need to discern truth from fiction, fact from opinion.  Armed with facts, they can then form informed opinions.  When we cannot collectively point to a fact and call it a “fact” any hope for intelligent debate fades away.  What is a school (or society) to do?

Teach, that’s what.

We lean into civic engagement and information literacy.  Here, in our nation’s capital, we are blessed to have lots of opportunity to connect our school and students to the political process.  Our teachers (primarily, but not exclusively, in Social Studies) take this work seriously.  It is not extracurricular; it is curricular.  We are also blessed here with a wonderful librarian who has serious information literacy chops.  Brigitte Ruel has the best OJCS blog that you are not reading often enough.  Our students are provided with the tools they need to determine what is and what is not a credible source, how to be a “fact finder” in a time of misinformation, and how be an ace fact-checker.  And those are just examples…

Civility is not merely a concept, but a value, and one that schools should be able to model as well as teach.  We certainly do our best here. Elections are an exciting time to be a citizen.  As Jewish day schools, they are powerful opportunities to demonstrate how to have complicated and important conversations in accord with our highest values.  All we can do is our best. We try to live up to our ideals.  We teach facts.  We provide respectful space for opinions.  We encourage civic participation.

We witness history and celebrate the miracle of democracy.

Ken y’hi ratzon.

The Coronavirus Diaries: Preparing the Pivot

This blog post is not intended to indicate any inside information about impending school closures!  I know no more than anyone else about how long we will be blessed with in-person learning at OJCS.  Despite all the challenges – the daily stressors on families when symptoms and exposures occur, the life juggling required to accomodate unplanned learning from home and the extraordinary responsibility our teachers have assumed with grace and care to provide seamless hyflex learning – we are doing remarkably well!  I can’t visit classrooms like I used to, but from what I can see with my own eyes or on a screen, we are delivering on our promise.

Part of what happens at the beginning of each year at OJCS, is that I meet with each teacher to develop an individualized Professional Growth Plan (PGP) for the year.  We believe deeply in lifelong learning and our teachers all establish growth goals to help them be the best teachers they can be.  Through those conversations, we have come to believe that one thing we can be doing now – ahead of any pivot to distance learning should it come – is to role-play distance learning here in school.  We didn’t have any time last year to experience distance learning from the back-end (what does it look like from the student’s perspective?) or to do specific skill-building or troubleshooting, especially at the youngest grades.  We are encouraging all our teachers to take the time now, while we have it, to dedicate a period, a block, a half-day or even a full day to role-play “Distance Learning in Grade X”.  Let’s have the teacher teach from his or her device while students learn from theirs.  Let’s have the teacher create asynchronous lessons that students should (even in K) be able to navigate without (or with limited) parent support and see what happens.

What does this mean for me now?

Great question!  Not much.  You may wish to pay attention to how and when your child(ren)’s teacher(s) schedule these simulated days.  If your child is in Grades K-3, you may see a request from teachers that those students who do have access to devices (tablets or laptops) begin to bring them to school (if you are comfortable).  Whereas we are BYODevice in Grades 4-8, we rely on the school’s iPads in Grades K-3.  Although we are looking to add to our current supply, if you have a device that your child in Grades K-3 would likely be using in the case of a pivot, you may wish to send it for these scheduled practices.

Besides access to devices, how else are teachers preparing for the pivot?

We are seeing a direct result of the learning teachers did during our Pre-Planning Week and an increase in successful asynchronous and hyflex learning.  Please revisit this post to see why and how your child(ren)’s teacher(s) are beginning to embrace platforms like Classkick and Nearpod.

How else can we – as parents – prepare for the pivot?

Another excellent question!  Here, I would advise you to revisit this post from last spring that clarified home expectations.  Our goal is NOT to provide materials for homeschooling!  Our goal is to allow high-quality, rigourous, OJCS learning to happen at home.

 

We don’t know if and when this is coming, but we do know that we want to be as prepared as we can.  If we do these things now when we have ample opportunity to correct, adjust and adapt, it will make any kind of pivot that much more seamless and successful.

If you were playing the COVID “pivot” drinking game, please find a comfortable place to rest for the rest of the day!

This is normally the time of year where I post an update of our school’s philosophy with regard to standardized testing as we prepare to take this year’s exam.  This was the year that we were scheduled to pilot the CAT-5 (we have been taking the CAT-4) and to again expand the grades who take it.  The eventual goal is for each grade to take this exam each year so that we have the most actionable data.  This year, however, the CAT-5 will not roll out due to COVID and most private schools have decided to pause standardized testing.  We, too, shall pause although I would have loved to see the data.  Our theory of the case is that we did not see too much slippage last spring because of our response.  I would love to see if the data bore that out, but even figuring out the logistics of proctoring these exams in compliance with safety protocols is not a good use of our resources.  We look forward to resuming standardized testing in 2020-2021.

OJCS Launches “Life & Legacy Circle”

It feels like a million years ago, I know, but it was only last February that we announced that our school would join fourteen other local Jewish organizations in a commitment to work together to support the future of the Ottawa Jewish Community.  Under the leadership of the Ottawa Jewish Community Foundation (OJCF), our community is in its second year delivering and implementing the Harold Grinspoon Foundation (HGF)’s “Life & Legacy” initiative.

We had only just begun our work when it – and the world – was interrupted by COVID-19.  If you want a quick refresher on the big idea, please watch this very short and excellent video produced by OJCF:

We feel passionately at OJCS that our value proposition could not be more clear – or more needed – than now.  In these uncertain times, the stability, excellence and innovation of our program; and the love, care and talent of our teachers are critical to the present and the future of not just the OJCS community, but the Ottawa Jewish Community.  Investing in Jewish school is investing in Jewish community.  The future leaders of this community are being developed within our walls – and for our virtuals learners on our screens – just as the current generation of leaders were.  A legacy gift to OJCS ensures a legacy of Jewish continuity for Ottawa – for your children, their children and future generations of children to come.

As the work of educating our community to the need, the value, and the ease of legacy giving, we are thrilled that we already have a number of families who have stepped forward to make their intent known.  We want to acknowledge and thank the first members of the OJCS Life & Legacy Circle:

Thank you, merci, and תודה רבה Life & Legacy Circle Members

  • Jessica Greenberg
  • Rabbi Eytan Kenter & Staci Zemlak-Kenter
  • Richard Roth and Dr. Riva Levitan
  • Ian and Estelle Melzer
  • Jeff and Rhoda Miller
  • Lisa and Mitch Miller
  • Dr. Jon and Jaimee Mitzmacher
  • Ilana Albert-Novick and Mitchell Novick
  • Joel Sachs
  • Lorne Segal
  • Fred Seller and Stacey Steinman

What do all the above have in common?  NOTHING!  That’s the point; other than a deep connection to OJCS, this list has all kinds of ages and income levels.  Every family can leave a legacy and secure the future.  Trust me, I’m on that list and I can assure you that you don’t need an estate or a measure of wealth to ensure the future of organizations that you care about.  But don’t take it from me, here is what another member of the Circle shared with us:

OJCS (aka Hillel Academy) has been a part of my life from as far back as I can remember. My spouse and I have included OJCS in our Life and Legacy plans because we want to ensure that Jewish education is a strong and thriving part of the Ottawa community now and long into the future.

As we look to grow our Circle, let’s end with another “circle” through the famous story of Honi ha-M’agel or Honi the Circle Drawer:

One day Honi was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked, “How long does it take [for this tree] to bear fruit?” The man replied: “Seventy years.” Honi then further asked him: “Are you certain that you will live another seventy years?” The man replied: “I found [already grown] carob trees in the world; as my forefathers planted those for me so I too plant these for my children.”

Want to come plant with us?  You are invited to a special OJCS-OJCF (say that 5 times fast!) Virtual Parlour Meeting on Sunday, October 25th at 7:30 PM hosted by Roz and Steven Fremeth!  To get the link or to ask any Life & Legacy questions, please don’t hesitate to contact Staci Zemlak-Kenter, our Director of Development, at s.zemlak-kenter@theojcs.ca, or 613.722.0020  x 378.

The Coronavirus Diaries: OJCS Safe Reopening FAQ II

The 2020-2021 school year is shaping up to be every bit as unique as the 2019-2020 school year wound up, but we are hopeful that this year will be safer, happier and – perhaps -a bit more predictable.  It is wholeheartedly bittersweet to share out that we have now closed out two of our grades, with a couple of others trending towards closure.  (It is a Jewish day school head’s dream to have a waitlist, but there is little joy since it took a global pandemic to help make it happen.)  We also recognize that there is a great deal of churn and angst as the return of school draws closer.  It feels like the rules of the game change daily; it is like trying to put a puzzle together with new pieces being dropped in.

Here at the Ottawa Jewish Community School, we are simply doing our best to stay on top of the health guidelines, to hold awareness of what the public board and other private schools are doing, and to be as transparent as we can about what we have already decided and what remains in play.  As I shared directly in an email with returning, new and prospective families last week, we have not received any new guidelines since we made our original announcement to safely reopen with cohorts of 15 students or less.  The announcement last week of Ontario’s return to school without class caps (but with teachers and students [grades 4-8] masked) came as a surprise, but did not come from a change in health guidelines.

So although it is logical for anyone to ask if we are going to align with the public board’s plan, in the absence of new guidelines, we continue to feel comfortable with the caps we have put in place.  We are considering aligning our student masking policy as we are always happy to err on the side of additional safety.

To recap…

…three weeks ago, I blogged out our first round of questions and answers in a kind of FAQ, as part of our initial announcement of a “five-day, full-day” safe reopening.

…two weeks ago, I blogged out an updated list of our faculty that is both now complete and updated for our new, COVID-adjusted schedule.

…last week, I emailed out a revised Parent Handbook (downloadable from our website) that added lots of additional layers and details.

Now that you are all caught up, it is time to share the next bunch of questions and answers, also in the form of an FAQ.  (Please note that the entire list of FAQ will not only be uploaded to our website, but will remain dynamic so that updates and revisions will live there [not in my blog].)

Will my child still receive resource support?  

For students learning in-person or at home, any student with an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) will continue to receive the support and resources required.  Sharon Reichstein, Director of Special Education, is available (s.reichstein@theojcs.ca) to discuss any questions you may have around the delivery of services, if needed. 

Can the front office administer my child’s medication? 

As per the recently published OJCS Handbook: For this phase of our re-opening, our personnel will not be administering any medications.

Will there be before and after-care? 

In a recently sent email, we indicated that we are leaning strongly towards NOT offering “Before Care” at this stage of our reopening.  We are fielding feedback from working parents and will soon clarify our position.  (If you have not yet informed us that you will need this, please do so!)  We have worked with the SJCC and can share that their Aftercare Program will mirror our larger grade-level groupings (K-2, 3-5 and 6-8) to maximize health and safety.  They have also pledged to keep non-OJCS students in a separate group.  Please contact Gail Lieff (glieff@jccottawa.com) for information and to register.

Will there be a hot lunch program? 

The added challenge of safely preparing and delivering hot lunch during this phase of our reopening (along with the challenge of no longer having a kosher restaurant on campus) has led us to pause our hot lunch program until after the Jewish High Holidays.  We will look to resume a modified hot lunch – possibly focusing on our Tuesday/Thursday “meat days” – using both our PTA (Hot Dog Days!) and the local community.

What will we do about supply teachers?

We will inevitably require supply teachers from time to time (it is possible that teachers can do some teaching from home with creative in-school supervision).  We are looking to narrow our circle of supply teachers to a group who will commit to substituting only at OJCS to reduce the risk for community spread.  However, like all OJCS Faculty, supply teachers will be required to be masked and socially distanced while teaching at OJCS.

What kind of enhanced cleaning protocols will the school use?

Working with the Campus, we will have enhanced cleaning both in terms of frequency as well as products.  The Campus will be using a fog sanitizer machine that’s called the Fogger. It can sanitize a classroom in minutes, as well as hallways and lockers.  It will be in use during each school day to sanitize outdoor play structures and each evening in every classroom and learning space.  If a child or teacher is sent home due to illness, it will be brought in immediately to that room for a cleaning.  The product is an organic chemical that is safe for humans, animals, plants, etc.

Additionally…

  • In accordance with recommendations from Public Health Ontario and Ottawa Public Health, high touch areas will be cleaned and disinfected at least twice daily. This includes door handles, push bars, railings, washroom surfaces, elevator buttons, kitchen surfaces, and light switches. 
  • All other spaces will be cleaned and disinfected once per day, including hard floors.
  • In accordance with recommendations from Public Health Ontario and Ottawa Public Health, outdoor play structures will be disinfected during school hours, after each cohort has used the structure.  Protocols for cleaning outdoor play structures during winter months will be determined at a later time, as further research is required as to the safety of doing so in sub-freezing temperatures.
  • Sanitizing machines and stations have been set up in various locations on campus, and will be cleaned and filled as required. All hand sanitizer is alcohol-based.
  • Touchless paper towel dispensers have been installed in many washrooms.
  • All air filtration systems will be cleaned quarterly, and filters will be replaced regularly.

OJCS is working with Campus to determine whether or not an additional OJCS-dedicated housekeeping staff person will be required to meet the above and other COVID-specific cleaning protocols. 

A detailed list of the disinfectants to be in use is available upon request.

Will water fountains be in use or turned off this year?

Water fountains can safely be used to fill water bottles (and cups) only.  We will ensure through either signage, physical blockage or manual shut-offs that students are unable to use the water fountains by mouth.This last grouping are not applicable to all families/students, but we think it is helpful to share here as well.

I’ve indicated my child will be engaging in virtual learning only due to health reasons, how will that work?

We expect the following broad principles will guide the distant learning program for the upcoming school year:

  • Teachers will plan and share schedules of weekly classes and assignments in advance, which will give you an opportunity to plan for synchronous (live) and asynchronous (on your own time) learning, as well as printing of any required materials. These will be housed on the class blog.
  • Teachers will record and archive lessons, either in advance or after delivery, and will link to any useful resources. These, too, will be housed on the class blogs. 
  • Students will be responsible for attending some live sessions as part of larger class activities, as well as one-on-one with teachers and remotely working with peers on group projects, if any. 
  • Students will be encouraged to be more self-directed and self-motivated to complete assigned tasks, and explore areas of personal interest. 
  • Teachers will support students to prioritize their tasks by clearly distinguishing between required and supplementary assignments, with flexibility in the ways students can complete their work from home.
  • Teachers will continue to closely monitor students’ work and hold them accountable for their performance with high expectations. 
  • Any student with an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) will continue to receive the support and resources required. Sharon Reichstein, Director of Special Education, is available to discuss any questions you may have around the delivery of services, if needed. 

How will the library lending service work this year?

We will be operating the Library through the online management system we installed a couple of years ago.  This site includes our entire catalog, searchable and customizable, and allows students, teachers and families to check books out of the Library.  (This is different from our Library Blog, another valuable source for library, literacy, research and informational media needs at OJCS.  Each site links to the other.)  Through this site, we will be able to continue basic Library services in a safe and touchless form.  For more information, please contact Brigitte Ruel (b.ruel@theojcs.ca).

Will there be a Middle School Retreat?

There will NOT be a formal Middle School Retreat at Camp B’nai Brith of Ottawa as has been the case the last couple of years.  There will, however, be a scheduled Retreat on September 15th – 17th here on Campus.  The goals remain to build relationships within and between grade-level cohorts, to team-build, to create community, and to set the tone for a successful Middle School year at OJCS.  We may incorporate field trips into the program, but needless to say, all activities will include adherence to all relevant health protocols.

Will there continue to be electives for the Middle School students?

Yes, we will be offering Middle School electives this year, and they will be contained to grade-level cohorts (i.e. each grade will have their electives once per week within their classroom or outdoors).  More information to follow.

As was the case before, if you have any questions or concerns with any of the above, please don’t hesitate to reach out.  If between FAQ I, FAQ II and the Parent Handbook, you continue to have unanswered questions, please let us know and we can add it to our lists.  In the absence of significant new information, I will likely pause the blogs (and mass emails) so we can focus our energy these next few weeks on preparing for our faculty’s return on August 31st.

Enjoy the beautiful weather and these last weeks of a most unusual summer…

The Coronavirus Diaries: OJCS Plans for a “Five-Day, Full-Day” Safe Reopening

Based on a thorough review of provincial guidelines, an examination of the physical facility, and feedback from teachers and parents, the Ottawa Jewish Community School has announced that it will be able to open after Labour Day with a “five-day, full-day” program for all its enrolled students.  The fundamental idea is to restrict contact to as few spaces and people as is reasonable, while still being able to offer meaningful in-person learning.  OJCS has sought to do this by restricting cohorts to 15 students who will spend the overwhelming majority of their school day in one designated space.

As exciting as this news is, we know there remain lots of questions and concerns about what this means for students, teachers and parents.  To guide our community’s thinking, we have put together a list of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) for your convenience.  [This FAQ will eventually be housed on our school’s website.]   We have also included a list of questions that are still in the process of being adequately addressed.  [If you do not see your question on this list – or have additional questions or concerns based on any of the answers – please do not hesitate to be in contact with the school for greater clarity.]

So you have enrolled or are thinking about securing your spot (while we still have them!) at OJCS for 2020-2021.  What do you need to know?

How will cohorts be created?

At the time of our decision-making, enrollment dictated that we would be able to offer two cohorts in Grades K, 1, 2, 3, and 5 and one cohort of Grades 4, 6, 7 and 8.  The normal rules for “class-splitting” apply with the major exception of keeping twins and siblings together.

Where will cohorts learn?

Each cohort in Grade K-5 will be assigned a primary classroom or learning space (Library) where all its learning activities are designed to take place.  General, French and Jewish Studies Teachers for each grade level will move between their spaces; students will remain in their space.  Cohorts in Grades 6-8 will be assigned a primary classroom or learning space (Makerspace), but students will travel to limited additional spaces during their learning day.

Will students within cohorts be socially distanced in their own classroom? 

Students will be seated at individual desks spaced apart.  Students will not be sharing school supplies, but rather each student will have their own materials and books assigned to them. 

How else have you restricted contact?

As described in greater detail in our soon-to-be-published, updated “OJCS Handbook”, we have created three different entrances and exits to the school to further separate K-2, 3-4 and 5-8.  Similarly, we have restricted bathroom access to those groupings.

Will parents be allowed in the building to pick up and drop off students?

Parents, guests and visitors will not be able to access the building during this phase of reopening.  Normal drop off and pick up procedures will prohibit parents from entering the building.  Additionally, parents coming to pick up sick children or to take children to off-site appointments will be asked to wait outdoors.  Our Office will be prepared to facilitate all these comings and goings via intercom.  

Will students be allowed to use lockers? 

During this phase of reopening, students will not have access to lockers or storage outside of their designated learning spaces.

What parts of the program have been eliminated to allow for a safe reopening?

Based on guidelines, we will not offer formal PE in Grades K-3 or Music K-8.  Grade-level teachers (in K-3) will have shared responsibility for supervising recess and other necessary (outdoor) physical activity.  Clubs, extracurricular sports, etc., are on hold as well.

What parts of the program have been adjusted to allow for a safe reopening?

Art will now be taught virtually (the Art Teacher broadcast from the Art Studio) in the cohort spaces with support from the grade-level team.  Library workshops will also be taught virtually and all library services will be rendered virtually and contactless.  Snack and Lunch will be eaten in cohort spaces with supervision from the grade-level team.  Recess will be scheduled by cohort, supervised by the grade-level team wherever possible and will take place in scheduled and demarcated outdoor locations which will be cleaned (see below) between usages. 

We are exploring “Outdoor Education” in Grades 4-8 that will take the place of indoor “PE” in those grades, be held fully outdoors (even in Winter) and conducted through social distancing.  [This means that PE Uniforms will NOT be needed until such time as we resume normal PE activities.  It may be helpful for parents to invest in quality outerwear.]  Tefillah (even in Middle School) will take place in cohorts and will launch without singing.  All assemblies, events, holidays, etc., will be reimagined with any necessary adjustments or virtual components to stay in compliance with guidelines.

Will students or teachers be required to wear masks?

The provincial guidelines do NOT currently require students or teachers to wear masks within their cohorts.  Teachers who teach multiple cohorts and/or grades will be required to wear masks during their day.  Students will be required to wear masks while walking the halls, using the bathrooms or in any other spaces other than their primary cohort space (with the exception of outdoor spaces when socially distanced).  Additionally, students in Grades 5 – 8 will be strongly encouraged to wear masks even in their primary learning spaces.

Will my child need to supply their own masks/hand sanitizer?

We do expect families to equip their children with hand sanitizer to be kept in their desk, and to come with their own masks.

How will IEP reviews look in the fall?  Will I still be meeting with the Director of Special Education?

Our Director of Special Education, Sharon Reichstein, will be in touch with all families of students with IEPs and facilitating IEP meetings via video conference.

What does this mean for children who receive services from outside specialists?

We will not be able, during this phase of reopening, to provide on-site, in-person access to learning specialists, reading specialists, occupational therapists, mental health therapists, etc.  We will try on a case-by-case basis to provide a supervised space for tele-therapy or virtual sessions for students in Grades 5-8.

Will temperatures be taken each day?

The guidelines do not call for mandatory temperature checks each day for either students or teachers. 

What are the procedures for kids with runny noses/coughs?

We will be proceeding with extreme caution and will be asking parents to keep home children with just about any symptom of illness at all.  We will be erring on the side of sending students home who exhibit any symptoms as well.  We will be treating our teachers the same.

What if a student or teacher tests positive or is exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19?

The decision to operate by cohort allows for a more limited, surgical set of closings in the event of a positive case.  We could send home just the cohort into self-quarantine or the grade-level, depending on the circumstance.  

Who do I get in touch with if someone in my family or community has COVID? 

Please notify both Ottawa Public Health and OJCS immediately should you discover that you have come into contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.

If someone in my immediate family travels, are there any protocols we need to follow when they return? 

Our school will remain aligned with all public health guidelines with regard to travel – within Ontario, between provinces and outside Canada.  This means that all requirements for quarantine will be applied to all OJCS families.

Here are the next set of questions that we are in the process of answering:

  • What kind of enhanced cleaning protocols will the school use?
  • What can you tell us about the state of ventilation in the building?
  • How will you handle supply teachers?
  • Will there be before and after-care? 
  • Will there be a hot lunch program? 
  • I’ve indicated my child will be engaging in virtual learning only due to health reasons, how will that work?
  • Will my child still receive resource support?  
  • How will the library lending service work this year?
  • Can the front office administer my child’s medication? 

In addition to the above, there remain lots of smaller, yet still important, programmatic decisions to be made.  Not everything can and should land in an FAQ, however, we are aiming to include as much as we can.  As stated about 1,000 words above, if you find anything above confusing or concerning, please let us know.  If you have a pressing question that you do not see above, please let us know.

Next week, we will provide you with an update on all remaining staffing concerns.  We are just about finished with hiring and have some wonderful new teachers to introduce to you!  We also know that parents are naturally curious to see how portfolios have shifted from what we have previously announced.  Stay tuned!