With schools across the region reopening for the fall, some remotely, some with a mix of in-person and virtual instruction, Jewish teachers are learning how to teach during a pandemic.
The going can be frustrating at times, they said. But some said their faith helps inform them when it comes to being a teacher during these challenging times.
Larry Lodgen has been teaching for 42 years. But these days, the fourth-grade teacher at the Washington S.T.E.M. Elementary School in Lynn feels like a newbie as he navigates how best to teach remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lodgen, who formerly taught at the former Cohen Hillel Academy in Marblehead (now Epstein Hillel School), said Lynn started off the school year remotely because the city has been designated by the state as being at high risk for spread of the virus.
“Today was our first full day teaching remotely,” Lodgen said in an email. “It was a great day. My students are so cute and so happy to be ‘back in school.’ My work day now is about 12 hours long. I am still learning the Schoology platform, teaching the kids the platform, and the planning and applying everything for the next day takes hours.”
Lodgen worries about how he will keep students whom he has not met in person absorbed in the curriculum. “My biggest concern is getting the kids engaged in the lessons and my other concern is meeting the needs of each one of these little kids,” he said.
For many students, remote learning from home lacks the structure of in-person classes.
“Some of the homes are not the best set up environment to sit in front of the computer screen for six hours,” he said.
A member of Temple Sinai in Marblehead, Lodgen said his Jewish identity plays a role when it comes to thinking about the challenges of teaching nowadays.
“I make it very clear to my students that I’m Jewish,” he said.
When he talks to his class about culture and various holidays, he will bring in pictures from his bar mitzvah or a shofar.
Pauline Katz teaches at Revere High. She is doing her best to teach immigrant students history and English amid balky Internet connections as she works to master the new learning technology.
Katz grew up speaking Yiddish with her family in Somerville and attended the progressive Jewish social justice and cultural organization called the Workers Circle (formerly the Workmen’s Circle) in Brookline, where she teaches Sunday school.
Katz said there are “a hundred reasons” why remote learning is hard for students and teachers.
School started remotely in mid-September as Revere is “firmly in the red” as a high-risk community for COVID-19.
“Just getting on the computer and having the space and the distraction-less area is very difficult for the students,” Katz said. Teachers are required to teach from the school three days a week, and Katz has been teaching with her mask on from her classroom due to concerns about the school’s outdated ventilation system.
Also, at the start of the year, her Chromebook was so new the school did not have an adapter to hook it up to an older-model Smartboard to give her an enlarged monitor to display to her remote students.
Katz sees the connection between the commitment Jews make to better themselves during the High Holidays to the start of the new school year. “It is a great reminder that although we make plans to be better this year, we will not achieve our goals. But working hard to achieve them is still our task,” Katz said.
Jason Stark teaches history, psychology, and genocide studies at Essex North Shore Agricultural and Technical School in Danvers. As an educator in a school district that mixes remote and in-person learning, Stark thinks the administration is doing its best.
Stark, of Peabody, said the school began this fall with a mix of in-person and remote instruction.
Freshmen and seniors are in school one week while sophomores and juniors are learning remotely, and then the following week, the sophomores and juniors attend school on campus while freshmen and seniors learn remotely.
When students are in class, they practice social distancing and wear masks. The desktops are cleaned throughout the school day.
The hardest thing Stark has had to deal with is changing a teaching style that depends on interaction, moving about the classroom, or having students break into small groups.
“Everything about the way I teach my class is about building relationships,” Stark said.
His students are sitting in rows, facing forward, and it’s hard to see their expressions under their masks, he said. Ironically, when students are online, he can see their faces better.
“It’s almost like on the remote days, I feel like I get more of the conversation when I talk with kids,” he said.
However, his students are glad to be back, Stark said, including some juniors he had last year who are seniors this year.
“I saw the seniors today, and I talked with them, they are so happy that they are here.”
Stark draws this adage from his religion when it comes to teaching during the pandemic and the need to keep everyone safe: “To save one life is to save them all.”
Jodi Coburn is now working as a paraprofessional on an eighth-grade team at Masconomet Regional Middle School in Boxford because of budget cuts that eliminated her former position as the school’s writing tutor. Coburn, of Peabody, believes the coronavirus will not last forever and “we will persist.”
Still, she is cautious and worries about the health crisis. “I’m doubly worried about being in the middle school while students are in there. I am terrified of getting COVID from them,” said Coburn, who takes immunosuppressant drugs to treat a medical condition. Staff came back on Sept. 22, while students are learning remotely until Oct. 19, she said.
“It’s brutal to try to create a sense of community when you only see people on the computer screen, so this affects public school, as well as temple,” said Coburn, the vice president of the board at Temple Tiferet Shalom in Peabody. “In the school sense, kids can’t really make friends or become a cohesive class when their interaction is so limited.”
However, Coburn said her students are taking things “in stride.”
“One good thing to keep in the back of our minds, though,” Coburn added, “is that we know we will persist. COVID won’t last forever, and at some point, this will all be in the rearview mirror. One way or another, we will all get through this, and Judaism will be there for us always.”